Jimmiel Mandima Interview


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Jimmiel Mandima is an aquatic ecologist, with extensive field experience in wildlife conservation. In his current position of Program Design and Partner Relations Director at African Wildlife Foundation he has the responsibility to manage and develop AWF’s partnerships with the US Government agencies and various international organizations, and to explore how these partnerships can contribute to the fulfillment of AWF’s mission.

In many parts of the world we are isolated from wildlife, so Africa captures our imagination as a place where humans can live in close proximity to and interact with wildlife. How much truth is there to this image, and how does this proximity affect the mindset of local people in Africa, their sense of identity, attitudes toward nature, their awareness and understanding of conservation?

The abundance of wildlife and the easy access to it indeed sets Africa apart. It is one of the unique values of Africa in the context of the entire world. It is true that you often get to see in one locality the big five of African megafauna (lion, elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopards). But we are also seeing a continent that is on a trajectory of economic growth and development, essentially emulating the West. In the process, a lot of Africa’s unique nature and wildlife is destroyed. It is one of the reasons why the work that we do is important.

African people do identify with wildlife. Culturally, you may be aware of totems and certain beliefs that are associated with specific wild species. Also, hunting and gathering used to be a way of life. So wildlife and forest will always be critical; a kind of basic traditional and cultural association certainly exists. The perception is that wildlife is important, forests are important. And as we see more and more of their eradication, there are mixed reactions. Obviously, there is a growing concern, but also, because many modern people don’t see any direct benefits from the wildlife, some don’t see it as very important.

When and how did your interest in conservation begin?

It’s a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. I grew up in a typical African village. That was in the 1970s, and at that time it was very common to literally get out of your homestead and encounter wildlife. It was very easy to fish in our local rivers. Natural resources were abundant. It was part and parcel of what made me complete as a young boy. I got interested in studying natural resources and made a decision to study science. In my undergrad studies, I focused on biology, which for me from early days was about living beings. I did my post-grad work in fisheries and got involved with a research center based in the Zambezi valley, in a town called Kariba, which is really uniquely located within a wildlife area. This was now in the early 1990s, a thousand kilometers away from my village, but yet again I was in the midst of an area richly endowed with wildlife. The big five roamed through the town – lions, elephants, you name it. I was doing research on fish, which I feel strongly is also wildlife. Unfortunately, fish are not talked about very often, because they are not a charismatic species.

I had worked with various local and nationwide NGOs at various levels and was involved in consultations with the African Wildlife Foundation. I was privileged to make the transition from my university research job to working for AWF back in January of 2002. Now fourteen years down the road I am still with AWF.

Wildlife and forests will always be critically important.

The more we get local populations involved, the more we can sustain the well-being of wildlife, wild lands, and humans themselves.

You’re not doing fieldwork for AWF. Do you miss being on the ground?

Yes, anybody who has done research and fieldwork does miss that. It was kind of bittersweet at first, but after spending five years in Washington DC, I can see why it is important for someone who has spent time in the field, who knows the nuts and bolts, the real challenges, to be in DC and be part of the discussions, to have a voice at the table and speak from one’s own experience. I do try to return to the field a couple of times a year, just to reconnect and to be sure that I’m not missing anything, as things are changing incessantly. So, I do miss that, yes.

I’d like to stay on the subject of perceptions. The success of conservation and rehabilitation efforts in Africa eventually depends on local people and societies. We’ve heard that real influencers in African countries are sometimes reluctant to talk about conservation in fear of being accused of caring more about animals than about people. Is this changing?

Africa, being a large continent, is very diverse. The transition from the colonial era into the present also involved changes in how governance and authority over wildlife is structured. Many countries initially retained the colonial era top-down approach. National parks, which are the reserves for wildlife, are managed by the government. Local communities that traditionally were always dependent on hunting and gathering consequently received limited benefits. The first generation of private investment was implemented through the top levels of government, so local villagers didn’t see much of that money. What they experienced was crop damage when the animals left the national parks and restrictions on free movement for fear of predators. That’s why local communities which are struggling to survive can be biased against local wildlife.

The so-called modern and learned on the other hand, often associate wildlife and wild lands with being backward – because it’s out there, it’s not the city, you don’t experience the natural ecosystems that actually allow you to function.

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A lot of what we do is to try to change this mentality. For the locals who felt left out, we now create partnerships with the private sector and governments and we help to facilitate and broker benefit sharing agreements. Then the villagers start saying: ‘Well, now it makes sense for us to set aside a piece of land for wildlife movement corridors, because we are a part of the planning process, and we understand why we need to separate our crop fields and grazing areas so we can have a more diverse economy.’

