Native American Reservations in Africa?


The West's concern for sustainable development has influenced conservation policy in a number of African countries, but not always for the better. The concern often includes the imposition of Western fears and ideals at the expense of understanding local values, needs, and problems.

Consider Lesotho. In this southern African country, current conservation polices include restructuring the livestock economy, which reflects more the concerns of foreign conservationists than the interest of local stock owners. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has introduced "Range Management Areas" (RMAs), which are clones of conservation methods used for a Native American reservations. Similarly, a large part of Lesotho has recently been demarcated as a "Managed Resource Area" (MRA) through the influence of both AID and South Africa's Natal Parks Board, a parastatal conservation agency, which coordination a large interdisciplinary research programs to devise a conservation policy for the mountain region of Lesotho.

"Sustainable development" requires people to change their attitudes and practices. Although conservation and development agencies use this demand to persuade others to change, they are not very good at reconsidering their own principles and methods of environmental research and management. In Lesotho, it seems that "management" is, literally, the "preserve" of foreign agencies; the South Africans have simply prefixed a "p" to AID's "reservation."


For nearly 100 years, Basotho have grazed livestock in the Maluti Mountains, at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet above sea level. This harsh environment makes the pastoralist heritage of the Basotho unique. The Basotho are the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa that has had to adapt to the problems of rearing livestock in an environment where sub-zero temperatures are common during the winter months and snow often blankets the countryside.

Basotho used to keep cattle and sheep, but, following the imposition of colonial government, they diversified their stock. Donkeys and horses soon became vital means of transport in the mountainous terrain. Merino sheep and Angora goats were introduced at the turn of the century, and Basotho readily took to rearing them because they earned valuable income from wool and mohair. Today, sheep an goats constitute the bulk of most herds, making Lesotho one of the world's major wool- and mohair-producing countries.

Livestock management has always been governed by a system of transhumance. Traditionally, the animals were dispatched to grazing posts in the remote mountain valleys for he summer. With the onset of winter, the herds would be brought down to the villages, where they would graze on grassland reserved for this purpose. The underlying ethos of this management system is that land is a communal resource. Individual access to resources such as grazing land and grasses for thatching is subject to seasonal variation in availability, quality, and quantity. For example, cultivated fields are the personal possession of individuals, but all fields are categorized as communal grazing land after harvest in order to allow for common use of crop stover, such as maize stalks, as winter forage.

Nonetheless, Basotho stock owners now struggles to findwinter forage for their animals because of a decrease in available grassland. This decrease is due to a variety of developments, such as gradually increasing livestock numbers, the expansion of settlements, and greater land cultivation. In response, Basotho have modified their livestock transhumance system.

Within the last 15 years, many stock owners have established "winter" grazing posts in intermediate valleys that lie between the summer grazing areas and villages. Because these valleys are usually less than a two- or three-hour walk from villages if the weather deteriorates and back to the post when forage on village grassland becomes inadequate. This kind of modification has led to further changes in livestock management practices, the net result being that the "winter" grazing areas are used more intensively and for longer periods than the summer ones. Thus, they are under greater threat of degradation.


Growing concern over grassland degradation came to a head in the mid-1980s when Lesotho embarked on a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric scheme. Anxious to forestall silting of the proposed dams, official attention first focused on the mountain catchment valleys and then upon livestock as a cause of soil erosion. The "Range Management Areas" project - conceived, funded, and managed by AID - was the first answer to this concern.

Each area is managed by officials from the Range Management Division of Lesotho's Ministry of Agriculture, which was set up specifically for the project. Grazing rights in each RMA are restricted to residents and subject to officially sanctioned rotational grazing regimes. Stock owners' associations have also been established in each RMA; they train members in livestock and "range" management and provide services such as hire to stud animals. The intention is for these associations to take over the management of their respective RMAs in due course.

To many Basotho stock owners, however, RMAs are yet another excision of resources that are being rapidly circumscribed. As villages grow, grazing areas in their environs are reduced. But as stock owners look for alternative grazing, their avenues are cut off the new restriction in the form of RMAs. This process continues in kind as the RMAs favor the minority of wealthy stock owners over the majority who own small herds.

For those who own more than 200 head of sheep and goats, the RMA project supports their commercial interests. Rational grazing, as these stock owners well know, is necessary for anyone who owns a large number of animals. Furthermore, with the financial capacity to invest in means of improving the market value of their stock, they can afford to use the services provided through the stock owners. For the majority, however, most whom own less than 50 sheep and goats, the rotational grazing regimes are an added burden. Instead of being able to stay in one area, they must build new grazing posts and incur the additional costs of finding good herders to keep their animals secure while on the move between grazing areas. Likewise, the costs of membership in stock owners' associations and fees for use of services such as hire of stud animals often outweigh the returns on a small herd.

Basotho stock owners recognize the dangers of grassland degradation, and they emphasize the need to reduce livestock numbers. "Two hundred is enough for the land. It will still be sufficient," noted one stock owner in a debate among herders over the number of sheep individuals should be allowed to own. His comment was endorsed by the majority and reflected a view voiced by another herder: "Even if the government tires to improve the grazing lands, as I look, the land will never be improved because the number of livestock is much higher than in the past. Look here, there, go around this places, there is a grazing post, there, a post."

Unfortunately, the south African research program addressed neither local understanding of grassland degradation nor the limitations of the RMA project. Instead, it endorsed a territorial approach to conservation by recommending demarcation of a "Managed Resource Area." The MRA was on the basic of concern to protect the "alpine" grasslands, which led to use of the 9,000-feet-above-sea-level contour line as a boundary. This contour marks, in principle, the division between alpine and sub-alpine ecological ones, and the ecologists had used it at the program's start to define a study area.

