15 Jul 2016

Traditional wisdom and conservation science in Lake Victoria

Marabou Storks in Lake Victoria © Marc Veraart
Marabou Storks in Lake Victoria © Marc Veraart
By Louise Jasper

In an important new report, BirdLife Partners from around Lake Victoria, East Africa, share their experiences of engaging with governments, NGOs and community conservation groups. Their analysis reveals key factors that could help make or break a conservation project, and practitioners in Africa and around the world can all benefit from their hard-won lessons.

Rural communities living close to the land often possess a deep well of knowledge about their local environment. Every plant species has a name, and its uses – as food, fuel, medicine or building material – are passed down from generation to generation. The ebb and flow of the seasons, the lifecycles of animals, the rise and fall of river waters; these things are not merely the background to everyday life – they are life. All this information and experience is stored away in local people’s minds, a kind of ‘natural database’ that can be a valuable resource for conservation, if it is recognised and respected.

Unfortunately, decision-makers don’t always show respect for local institutions and knowledge. Communities’ views are often dismissed due to their lack of formal education, technical qualifications or literacy – despite the fact that most local knowledge doesn’t come from books or schoolrooms but from the collective experience of generations of people living and working on the land. All too often, land management policies are decided in meeting rooms miles away from the ecosystems they will affect, and the rural communities who depend on them for their livelihoods are not properly consulted.

Many conservationists now recognise that the benefits of working with local communities and organisations can be huge. Their intimate knowledge of their environment can be critical in developing appropriate and cost-efficient conservation strategies. They are often highly motivated to conserve the natural resources they depend upon for their survival, and their involvement also increases community ownership over the project, improving the chances that it will succeed in the long-term.


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Working with local communities is an integral part of BirdLife’s ‘local to global’ conservation strategy which enables the implementation long-lasting, high impact nature conservation. Sharing best practices and experience – good and bad –  across this global network of mostly small, local organisations is part of what makes BirdLife so successful. In the new report, BirdLife has gathered five case studies from BirdLife Partners working with Local Conservation Groups (LCGs) around Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria, the largest of Africa’s Great Lakes and the largest tropical lake in the world, is famous for its cichlid fish diversity, and hosts globally threatened species such as the Shoebill Balaeniceps rex, Papyrus Yellow Warbler Chloropeta gracilirostris and the Sitatunga antelope Tragelaphus spekeii. Its importance for biodiversity is highlighted by the fact that there are 17 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) directly connected to the lake system, and more in the wider Lake Victoria Basin. The lake also supports Africa’s largest inland fishery, and its resources and ecosystem services help sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.

Sadly, Lake Victoria’s biodiversity is threatened by the huge and ever expanding human population on its shores, with the associated pressures of pollution, habitat degradation and over-harvesting of natural resources. Historically, high levels of poverty have led governments to focus on economic development and poverty alleviation rather than sustainable biodiversity management.

Mabamba SSG members showing how to make liquid soap © Mercy Kariuki

The case studies have been drawn from LCGs who have been working to protect their local IBAs, including Yala Swamp, Kenya; Mabamba Bay and Lutembe Bay, Uganda; Mpungwe Mountains Chain, Burundi; and Akanyaru Wetlands, Rwanda. They have had to contend with a diverse range of threats, from wildlife poaching, bushfires and invasive species to wetland drainage and agricultural encroachment. The national BirdLife Partners in these countries (Nature Kenya, Nature Uganda, Association Burundaise pour la Conservation de la Nature, and Association pour la Conservation de la Nature au Rwanda) have been working with these LCGs to design and implement Community Action Plans and to help them influence local and national government. In a review held in Kigali in 2015, the partners met to discuss these case studies and the discussion that followed revealed a set of recommendations for decision-makers, NGOs and local communities.

In conservation, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Every forest, wetland, village and society has its own particular combination of challenges, and what works in one place may not work in another. However, there are also many common, overarching themes that can help NGOs, international agencies and governments better plan their conservation activities, such as:

-          Given that funded projects are short term (at most 2–3 years), there should be greater emphasis on building capacity, promoting independence and empowering community associations to manage their own resources.

-          Promoting strong relationships between community associations and government bodies.

-          Involving communities early on in the planning process in order to develop conservation plans that are more appropriate and sustainable, and to improve local acceptance and ownership.

-          Helping community associations to gain legal recognition to improve their standing with government agencies and enable them to become formal partners in development.

-          Spreading the benefits of awareness raising campaigns by encouraging LCGs to share knowledge and training with neighbouring communities via exchanges.

This report will help to spread the valuable knowledge gained by Lake Victoria’s passionate conservation groups to other BirdLife Partners around the world and across the wider conservation network. By understanding their successes and setbacks, fruitful relationships and bitter struggles, we can achieve more effective, sustainable and equitable protection of the world’s wildlife.


The full publication is available for download here.