Community Eco-guardians: Respected Occupations for at Risk Youth
About the Implementing organization
Name: The Mali Elephant Project
Year of establishment: 2003
Type of organization: Community-based association or organization, Legally recognized non-profit status, Women’s association or organization, Indigenous group or organization
Young community members are recruited by local CBNRM committees and trained by the MEP field team to form teams of “eco-guardians” (now numbering 674 across the elephant range) to lead, monitor and promote CBNRM activities such as the creation of firebreaks to protect pasture from bush fires. The eco-guardians also lead and participate in other CBNRM initiatives by assisting women’s NTFP associations with manual labour (e.g. enclosure construction); patrolling sustainable use zones and forests reserved for elephant use to protect them from abusive resource use (e.g. tree cutting for charcoal production); and monitoring grazing by large “prestige herds” of livestock owned by wealthy outsiders. The community eco-guardians form the basis of the anti-poaching strategy as they monitor and report the movements of the elephants and any poaching-related activity, enabling a targeted response to incidents by the anti-poaching unit and security forces.
All of these activities are highly valued within the community and create a safer and respected alternative to joining armed groups. This, together with their cooperation with the security forces and anti-poaching unit, provides young people with a valued role in society and ultimately increases social cohesion within and between communities.
This innovative approach of empowering young people to lead CBNRM and conservation initiatives will be a powerful tool for restoring peace and security to the Gourma.
Forests / Wetlands / Grasslands / Drylands / Wildlife
Type of Action
Protection / Restoration / Sustainable use / Access and benefit sharing / Advocacy for land & water rights
Sustainable Development Element
Jobs and livelihoods / Food security / Water security / Peace and security
The eco-guardians monitor and report elephant movements and any poaching-related activity to the anti-poaching unit on a daily basis, enabling a swift and targeted response. Without this continued commitment it is very likely that this vulnerable elephant population would be destined for extirpation.
The eco-guardians also protect natural resources and habitats shared by people and elephants. For example, in 2015, >1,000 km of fire-breaks were created to protect pasture from wild fires while in October and November 2016, 503 km of fire-breaks were created, which included the protection of a 63 km2 pasture reserve cooperatively managed by seven neighbouring communities. This is a very important and highly valued activity which increases the availability of grazing pasture for the mutual benefit of people and elephants, creating space for both. They also prevent degradation of key forests and water points, and deter unsuitable cultivation or settlement along the migration route.
Sustainable Development Impacts
Eco-guardians participate in CBNRM activities in return for recognition payments (~$15-30 per eco-guardian per month) which vary according to the tasks undertaken and their level of engagement. This provides young people with occupations which are respected within their communities and safer than joining armed groups or engaging in criminal activities. This has proved to be an effective tool against their radicalization and recruitment by armed groups and will play an important role in the reconciliation and reintegration process which is currently underway as part of the UN peacekeeping mission.
The eco-guardians protect key pasture, forests and water sources from over-use which increases their availability and reduces human-human and human-elephant conflict at the same time as increasing livestock condition and revenue generation. This directly contributes to improved food, water and physical security at the same time as promoting peace through collective action.
At the peak of the armed conflict in 2012-13, the project extended the network of eco-guardians in order to provide a safer alternative to joining armed groups – none of the eco-guardians recruited during this time joined armed groups despite being offered $30-$50 per day. There are now 673 registered eco-guardians participating in CBNRM and elephant protection activities from across the elephant range (>40,000 km2) in central Mali. This demonstrates the value of providing at-risk youths with respected occupations and similar initiatives should be encouraged at a national scale.
The recruitment of young community members for monitoring threatened wildlife has been replicated in many parts of the world, with related projects that monitor and protect lions in Kenya and Tanzania providing well-known examples. However, most approaches for combatting elephant poaching are militaristic and often fail to engage local communities, even turning them against conservation in general. In contrast, the strategy employed by this project relies on forging close links with the local communities and the eco-guardians form the basis of the anti-poaching strategy by monitoring and reporting elephant movements and any poaching-related activity on a daily basis. This project's approach has been advocated for future intelligence-based anti-poaching methods (https://www.iied.org/community-based-wildlife-management-tool-tackle-illegal-wildlife-trade) and could be replicated in other conflict zones where poaching levels are high and youths are at risk of recruitment by armed groups.
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