With the urbanized, the same is happening. Some of them, when you connect the dots for them on how their survival and jobs actually depend on the ecosystems where everything else lives, they actually say: ‘Wow, now I get it … why didn’t somebody tell me before?!’

I am personally convinced that the more we get local populations involved, both urban and rural, the more we can sustain the well-being of wildlife, wild lands, and ultimately, of course, humans themselves.

I was about to ask about the lack of local buy-in, the exclusion of local communities. You touched on that already. How does AWF’s “priority landscapes” program deal with this issue? What makes AWF different from other initiatives?

Allow me to be biased: I actually think AWF is a great organization. Firstly, we’ve clearly identified the niche: Africa is our sole and main geography, save for some transnational global issues such as wildlife trafficking. Secondly, our mission is very clear. It’s about people and their connection to wildlife and wild lands. Most NGOs (at least in the past – that has changed over time), were seen as basically tree huggers, or people who enjoy wildlife for the sake of wildlife.

I think from the beginning we have asked the right questions and provided realistic answers:

As Africa is getting independent, how do we build capacity for Africans to be part of the modern management of their own resources? Hence our capacity-building training, which continues today. How do we ensure that people who coexist and live with wildlife as part of their culture and tradition benefit directly? So we do our enterprise work. How do we ensure that they are continuously up to date and conversant with the global dynamics of this sector? With our educational programs.

We look for a holistic approach, which includes land protection. Who owns the land? If it’s a community, we know they have communal rights, but do they have tenant rights? So we work to resolve that. Then the protection of species: what is there? Apply good science. And it’s all participatory – we look beyond just the park, we look at the buffer zones where communities live and view them as a continuation of the landscape that must remain connected. Then we now have what we call our Classroom Africa, which is essentially an educational program targeted at primary schools. Catch them early, then they become the leaders of tomorrow. Then there’s the issue of policy dialogue. At the end of the day we recognize that no matter how weak the African governments are, they will remain the custodians on the ground, and the policy and decision makers, so instead of contradicting them, we engage them. In the case of corruption, we are simply saying: corruption is a problem you guys have, like everywhere else, but can we work together? And then lastly, we’ve never had any for-profit or institutional motive to benefit materially.

Eighty-five percent of the AWF team is African. We have teams on the ground, mostly either from the same village, province or the same country. So when people hear from an AWF staff member that something won’t work, it’s not a foreign outsider trying to tell them what to do, it’s one of their own children, so it’s genuine. In fifty-five years we’ve seen it all. We have had our failures, but over the years we have developed best practices, to the point where it’s now time to scale up with more partners across the whole continent.

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The government of Zimbabwe often finds itself at odds with the international community. The question is: do political disagreements prevent the countries of Africa from working jointly on the environment and conservation-related issues? Are authorities in Zimbabwe responsive to concerns the international conservation community may have, and do you feel that the voice of Zimbabwe is sufficiently heard?

Good question. We have a very consistent program in Zimbabwe, our office is in Harare, and a lot of what we do is based on an invitation by the government of Zimbabwe. They are committed to keeping their historically good record on wildlife conservation. There have certainly been serious challenges regarding relations, mostly political, which of course translate into everything else. For wildlife, 15% of the country is dedicated to protected areas. This is coming from the colonial era and has grown since independence. How all that is managed has certainly proven to be a big challenge – because of the country’s economic problems and insufficient investments. Part of the reason why we are invited to be there is because the government wants us to share commercial models that have worked in other countries like Kenya. On the land reform issue, the government wants to make sure it does not compromise wildlife. So they are forthcoming and willing.

For the big international players and development partners, it’s the question of whether they can trust Zimbabwe, for there isn’t enough transparency in decision-making. So for example, if Zimbabwe says that it wants to raise revenue to support conservation, we are never sure whether the money will actually go into conservation. Those are genuine concerns. So we continue to say to the Zimbabwean government: we all know there are challenges in the wildlife sector. You need to be a part of the community that tries to address them. Let’s bring to the floor what your issues are and forge partnerships that would make it better for you. And to the development partners in the West, we’re saying: listen to the Zimbabweans, get to the same table, avoid pointing a finger, tell them you appreciate their effort, but think they are not doing as much as they could.

