This year, I fulfilled a decade-long dream: to attend the International Seminar on Protected Area Management in the USA, which brings together protected area managers from around the world to share experiences and strategies for conserving natural areas.
It is always difficult to leave one’s family behind, but it wasn’t the first time for me. Fifteen years ago (during the 1996 war), my job took me on a 41 day trek from Goma to Kisangani, facing rebels and militiamen along the way.
The journey to the USA was certainly less life-threatening, though daunting nonetheless! From Garamba National Park, I travelled to Goma and on to Kigali. From there I flew to Missoula in Montana, via Brussels (with a few more stops along the way!)
On my trip, I got to visit Washington’s museums and spent a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park. But the main highlight was the opportunity to meet with other experts from the field and share ideas on how to get communities involved in protected area management.
Community conservation in DRC
Garamba National Park, located in the north of DRC, was gazetted in 1938. It neighbours Lantoto Park in South Sudan, and was one of the parks affected by civil wars, as well as by commercial poaching.
However, thanks to efforts by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and partners (African Parks Network, Fauna & Flora International), the area is still protected and benefits from the DRC Community Conservation National Strategic Plan.
In my work as Community Conservation Technical Advisor for Fauna & Flora International at Garamba, I am responsible for collaborating with the ICCN and other partners to implement a strategy for local community involvement in protected area conservation.
We have a wide range of responsibilities, ranging from improving collaboration between park authorities and local communities, to building capacity and raising community awareness. We are also expected to contribute to the economic development of the region.
The focus of my interest for this seminar was to share our experiences of community conservation in the DRC and Garamba National Park with others. I was also keen to learn from other delegates, to uncover any weaknesses and to bring back lessons to sharpen our programme.
Communication is the key
One of the lessons that emerged from the seminar was the need to improve dialogue between the National Community Conservation Headquarters (Direction Générale ICCN) and Community Conservation Programme Managers within each National Park.
To achieve this, we are working with the ICCN to assess the feasibility of recruiting two technical assistants. These staff would work with community conservation chief warders to coordinate a joint annual plan of activities and evaluate progress.
We will also be involved in searching for partners that are willing to shape ICCN community conservation policy, and help plan the execution.
During the seminar it also became clear that good communication and collaboration with colleagues and stakeholders is just as important within my own work area.
Complex challenges need clever solutions
It seems to me that managing protected areas effectively requires a better approach than simple, prescriptive ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ decisions. A more sophisticated method is needed because as the world changes, so do social preferences.
A protected area manager has to consider both the ecological and socio-economic impact of their management and planning decisions, and this raises the controversial question of who wins and who loses.
For this reason, it is important to establish a framework for participatory approaches to management. This kind of framework can help guide the planning process by giving managers a better understanding of the impacts of their decisions.
We are seeing encouraging signs of progress at ICCN on this front, however there is still a need to improve efficiency through better coordination at a national level.
My hope is that, by implementing the lessons learned at the seminar and by reinforcing the National Community Conservation Headquarters in Kinshasa, we can bring even greater protection to biodiversity and communities in DRC.