The MRA boundary, however, is an inappropriate as the conservationists' concerns are misdirected. The division between the alpine and sub-alpine zones varies with altitude and slope aspect. The temperature grasslands of the alpine one occur at altitudes and on "cold" slopes where few animals graze and, hence, where degradation is minimal. The threatened grasslands are in the upper sub-alpine zone (8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level) which are grazed continuously in the summer, and in the lowersub-alpine zone, which are grazed intensively during the winter. The problem with the MRA is that it ignore the major threat to grasslands in valleys of the lower sub-alpine zone, where the "winter" grazing posts are located. These valleys are generally smaller, warmer, and drier than those of the alpine and upper sub-alpine zones, which means that the soils are more susceptible to erosion. Intensive use of these valleys during the winter has led to rapid degradation of the grassland.

The tragedy of the situtational is that although research indicated this danger, the warnings were ignored due, ironically, to the politics of conservation. On the one hand, the impetus of the South African program was the proclamation of the Maluti/Drakensberg mountain escarpment areas as a "World Heritage Site" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Accordingly, research focused on this area to substantiate the need to protect it. On the other hand, substantiation of this concern and of the MRA was based on subliminal projection rather than on detailed analysis of research results.

First, the IUCN's broad geographical definition of an area deserving protection was translated to mean concern for the "alpine" grassland. This provided a basis for research: the ecologists could be directed to study the area in terms of ecological zones that they understood.

Second, in using the 9,000-foot contour line, the research program provided an imprecise but politically useful division to substantiate demarcating the MRA. Strictly speaking, the concern to protect the "alpine" grassland was invalidated by the ecologists' rigorous distinction between the lack of degradation in the alpine one and evident degradation in the upper sub-alpine zone. This hair-splitting doesn't override commonsense concerns if degradation is evident in an area or in a unique geographical region as stated by the Natal Parks Board and the IUCN respectively. Common sense fails, however, in the way it puts blinders on the imagination. The 9,000-foot contour line to define first a study area and then the MRA simply ensured that there was evidence of degradation in a place which the Natal Parks Board and IUCN wanted to protect.

Third, in an ironic twist, the demand for scientific rigor prevented any consideration of the danger to the sub-alpine zone as a whole, and of the relatively greater danger to the lower sub-alpine zone. The research suggested that if the grassland in the upper sub-alpine zone was being degraded, the same was probable in the lower sub-alpine zone. Anthropological research supported this hypothesis, but it couldn't be confirmed in rigorous scientific terms because scant ecological research was done outside the study area.

The outcome was inevitable. The findings were ignored for they would have brought into the open the political reasons for creating the MRA, which have less to do with Lesotho's concerns than with those of the Natal Parks Board and the IUCN.


Environmental degradation of Lesotho mountain grassland provides an impetus to change local ways of livestock and grassland management. Sustainable development is a concept of change; it stems for recognizing that the global economy must change it the world's natural resources are to be sustained in the future.

Sustainable development is also a concept that Basotho stock owners recognize - but their own terms. In a heated debate, one herder exhorted another: "Mr. Lifomo, I will ask you again: Can you not see that if you acquire more and more animals it will be like throwing things into the river? We must agree here. Can you see that what is being fought for is the land?"

Nevertheless, practicing sustainable development does not being with rigid demarcation of conservation areas that satisfy Western criteria for environmental research and management and that also perpetuate familiar prejudices. Like the RMAs, the MRA begins and ends with these prejudices. The MRA bears all the hallmarks of the preservationist perspective on nature conservation that, in South Africa's history, provided justification for removing many people from their homes to make way for wildlife reserves.

The RMA project, apart from its association with Native American reservations, resembles South Africa agricultural "betterment" schemes, which were a feature of apartheid policy. These schemes, which were applied in rural African areas, demarcated settlements, fields, and grazing areas in ways that ignored indigenous, ecological, and economic reasons against such farming principles, Granted, the RMA project doesn't advocate the political rationale of these schemes, which was to reduce the capability to African farmers to farm, and so drive them into the labor market on terms designed to support the apartheid regime. Nonetheless, the RMA project could have similar effects because it does not take the notion of sustainable development seriously.

Real commitment to sustainable development means looking closely at economic as well as nature conservation aims. Too often, as seems to be the case in Lesotho, the economic aims are confused. There is an idealistic attempt to maintain the presumed character of the "traditional" economy, subject to some modifications, while downplaying the intent to promote a market economy as illustrated in breed improvement schemes. Caught in this confusion, development agencies can rarely see that the subject people are already changing their methods, as they have always done in response to changing environmental conditions and in order to improve their ability to earn a living.

The starting point should be economic concerns, primarily because the development of market economies has contributed enormously to environmental degradation, but also because development projects ostensibly work with the rationale to provide the economic benefits to the people. In Lesotho, the development of a market economy in livestock products has led to changes in stock management practices that, in turn, are proving to be problematic because of the consequences of grassland degradation. The proving to be problematic because of the consequences of grassland degradation. The immediate questions to ask are what methods need to be changed, why, and how in order to improve people's ability to earn a living.

From these questions come others, notably, what will be the likely consequences of the proposed changes, and do these consequences match the economic aspirations of stock owners. Starting with economic concerns provides a sound basis on which to ask question on nature conservation. That basis is knowledge of what the people regard as resources, why, and how they are used. Only then is it possible to begin to evaluate causes of environmental degradation and to seek reasonable solutions.

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