At this time we do not have a solution yet. Actually the Shai Hills Enhancement Project, by all standards, is a complete failure. Bizarrely enough, it was the spectacular failure of the project that allowed us to strip away all inessentials and gave us a solid foundation for moving forward. The solution really was for the project to hit rock bottom. No silver bullet has been found, most likely because one cannot solve the multi-faceted problem of conservation in an area faced with the dilemma of ‘development-at-all-cost’ which is the reality in Ghana today – but in recent months there has been some very positive progress. After years of failing to make any real difference, even though we certainly spent a lot of money in the process, we have in recent months started applying the backbone of any lasting solution: listening to the people. For the first time in seven years we have started asking the communities surrounding Shai Hills what Shai Hills means to them, how the ecosystems captured in Shai Hills and its surrounding communities serve them, and why preserving Shai Hills is fundamental to them. From this approach we can in just a few short months, already see positive changes.
Shai Hills Resource Reserve is located 36km from Accra, the capital of the fast developing West African country, Ghana. Although the park is legally proclaimed as a park in Ghana and enjoys a Category IV – IUCN Protected Area classification, it is in the direct path of urban encroachment, is surrounded by mining quarries and at high risk of disappearing in coming decades. The reserve is 51km2 in size and plays host to a number of culturally significant sites and a variety of fauna and flora. It is also plagued by lack of funding, lack of infrastructure, lack of skills, animal poaching and a range of typical developing country problems. The surrounding communities rightfully aspire to a modern lifestyle, wanting more space to build their homes and other amenities, resulting in not enough grazing areas and water access for their cattle in the communal areas and so they turn to Shai Hills and illegally graze their cattle there. Poaching is a problem as well.
When Leadership for Conservation in Africa (LCA) burst onto the Ghana scene in 2007, the initial proposed solution for these problems were based 100% on involving both business and conservation leaders in the Shai Hills Enhancement Project to allow for the integration of business principles with conservation management principles in the management of the park. The other aspect of this solution was to actively facilitate the involvement of business in sustainable conservation-led socio-economic development and capacity building within Ghana. Quite a mouthful, and, even though we did not realize it then, a convoluted mess. Over the next five to six years, the project underwent different phases, changed leadership frequently and remained a jumbled mess that gobbled funds with no real impact. Late last year, with hardly any funds left and no sustainable solution, it was clear that we either needed to change tack or kill the project. Some naval gazing followed (but also some serious thought) and it was decided to return to the basics. What surfaced constantly was the fact that the most central issue to this project was the protection of Shai Hills, and the understanding that without the people who are integrally linked to Shai Hills, the project will never succeed – at least not in the long term.
The positive turn-around have underlined that a lasting solution should have to be based on three legs, very much like the legs of an African cooking pot (you break or damage one leg, and you cannot use the pot successfully):
(i) blending of the old and the new, thus marrying age-old traditional practices of protecting the environment with 2014 modern solutions (and try to create a successful marriage); and assuring that these solutions come from the whole community – the traditional leadership, the political leadership, the aged, the middle-aged, the youth, men and women, and most importantly, the disenfranchised. And in this mix one must not forget the management of Shai Hills and the rangers, who are integral to the success of these initiatives. Everyone’s needs (including that of the park) must be taken into consideration, and in particular emphasis must be put on addressing the development needs of the communities.
(ii) focusing on what we are trying to achieve, i.e. not get distracted by the constant drone surrounding these types of projects. The drone includes those who have not fully acknowledged that this is the way to go and instead feel it is not essential; those who hammer on the need to focus on (equally) important issues, such as raising funds for a fence for the reserve and other dire needs; the fear of the unknown gripping the Shai Hills Management and rangers as we plunge into a pool of involving the communities more closely in the park’s business than they have ever been, and the need for rangers to learn new skills and being encouraged to keep records of those things they never dreamed would be important one day.
(iii) build new partnerships – in the past our mindset was that partners would be large corporations, but now we realize that a partner is more than just those who brings in the money. Partnerships now mean to us that a poacher or someone who cuts or removes the fence around the reserve could be turned into partner in protecting the reserve. So the broader community becomes the partner with the understanding that anyone can change anything, and that a single person, irrespective of how poor or how powerful they are, can make a profound difference. Of course funding remains a constant need (especially now that our main funder is not able to help as generously as they used to), so that type of partnership is still essential to us, but the lesson we have learned is that it is not the only partnership we should concentrate on.
Constant monitoring is essential to ensure that unintended negative impacts are corrected before too late, and that positive impacts are enhanced. Our goal is to grow the natural capital of Shai Hills by preserving the biodiversity, the landscape and the cultural places for future generations. How we get there will require a multi-pronged approach, the backbone of which is community engagement, community development and community involvement. The ultimate lesson and guiding principle is that conservation fails if it doesn’t work to improve the quality of life of local communities.
It also does not work if a project does not have funders and supporters. Gold Fields Ghana, the founder of the LCA Ghana (in partnership with the Ghana Forestry Commission) needs to be commended for putting their money where their mouth is and for continuing to support the project through the years, even in these times when gold mining companies have no choice but to reduce their staff numbers and other expenditures. Similarly, we could not be able do this work without the support of the Forestry Commission, who have gone out on a limb and renewed our mandate to work in Shai Hills even though we did not have much to show for our first round. Without their constant support, we would not have learned these valuable lessons and would not be forging a way forward now.
In some respects, the outcomes have been miniscule, in others, remarkable. We started to implement the changes in our approach only about a year ago (and please keep in mind that we are only two persons working on this project, both of us part-time with four hours help a week from the rangers), and the first few months was covered with hurdles and thorns as everyone felt uncomfortable with the very noticeable, and abrupt, change of approach. For example, in the past, the chiefs would really be the only persons from the community who would have the platform to give input about the project, now they are still important but not more important that the rest of the community members. The Shai Hills Management was taken aback by this approach, which they did not think would work and which they thought would cause them more problems than they already have to deal with. Needless to say, the first few months had most of us at odds with each other. And during these dark times I would remember advice I received from Dr Ian Player, who told me in 2012 to remember that “conservation is often guerilla warfare”. And so with time, as the work continued despite it all, and as we spoke to more people, gathered more information, we noticed that people started to view Shai Hills as their own, as their reserve, as their ancestral holy place. Of course we are not quite there yet, there is still a long way to travel before we can say most of the community members feel this way, but we have come from a place of disinterest to one where some interest, and dare I say, passion, is starting to show. The Shai Hills Management have also come to the party, are learning new skills, willing to take a risk. As for the impact, it is several years too early to tell what it will be. And I hope that in a few years, someone from the Shai Hills Project can stand on a similar platform and continue to tell the story.