INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE BASED CONSERVATION
It is typical in Western societies to encounter an idea that human beings are inherently destructive to the ‘natural’ world, but Maasailand teaches that it is certain cultures that are destructive: human beings are instead an essential part of the world when we approach our part with humility and accountability. As Meitamei says, “In the balance our ancestors found with the natural environment, people shared the land with elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros, and other majestic wildlife. We see ourselves as custodians of the land, which to us is a sacred living entity. The land contains our history; it is the keeper of our memories and culture, and protector of our forefathers’ bones. The Maasai believe that the land is entrusted to the living for safekeeping, to be passed on to future generations.” Today, Maasailand is one of the last great wildlife refuges in the world and Maasai territories provide habitat for 80 percent of East Africa’s wildlife. In fact, the Maasai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem supports the highest concentration of wildlife on Earth. MERC is devoted to a future where wildlife continue to live free and protected, a future which is only possible through a re-empowerment of Maasai culture to manage the care of wildlife on our land.
The threat to Maasai culture is the same threat to East African ecosystems and the wildlife they support; the people and wildlife will live or die together. Elephants, lions and other animals spend between 60% and 90% of their lives outside of the protected areas, on Maasai community land, sharing that dynamic ecosystem with Maasai people and their cattle, goats and sheep. As community land is diminished, privatized, converted to large scale agriculture, elephant and other migrations are interrupted, conflict ensues, and wildlife is destroyed. The region’s popularity as a tourist destination grew rapidly in the past two decades, and too many large-scale tourist facilities have been built in previously pristine areas. Habitat is also being lost to large-scale agriculture and commercial development and poaching has become a serious problem, as it severs the relationship between people and wildlife. Population pressures from the surrounding regions of Eastern Africa are further distressing the land and its resources. Traditional migratory routes for wildlife are being lost, as indiscriminate development fragments Maasailand. All of these pressures, plus pollution associated with the tourism industry and illegal bush meat trade, are bearing instantaneous and irreversible impacts on the wildlife of Maasailand.
Fortress conservation is another immense challenge, as Western approaches to saving the wildlife often involve separating all human activity from shared land, including the economies of Indigenous peoples with whom the wildlife has historically coexisted. Fortress conservation has failed in other parts of the world where profit motives subsume care for wildlife. MERC has thus emphasized the restoration of Maasai management of conservation on Maasailand.
One of the greatest potential gifts the Maasai culture has to offer the world is its knowledge, tested and refined through centuries of how to share land in ways that promotes biodiversity. This knowledge is a form of science. Maasai have practiced that science by continuously adapting and evolving their way of life in response to changing environmental conditions, negotiating access to shared and limited.
Truly effective conservation needs to do the same, by acknowledging that success is dependent upon small changes over time. The Maasai people have a lot to teach the conservation community about living within a landscape and alongside populations of wildlife in a way that ensures the preservation of both themselves and the wildlife.
If conservation is going to be truly participatory, and equal in terms of rights and power, then the knowledge and insights of the Maasai must be acknowledged and welcomed. Genuine locally-inspired conservation must happen from the ground up, and must acknowledge all the values and interests stakeholders on equal terms. In essence, effective conservation is not simply about the preservation of particular species or habitats, it is about devolving power and decision-making to the local level so that the rights of local communities are ensured.
As a global community, we all have a role to play to ensure the future of this priceless heritage for the sake of unborn generations.