Beyond sustainable utilisation: A traditional African alternative to nature conservation

Feb 24, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise

The established reaction to widespread ecosystem destruction and species extinction is dominated by the notion of sustainable utilisation of the natural world. This is an influential Western-based paradigm in that preservation of ecosystems and wild species are achieved entirely from a human-centred perspective.

Sustainable utilisation is a response to human over-exploitation of natural resources that have seen such ‘resources’ dwindle, and in many cases disappear. Governments and global organisations have therefore attempted to take a more regulated approach in their consumption of natural resources, one that aims to preserve the natural environment for the continued economic benefit of human individuals into the foreseeable future.

This seems like a logical approach – at least to the Western mind. If over-consumption is curtailed and wild species preserved, human individuals may continue to reap in the profits and other benefits of natural resource consumption. Sustainable utilisation is central to all United Nations environmental organisations such as United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and other inter-governmental environmental organisations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest nature conservation organization, as well as global non-governmental environmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Almost all national governments have followed this international trend.

Sustainable utilisation destroys biodiversity

However, the fundamental problem with this economic-centred approach is there remains little regard that wildlife beyond their utilisation for human benefit. Preserving wildlife is usually achieved at the expense of the broader natural environment in that some commercially-valued wild animals are fenced, managed, harvested, bred and stocked in diminishing spaces, or on ranches that are more akin to domestic livestock farms and markets than wilderness areas. Most species of animals and plants, which have little or zero economic value, are all but ignored and consequently are threatened with extinction. Forests and wetlands are cleared and fences erected that prevent natural migrations and flourishing of smaller species and ecosystems in general. In short, Africa’s landscape has become an ever increasing patchwork of fragmented parcels that have been largely cleared of natural biodiversity in the name of human commercial gain.

Of course, with widespread sustainable utilisation practices, species (even those that have commercial value) are still dying out at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. For example, since the 1970s when policies of sustainable utilisation began to be entrenched as a global standard, the era has overseen one of the most devastating mass extinction of wild species of plants and animals since the dinosaurs disappeared.

Sustainable utilisation sustains human poverty and disenfranchisement

It is not only wild species and the natural environment that suffer, but other humans too. This is especially the case throughout Africa where poverty, hunger and disenfranchisement from marine and landscapes are common. The current policy of sustainable utilisation seldom produces any meaningful benefits for the majority of African citizens living within and alongside natural spaces, despite claims to the contrary.

Since sustainable utilisation centres on the Western concept of the paramountcy of individual profit, it favours an economic approach to wildlife. Wealthy landowners, large commercial mining and timber conglomerates, traders in high value wildlife and trophy hunting outfitters benefit the greatest from sustainable utilisation while impoverished rural communities receive little.

In South Africa, for example, not many rural communities can claim to benefit from commercial activities in wildlife, as little of the profits generated from hunts, game meat and other animal product sales are fed back into these communities. Also, job opportunities are limited and, even then, many private wildlife operations fail to provide their workers with basic working conditions. Unemployment and poverty remain rife in areas surrounding wildlife ranches and private and public game reserves.

Thus, far from providing meaningful benefits, sustainable utilisation can in fact accelerate the demise of wild animals as well as exacerbate poverty levels amongst the majority of so-called human benefactors.

Ubuntu: An African alternative to Western sustainable utilisation

Fortunately, in Africa there is a long-established alternative to sustainable utilisation. This is an African traditional worldview, that despite Western commercialisation, remains widely prevalent among many communities throughout Africa. It may be the answer to tackling the current ecological and human crisis, not just in Africa, but worldwide.

The concept is known variously among the myriad of languages in sub-Saharan Africa but is best known in South Africa as Ubuntu.

The term literally means ‘a person is only a person in, through and with other people’. The ancient worldview signifies a shared, reciprocal and hospitable relationship among human members of a community. Ubuntu represents the antithesis of a Western economic-centred ideology where the financial interests and desires of the privileged human individual is central. Ubuntu is a rejection the primacy of the individual in favour of the overall benefit of the community. Such benefits eschew financial self-gain in favour of communal and social harmony. Individual self-indulgence is regarded as unethical as it can degenerate into selfishness, irresponsibility, greed and cruelty toward one another.

Yet, while Ubuntu speaks specifically of the importance of inter-human respect and civility, it also implies human respect with all things the human community depends on for its survival and cultural well-being. This includes a deep respect for the natural environment as it is that which provides the life-giving sustenance for human communities to exist at all.

Ukama: the interdependence of all that exists

In some parts of Zimbabwe, there is a version of Ubuntu that explicitly testifies to just that. It’s called Ukama. It is a Shona word that means the ‘interdependence of all that exists.’ According to the old Shona tradition, Ukama is the reality that all things are closely related and depend on one another for existence.

Ukama is concerned about the environment and human relationship within the natural world, as the concept affirms a deep reverence for the earth and all life and, in many cases,  deification. Since humans are dependent on the natural world for their survival as well as their social and belief structures, it stands to reason they ought to protect it. Ukama understands that the well-being of humans and the well-being of the rest of the natural world cannot be separated. Any significant tampering with the air, the soil, the water and the animals will negatively impact on the natural environment, and ultimately also on humans.

Furthermore, Ukama is not just a Zimbabwean concept, but one that exists in various forms throughout traditional African beliefs from Mali to Mozambique. Traditional communities from the San of the Kalahari Desert to the Baka of the Congo rainforests regard many areas and individual species as sacred or totemic and are therefore protected. Their intricate knowledge of natural systems has preserved the biodiversity since the dawn of humanity. Even those species that are hunted for food are done so under strict traditional guidelines. It was only since the onset of European colonisation and subsequent introduction of commercialisation of natural resources that Africa’s long-protected natural environments began to dwindle and, as we have seen, sustainable utilisation policies in the past five decades have done little to arrest that.

South Africa embodies the exemplar of sustainable utilisation and is the continent’s most commercialised landscape. The country tops the rankings whose national biodiversity is on the verge of collapse. Indigenous and sacred forests have declined by half. Riverine habitats have been fundamentally changed with very few naturally functioning freshwater systems remaining. Half of South Africa’s wetlands have been lost completely through transformation to commercial land uses, and virtually all ecosystems in South Africa had been modified or transformed by human economic activities.

As the world reels from catastrophic losses of natural environments, species extinction, climate change, global pandemics and failed policies, ancient African traditional valuation of the natural world seems a far better way in saving this planet (and humanity) than modern Western economic-centred practices. The natural world – the biosphere – needs protection, not for the economic gain of a few humans, but for global health of all.

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist and author with a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.



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