CHENGETA WILDLIFE – COMMUNITIES: A BLUEPRINT FOR CONSERVATION

Written by Alice Péretié

Rescued and released black-bellied pangolin (photo by Tessa Ullmann)

Chengeta Wildlife community team in front of the local office ‘bureau’ sign

Community engagement. Critically endangered forest elephants. Women empowerment. Youth integration. Unemployment. Health – and healthy forests. Pangolins, and the ever-growing scale trade. The above list could be endless. So, what’s the link?

Conservation. Community. Collaboration. Trust.

Narratives around protecting wildlife, especially elephants and other flagship species, have historically been detached from the human communities and livelihoods surrounding them, as if humans and wildlife lived in entirely separate spaces. Yet empowering communities and supporting wildlife protection are not mutually exclusive.

As conservation moves away from its complex legacies associated with the creation of pristine wild spaces, that too frequently resulted in the exclusion of local people from their environment, fenced off or evicted in the name of nature protection, its practice today largely supports a people and nature approach, highlighting the importance for an all-encompassing, compassionate, human-inclusive ecosystems approach.

Our own relationship and dynamics with nature, though perhaps more disconnected in western urban settings, are still very relevant. Communities in Central Africa, or communities in New York, the Netherlands, rural England – all are based within an ecosystem. And when we look at how much diversity loss has occurred through progressive landscape fragmentation and disconnects from our environments, we begin to realize that there are ways for humans to co-exist sustainably. An imbalance in one component will more often than not trigger a series of adaptations that ripple across the interconnected and intricately designed ecosystem. This then has long-lasting negative impacts on diversity, a key element for ecosystem health. And ultimately, for our human health and well-being.

INTRODUCING CHENGETAS COMMUNITY PROGRAM

Empowerment is a dynamic process whereby there is an acknowledgment or change in an individual’s or communitys ability to participate through active decisions in natural resource management” explains Dr. Carolyn Jost Robinson (Chengeta Wildlife Director of Sociocultural Research and Community Engagement).

Empowering communities is and always has been one of Chengeta Wildlife’s key pillars towards supporting conservation. Holistic approaches to protect wildlife, approaches that understand the importance of human communities, are at the center of Chengeta Wildlife’s gargantuan mission to bring an end to illegal poaching. And indeed, in one of Chengeta’s main areas of operation, Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA), located deep within the Congo Basin in the Central African Republic (CAR), the organization’s efforts to build on community empowerment as a way to enhance anti-poaching work has been incredibly effective as elephant poaching plummets in the area. Particularly relevant, therefore, as the African forest elephant – Loxodonta cyclotis, a crucial megafauna species in the area— has only just recently been officially declared critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, on 25th March 2021.

The entire region is incredibly biodiverse and forms part of the Tri-National Sangha Complex, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. DSPA shares borders with Lobeke National Park in Cameroon, and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. Yet animals do not confine to these human-made land boundaries, continuing to migrate across parks and country borders. Protecting wildlife in DSPA, therefore, is essential to support biodiversity preservation efforts across the Tri-National Sangha Complex.

Often, the practice of conservation has revealed a misalignment between perceptions, decision-making abilities, and respect for local leadership. Drawing from interdisciplinary professional and academic expertise, entwined with team members long-term work with DSPA communities spanning over a decade, a branch dedicated to local empowerment was born: Chengeta Wildlife – Communities (CW-C).

The team in DSPA is led by anthropologists Dr. Carolyn Jost Robinson (Chengeta Wildlife Director of Sociocultural Research and Community Engagement) and Liz Hall (Chengeta Wildlife Technical Advisor to DSPA) alongside Robert Sambo, member of the indigenous Sangha Sangha ethnic group and long-term community member of Bayanga (Community Program Coordinator), and his assistant Florent Gervais Formet (Program Coordinator Assistant), also local to DSPA. The CW-C team is devoted to establishing long-lasting trust, collaboration, and a space for communities to voice their ideas and concerns.

CW-C’s ground-breaking work in DSPA serves as a proof of concept, a blueprint of sorts, to look at best practices in supporting the community whilst implementing viable local conservation efforts, something that Chengeta Wildlife aims to translate and expand across the Central African Republic and other areas of operation across the African continent.

