Conservation expert Martin Kaonga says that formulating effective policies and including local communities in decision-making is essential for conservation

Consider this: forests are not far removed from our urban realities. They are not just beautiful landscapes to which we escape during holidays. Apart from the fact that more than a billion people depend directly or indirectly on them, forests support myriad life forms and work as a perfect regulatory mechanism. Martin Kaonga, who has worked on climate change migration and biodiversity conservation in Africa, last week gave a talk on Tropical Rainforests in Bangalore, as part of Wildlife Week Celebration.

He convincingly expounded on the importance of protecting forests.

Helping climate regulation

“Forests contain a variety of biodiversity, from plants and animals to micro organisms and fungi. They also provide food, medicine and construction material. Forests aid in ecological processes, such as nutrient and water cycling and perform regulatory functions. They help reduce loss of soil and act like a sponge that absorbs water and gradually releases it into river systems, which ensures a perennial rather than seasonal water supply,” says Kaonga, adding that they also help in climate regulation, as they capture carbon dioxide and lock it within the system, which balances the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. “This function keeps temperatures lower than 15 degrees of what we experience.” says Kaonga

Kaonga, who is the director of science and conservation of A Rocha International, contends that “a strong policy is essential for any conservation project to succeed”, and stresses that appropriate funding is another requisite for biodiversity conservation.

Kaonga argues that the decline of India’s natural forest is a cause for concern.

“India’s net forest growth is good, but there are more planted than natural forests. In Karnataka, for example, natural spaces are declining due to urbanisation, which has led to man-animal conflicts. Formulating and implementing the right policy can help curb this phenomenon.”

Evicting tribals to protect forests, Kaonga points out, is an erroneous belief. The Green Belt Movement, for instance, was successful only because its initiator Professor Wangari Maathai involved the local community.

“A major problem is that the Government has not always worked together with local communities. When you look at the conservation models that have been applied in the past, Governments always left out local communities from decision making, thinking that their contribution is meagre. They feel insecure delegating responsibility to the locals. But local communities play a very important role in conservation.”

Kaonga cites case studies from his own experiences in which the Government and the local community worked successfully together.

“In one case, there was a problem with poaching and timbre extraction. It was later found out that the local communities resorted to these practices because it was part of their tradition. But the practices reduced when the Government and the local communities together analysed the importance of conservation. The Government evolved models which included the locals in the decision-making process. So what we need is not an exclusively conventional or exclusively indigenous knowledge, but a combination of both.” A PhD in environmental science, Kaonga, who comes from a mix of disciplines, from foresting to environment development, says that every ecosystem is important for it supports different kinds of species, including agricultural land supports its own set of biodiversity.

“Agriculture has been looked upon as the most destructive land-use system, but depending on the way you practice agriculture, it also tends to bring its own unique biodiversity components, so we are now beginning to look at some of these areas.”

Kaonga has worked with farmer unions, dealt with water harvesting in drought-prone and dry areas and looked at sustainable agriculture, which ultimately led him to probe deeper into biodiversity issues. At present, he is on the Darwin Expert Committee which advises the UK Government on conversation of biodiversity.

Kaonga has achieved a lot in his career, but among his most treasured experience is when he discovered 200 new species during two major studies in the forests of Papua New Guinea.