THE SARTUDAY READ
By Tapiwa Prosper Chimbadzwa
The world today is at a crossroads on whether to pursue development or rather concentrate on ecosystem restoration in the face of climate change and catastrophic animal extinction. The developers and environmentalists are unable to agree on how to best serve the interests of both groups while achieving a shared objective. At the rate that the world is moving, the ambitious sustainable development goals are still far from being realized. Many platforms have been established to discuss these problems to find practical solutions and a more all-encompassing strategy for building a better society. The Oppenheimer Research Conference is one of the major events that has drawn scientists from all over the world to present their cutting-edge findings in a range of environmental and natural science fields and to spark conversation about the future of conservation in Africa.
The conference has developed into a significant occasion on the global academic calendar since its establishment in 2010. This has also helped in placing African voices in global conversations on environment, conservation and sustainability. After two years of a COVID-19-induced break, the conference was held this year from October 5 to 7 at the Randjesfontein Cricket Pavilion in Midrand, South Africa, with the theme: Changing the conversation in conservation. In Nicky Oppenheimer’s opening speech, he said, “we must endeavour to direct insights and knowledge gained over the next three days, towards delivering solutions, which mitigates environmental and conservation tipping points across the continent and beyond. Striving to collectively move a step closer to social and ecological sustainability”. The key message was to discover the best practices for creating a better future for everyone rather than simply showcasing scientific dynamics and wonderful breakthroughs. The delegates agreed that continuing with business as usual will get us nowhere, so we need to come up with practical solutions and have the most difficult conversations that will result in positive change.
Discussions around inclusion and creation of wildlife economies took the center stage throughout the conference. A talk by Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo on the Achilles Heels of Conservation provoked a new system thinking in the field of conservation, particularly in regards to how societal preconceptions maintain social inequities and how this prevents African scientists from fully participating in the conservation field. She emphasized on the need to shift towards people centered models that are context specific and are considerate of the rights and beliefs of indigenous and local communities.
The conference came at an opportune time since Zimbabwe had began pushing the discussion towards community capacity building and human wildlife conflict mitigation. In September the country had hosted the Resilience Anchors Human Wildlife Conflict workshop which was meant to share the findings on the status of human wildlife conflict in Zimbabwe and find ways to improve the livelihoods of communities leaving alongside wildlife as they work to move from conflict to coexistence. Hence having Zimbabwean researchers attending the Oppenheimer Conference, was a great opportunity for them to cross pollinate ideas, as well as borrow the sound practices that are being implemented in other regions as to achieve their set goals.
In an interview with Dr Moreangels Mbizah (Executive Director, Wildlife Conservation Action), one of the Zimbabwean researchers who attended the conference she said, the conference content was eye-opening since it comprised of diverse topics within the sciences sector and Africa was well represented at the conference. Looking at the wildlife economies and inclusion of local communities’ conservation discussions was very important and the points came across very well in the presentations that were made given that the topic is one of the most difficult conversations that the conservation sector has to face. I do feel that collaboration and putting communities first in our conservation efforts will lead to successful efforts.
Dr. Timothy Kuiper posited that , having business representatives at the conference made it more inclusive and not just about biological scientists and conservationists. A multi-stakeholder approach is essential for effective conservation initiatives. This strategy aids in tearing down the concrete barriers between development and conservation, ultimately encouraging environmentally responsible development. In contrast to other regions of Africa, the SADC had a larger representation, and Zimbabwe had a great showing. I can safely say the organizers did well and there is enough room for improvement.
In concurrence to the above Sibonokuhle Ncube, a researcher from the National University of Technology posited that, representation of Zimbabwean and African researchers was good but there is room for improvement as we seek to change the narrative in conservation. The discussions were a head start towards gaining momentum in probing radical changes to address the conservation sector anomalies.
Prof. Olga Kupika was one of the presenters from Zimbabwe who gave an interesting talk on the ecosystem-based approaches to address climate challenges at the agriculture interface. In her talk she gave insights on two of the major challenges of this century and how humans can mitigate the challenges using nature-based solutions. She also denoted that mainstreaming local ecological knowledge in climate adaptation is key to promoting resilience. Embracing ecosystem friendly local solutions to the climate change crisis promotes sustainable use of biodiversity hence maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Agroecology initiatives which include multi-stakeholder engagement for co-generation and co-development of solutions is also key to transformative adaptation.
Dr. Tariro Kamuti added that compared to the 2019 conference the number of Zimbabwean researchers who attended the conference has increased. Also given the limited time, I think the conference was a platform to put across and share issues with like-minded people. This has an impact on influencing discussions on conservation. I do believe that the stance of involving business in conservation was a point in the right direction as we search for a holistic approach to conserve and meet the needs of local communities that live alongside wildlife.
All being said and done the Oppenheimer Research conference acted as a precursor to a new era in conservation, and starting the discussion on how to make the space more inclusive and beneficial for all was a good start. In that light, for the sustainable conservation of biodiversity in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa. The question of whether to mainstream Indigenous Knowledge techniques in the sciences discourse or develop a structure that promotes its formal applications remains a low-hanging fruit. Discussions on this issue should take center stage now as we seek to change the conversation in conservation. Oppenheimer Research conference kicked off the process; now it is up to us to decide what kind of future we want for African wildlife and the communities that coexist with it.