But Chengeta needs help with this mission. While a call to help to save elephants or lions is perhaps more tangible to many of us, slow conservation and thus community wellbeing is imperative to build solid, sustainable foundations to ensure ecosystems thrive. We’re re-writing decades of marketing and fundraising appeals, previously focused on flagship species, to tell it like it truly is – a story of interconnected people and wildlife. Because ultimately, the goal is to work together towards co-existence and mutual socio-ecological well-being.

CHAMPIONING COMMUNITIES TO PROTECT WILDLIFE

Rescued and released black-bellied pangolin (photo by Tessa Ullmann)

Forest Elephants

The Congo Basin is one of Africa’s most biodiverse regions. Home to three species of the fast-disappearing pangolin, the recently declared critically endangered African Forest Elephant, the critically endangered Western Lowland Mountain Gorilla, an array of antelope species, forest hogs, forest buffalos, it is an ecosystem that entirely relies on the health of communities, and the intricate relationships between people and their landscape.

Chengeta has created and builds upon a shared vision of conservation that harmonizes ethical community engagement with anti-poaching and counter-trafficking (APCT) training to support locally driven sustainable change. The mission always has been about understanding the root causes and complexities underlying illegal hunting – often poverty, hunger, and economic insecurity – to create long-term and sustainable solutions.

Communities are a pillar of wildlife protection. Human communities in the region rely on forest resources to meet their basic needs. Often a direct source of food, such as staples like nuts, leaves, and wild meat, forests are key ecosystems and providers for humans and wildlife alike, and this has been the case in Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas for centuries.

“Some of the main nutritious and protein-rich staple ingredients include ‘payo’, a type of forest nut that provides critical sources of protein, ‘koko’, leaves of a forest vine that are a staple for Central African families, caterpillars, and mushrooms.” expands Liz Hall. Without access to healthy forests for their staples, people no longer have access to critical sources of nutrition and resources to support their well-being and health. Illegal wildlife trafficking and unsustainable levels of hunting can often rise as people struggle to find ways to support themselves and their families. But if they are in a less vulnerable position, local livelihoods aren’t so much at risk of being preyed upon by wildlife trafficking networks in their search of individuals to employ for illegal hunting.

Chengeta’s conservation efforts are ethicallong-lastingself-sustaining, and grounded within trust. The desire for a thriving ecosystem isn’t something that should be imposed by external organizations, and nor should the solutions. Communities are the true sentinels of their environment, those who ultimately hold the torch – which can either be the spark igniting fruitful co-existence, or the flare that sends entire landscapes to combustion.

EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES THROUGH COLLABORATION

“If we didnt collaborate with the community, yet still expected them to partner with us, we would be building a partnership based on non-transparency and poor communication. If this were the case, the community might not trust our work or presence in the area, and our work to protect local wildlife populations would be compromised. Strong partnership for a shared vision of conservation depends on transparency, clear communication, and collaboration”, explains Dr. Jost Robinson.

Chengeta Wildlife firmly believes that community empowerment and engagement are vital towards the protection of biodiversity: healthy communities mean healthy forests”, explains Liz. In areas affected by poverty, food insecurity, and instability, reliance on local resources, such as those found in forests, is crucial for local well-being and health. Regulations barring people’s access to forests can put many families in even more precarious situations, which can then be counter-productive for conservation efforts.

CW-C, therefore, works as a facilitator, a consultative body, actively listening and directly working with the community to find locally driven solutions for well-being. And success speaks for itself – here are three examples of groundbreaking collaborative community partnerships driven by Chengeta.

A space for voices: the Community Representative program

Including the community in conversations with Chengeta representatives has been made possible through the wonderful interface that is the ReCo program – short for the Community Representative program (Relais Communautaire). This program has been primordial to establish links across all groups – men, women, youth, elders, hunter-gatherers, farmers, fishers, entrepreneurs, etc. – to then identify the support needed for well-being and social cohesion, which then loops back to enhance conservation work.

The ReCo program requires local leaders choose one woman and one man to represent their community. Every two weeks, these community representatives meet with Robert Sambo in the Chengeta Wildlife office in Bayanga. This is key – each representative relays issues faced by their respective community during these meetings, allowing for voices to be heard – especially those of women who often don’t have the space to do so. The ReCo program is currently Chengeta’s most successful community program in ensuring transparent, clear communication and collaborative partnerships with the local communities.