The Zimbabweans have to realize that none of the wildlife range countries is on its own. There are some big picture questions of iconic species threatened with extinction. Addressing the issue requires sacrifices, but a sacrifice for somebody who wants money now to deal with food on the table today is not easy to negotiate. This is the reality of things. I’ve seen a lot of willingness on the part of the Zimbabwean authorities. For example, they created a Wildlife Advisory Council, and we have a seat on it. And that’s by invitation – you can never work in an African country or anywhere else in the world without the government willing to let you work. So the doors are open. We engage and we can be frank. Ultimately it’s up to them to decide, we are very clear on that.

Our mission is very clear: it’s about people and their connection to wildlife and wild lands.

The African voice within African Wildlife Foundation is growing.

Your organization was initially founded by some prominent Americans and then evolved to include African experts. Do you see a role for people from other parts of the world it in assisting your efforts? For instance, the Chinese. We know how important the Chinese market is for poachers, how influential China has become in many African countries. Do you see a role for China in conservation efforts, and does AWF engage them somehow?

It’s an emphatic ‘yes’. In fact, it’s been happening already for many years. AWF has grown into an international organization, in terms of membership and even governance structure. There are more and more African voices in our governing bodies. There are also more and more other non-American, non-African board members from Europe and from Asia. China is a big player in that.

Sometime in the course of last year, we launched a Chinese language website. Over the last two years, we have co-facilitated with the Aspen Institute what we call a China-Africa dialogue that was supported with funding from the World Bank. The message from AWF is that the gravity of wildlife trafficking is a global issue, and the fact that China and most of Asia are big consumers means that we have to directly engage with them. We have held several high-level discussions with Chinese businesspeople. We have engaged the African ambassadors as a group in China to lobby the Chinese on this issue. Under the China-Africa dialogue, we brought businesspeople from China and Africa to come up with a checklist of what they would want to see included in the agenda of the Forum for China-Africa cooperation (FOCAC) and it was presented at the FOCAC meeting in South Africa last year. So yes, AWF is in China, we actually are at an advanced stage of establishing a physical presence there.

We are also engaging Canada, Australasia, everybody, so we have already moved forward.

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What are the biggest challenges and the biggest accomplishments, in your view, both for AWF as an organization, and for you personally in recent years?

Let me start with African Wildlife Foundation. I think we have come a long way and can look back and say that we have been able to institutionalize the landscape-level approach to conservation. We have tested the concept and we know it works. It’s about landscapes and cross-jurisdictional collaboration and coordination. Then secondly, I think we made a very clear statement by establishing a home in Kenya, Africa. Having this relatively big international organization headquartered in Africa is probably unique to us only. Others are now opening offices but don’t have headquarters. We have succeeded in ensuring that the African voice within African Wildlife Foundation is growing. The president of AWF is an African. Eminent members of our board and many leaders are Africans. We have more recently contributed in a very significant way to the language of the African Union Agenda 2063, which is now very explicit about the importance of forests, wildlife, and wild lands. We have remained very dynamic and adaptive to reality. Our program has evolved to include nontraditional conservation issues like education, Classroom Africa, enterprise. We have developed and documented best practices that are being used and adapted by other organizations. I think those are successes. And lastly, when it comes to wildlife trafficking, it is something we take close to our heart – because there’s little point in conserving landscapes if they are empty. We have supported a species protection program with our own funding (up to $10 million and growing) with the aim to stop the poaching, the trafficking, and the demand. Sniffer dogs are now on the ground, using a unique method of sniffing out ivory and rhino horn. On a personal level, I can only but say that I am privileged to be a part of what I’ve just described, I feel the passion and remain very hopeful.

Are you an optimist? Do you think we, the humanity as a whole, will succeed in preserving other species, and essentially, life on this planet? Obviously, it’s not only a question of good intentions – it’s a race against time, a question of sufficient political will.

I’m actually excited to say ‘yes’ because I see it happening at a political level, so I’m very optimistic. Just in the last three years, from the time public announcements by the US government were made, we saw them followed up by statements and actions from China, destroying stacks of confiscated ivory; we have seen the UN, the US congress, the EU passing legislation, making resolutions and commitments on the subject, many high-level meetings taking place – to the point that I sometimes think: well, we should probably stop doing meetings and do actions. The critical role belongs to the African leadership itself: the African Union now explicitly has wildlife on its agenda, they have an action plan. Of course, plans need to turn into action, but then, since it is us implementing them, I am very optimistic. There’s a lot to be done, but there’s a global movement now and we need to build on that momentum. That’s why I am optimistic.

There’s a lot to be done, but there’s a global movement now and we need to build on that momentum.

144983677032472Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.

All images on this page are courtesy of Mr. Jimmiel Mandima.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.