Governments are battling with the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 and near economic collapse especially in developing countries. The pandemic has set off the first recession in sub-Saharan Africa in 25 years with the region’s economy expected to contract by 1.6 per cent in 2020.
Despite this ‘pause button’ from normalcy, national governments cannot afford to distance themselves from planning for the future of their citizens.
Every year, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda - read their budgets on the same day. This year the four allocated approximately $600 million accounting (or 3.5 per cent of the total development budget) to economic stimulus packages and social safety net programmes.
The budget themed Stimulating the Economy to Safeguard Livelihoods, Jobs, Businesses and Industrial Recovery speaks to the economic shocks from the Covid-19, locusts and floods in the region.
The allocations to conservation (tourism, wildlife and environment) averaged at 1.4 per cent (Kenya), 1.7 per cent (Uganda), 3.8 per cent (Rwanda) and one per cent (Tanzania) of Total Development Expenditure.
In contrast, the sector’s contribution to GDP averaged at eight per cent (Kenya), five per cent (Uganda), 10 per cent (Rwanda) and 11 per cent (Tanzania).
With a contracting global economy and shocks on the domestic economies, and considering that Covid-19 has been classified as a zoonotic disease, African Wildlife Foundation continues to counsel on how best to curb future pandemics and build resilient economies.
An East African Business Council assessment of the Covid-19 impact, estimated that East Africa Community will potentially lose upwards of $5.4 billion in tourism revenue since the pandemic due to travel restrictions and hotel booking cancellations. Leisure and conference tourism — external and domestic — face possible collapse with hotel occupancy rates declining to 20 per cent from 80 per cent last year and conference tourism all but ceasing.
The World Travel and Tourism Council forecasts the best-case global scenario as follows: A 30 per cent increase in job losses, 30 per cent decrease in GDP contribution ($2.68 billion) and a 41 per cent and 26 per cent decrease in international and domestic travel respectively.
Despite these hard statistics, East African governments have set aside approximately $200 million into special recovery funds for renovation of facilities, restructuring of business operations, promotion and marketing of tourism.
One is left to question what tourism ministries will be marketing if wildlife numbers start declining for lack of funds to protected areas or increasing poverty levels that might force communities near wildlife-rich areas turning to illicit practices that harm the ecosystem.
Wildlife is the chief attraction of East Africa’s tourism sector and has received substantial investment from governments. Around 18 per cent of the region’s land and water resources are designated as protected areas. We cannot abandon this investment now.
Stopping illegal wildlife trade stops the spread of zoonotic diseases that are linked to the health sector. Protecting our forests leads to the safety of water catchment areas, which then leads to provision of better agricultural produce, deters famine and improves livelihoods. Despite this evidence, conservation remains woefully underfunded.
As a result, conservation relies heavily on external funding and has been unable to become self-reliant. If donor funding starts declining, which has been the case so far, what happens to East Africa’s wildlife? Predictions show an expected increase in unsustainable use of natural resources including poaching. Will this lead to another pandemic?
Economic development and conservation of nature are often cast as conflicting societal goals. Conservation is often seen as an impediment to exploitation of natural resources, infrastructure development, cheap energy and expansion of economic activity such as commercial agriculture and industrial investment.
There is an influential and understandably appealing response to global initiatives on climate change and biodiversity loss mitigation that conservation is a luxury that poor countries cannot afford; And that they should be allowed to follow the course that today’s industrialised countries did namely: “develop first and clean up later.”
But as evidence of effects of the Industrial Age on climate and nature becomes more compelling, more people are persuaded that extractive economic growth is reaching its ecological limits. Conscientious leaders, thinkers and ordinary people, the youth in particular, are increasingly asking soul-searching questions about values and meaning. Is consumption the only measure of human development?
Ecological consciousness is an opportunity to reconcile development and conservation goals. But are we obliged to relive history, or draw from our heritage, leapfrog into a new paradigm of progress that values harmony with nature as our ancestors a few generations ago?
Kaddu Kiwe Sebunya is the chief executive, African Wildlife Foundation