This program creates a direct pathway for community feedback on current and future programming so that CW-C can adapt and tailor its work over time to best meet local needs. There are currently 22 ReCo members representing the nine neighborhoods of Bayanga, the main town in DSPA, and the two smaller villages of Mossapoula and Yandoumbe. The ReCo program has been well-received in these three villages, and leaders from the other 11 villages in DSPA are enthusiastic to expand this program to their communities once funding is available.

Empowering women: the foundation of the community 

The inclusion of women in the decision-making process, who are so often under-represented despite being the foundation of the community, supports the creation of women-focused initiatives while promoting female empowerment and self-advocacy. An example of this is CW-C’s partnership with the Market Women Association of Bayanga (Wali Gara). For a very long time, the women from this project struggled to gain official association status due to many financial and logistical hurdles. In late 2020, this group, with the help of CW-C, became an official federally recognized association in Bayanga, the central town of DSPA. This achievement allows the market women greater visibility and control over their work.

This is a quintessential illustration of how Chengeta operates, helping remove existing boundaries to facilitate community-driven ideas come to life. “Our goal is to support the creation of sustainable projects that are managed and powered by communities, self-reliant and self-advocating,” says Liz passionately. Now an official association, the Market Women have access to relevant support in collecting their own data, playing an official part in local policymaking towards the regulation of meat markets – integral to local ways of life.

This is one of many true partnership successes, resting upon an approach that shies away from entire dependence on foreign aid. “If we were to leave DSPA tomorrow, projects like these would be able to function on their own,” says Dr. Jost Robinson.

Integrating the younger generation: the future of conservation

The ReCo meetings are complemented by frequent assessments of perceptions and sentiments routed in ethical, research-backed methods centered around listening to community needs and experiences. This communication work has brought to light key prerogatives, like that of the youth.

Young men with no alternative income or source of employment may rely on hunting with illegal snares, which are relatively cheap and easy to make, to meet their basic needs.

Many young hunters express a desire to stop illegal wire snare hunting if other profitable employment options are available. Research and tourism provide important employment opportunities in DSPA, but the reality is that these opportunities are limited. Creating legal, sustainable community-driven economic opportunities is critical for the well-being of human communities in DSPA,” explains Liz. Insights like these provide a basis for Chengeta Wildlife and the community to collaborate on finding solutions grounded within suitable employment, with the potential to induce positive change in DSPA – rather than turning to alternative, illegal activities for survival.

Livelihoods in Dzanga-Sangha now have tools and guidance to self-regulate in processes directly involving them, like subsistence hunting, markets, and youth employment. There is a perception of positive changes in well-being, and project ownership, that in turn benefit and support co-existence between wildlife and humans. The Communities program truly is a way for Chengeta Wildlife to promote sustainable change, supporting projects that grow from the ground up: the community is involved at every level.

But the model continues to grow, attracting attention amongst other groups wanting to collaborate, like fishers and farmers. However, expanding this pivotal work requires more financial and personnel support, including employing more staff in the Bayanga office. To support these endeavors, Chengeta Wildlife needs your help.

WHERE IS THIS BLUEPRINT BASED (FOR NOW)? 

Rescued and released black-bellied pangolin (photo by Tessa Ullmann)

DSPA Map

Presently, CW-C operates in three of the 14 villages in DSPA: Bayanga, the central and largest town in DSPA where the CW-C office is located, and the two small villages of Mossapoula and Yandoumbe. Our long-term goal is to build on current program successes in these villages to expand this work across all villages in the area, empowering and promoting as many local operations as possible,” says Liz. This would also enhance Chengetas conservation effort and reach in the region, spreading more awareness as more people join in, thus positively broadening the scope of conservation efforts towards the incredibly diverse Tri-National Sangha Complex.

Bayanga is the largest town in DSPA, the place to be for organization headquarters and offices, a crucial point for research, development, conservation, and NGO action. It’s also where the CW-C office is based as an open, welcoming office, visible and entirely transparent in its modes of action. A hub for community work that provides a space to share ideas and spread awareness towards conservation.

CW-C was born in DSPA, but the future of the program is filled with ideas of hope and growth, learning from the current successful blueprint mapped and carried out in Bayanga, Mossapoula, and Yandoumbe, to slowly expand to the remaining villages in DSPA and ultimately other countries in which Chengeta Wildlife operates.

Carolyn, Sambo & Liz in front of the CW bureau sign

CHENGETAS COMMUNITY ACHIEVEMENTS

CW-C’s work has been remarkable, and recent milestones have reinforced their determination to not only expand the project within DSPA, and across CAR, but also across the continent.

In September 2019, members from the Chengeta Wildlife team held multiple meetings with chiefs, leaders, and community members of three villages in DSPA – Bayanga, Mossapoula, and Yandoumbe – to gauge community interest in collaboration. Meeting with community leaders and representatives prior to beginning work in these three villages critical toward building trust and transparency with these communities. These meetings gave community representatives the opportunity to consent to CW’s community work in the area and to voice the needs and concerns of their communities. Together, CW and DSPA community leaders created a shared vision for locally-driven community programming that supports human wellbeing in DSPA and promotes wildlife conservation.

This partnership ultimately led to the opening of the CW-C office in the central town of Bayanga. Situated in the middle of town and easily accessible from Mossapoula and Yandoumbe, the office’s visibility and accessibility are representative of Chengeta’s efforts to be firmly rooted within the community and to work from the ground up. Converted from a house, the office is positioned amongst a bustling neighborhood of Bayanga with outdoor areas blending with the yards of neighbors, all of whom are local community members.

The CW-C office provides a meeting space for the Community Representative (ReCo) program and community associations, as well as a place for the fruitful collaborative work achieved thus far. The Communities office, therefore, becomes an accessible hub, located in an area where people can actively engage with and contribute to CW-C. This community space can be used by other people as an association and local organization meeting space, or simply just a space to drop in to say hi as people pass by on their way to farms, schools or homes.

CHALLENGES FOR COMMUNITIES AND CONSERVATION

Funding is needed to keep this essential community program active. The Covid pandemic has been a major drawback, slowing down progress to expansion. Yet maintaining a steady stream of funding is essential to ensure that community work can continue at its highest capacity. Read below on how you can get involved!

Donate here

FUTURE PLANS

More expansion! CW-C is just getting started. The work in DSPA serves as a proof of concept, a blueprint to look at best practices in supporting the community while implementing viable local conservation efforts. The project is currently being designed and re-designed to be applied across the Central African Republic, and ultimately across Chengeta’s areas of operation, a positive feedback loop that empowers local communities and promotes human and wildlife health and wellbeing.

SUPPORT OUR COMMUNITY PROGRAM: COMMUNITIES FOR CONSERVATION

Local livelihoods are the lifeline ensuring ecosystems, including wildlife, remain healthy and protected. Chengeta Wildlife is calling on your help to raise $10,000 to support the community work in DSPA with our latest fundraiser: COMMUNITIES FOR CONSERVATION, whose next missions include:

Expansion of Community program to more villages (from three to 14). Wildlife is not constricted to national parks and human-made borders, so the more villages involved, the more awareness can be spread, the more communities can be empowered, the more wildlife can be protected. But it requires more staff and more representatives to join the ReCo, which sustains local employment as well as increasing the reach of collaborative and transparent communication between CW-C and DSPA communities.

Supporting more local projects, enterprises & associations throughout DSPA. Similarly, for this, more local staff is needed. Again, it is a double whammy in that not only does expanding the local office support the local economy, but it especially supports the empowerment of different voices and associations wanting to play a role in governance at local level. The expansion of the program to more associations, enterprises, and projects works at an intra-community level.

Running of the office/HQ/community center. A community office that works as a community center, a place for discussion, for meetings, and for collaboration. The above objectives to reach more communities and support more local projects, therefore require sustainable and long-term financial support of this office.

To get involved with supporting the community expansion program, there are three ways you can get involved:

  • Donate HERE
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  • Tell your friends about the importance of communities for conservation

Thank you for your support! Were all in this together, people and wildlife alike.

About the author:

Alice Péretié is a Wildlife & Conservation Photographer and Storyteller passionate about exploring the ways in which to (re)connect people and nature. Website: aliceperetie.com