The rationale behind Open Africa’s thinking regarding conservation has from the start been that this concept is a bit of a misnomer in Africa, for how can one expect people whose children are starving to care about animals and plants? Seen from their perspective this is an affront that makes no sense in practical terms. Our approach is that therefore to be viable conservation must be made to work for them, and that one way of doing that is to materialize its value through tourism. The reasoning is that if nature resources can be turned into assets that earn money, locals will be incentivised to protect them. Thus a tourism route that highlights the biodiversity of an area in a manner that attracts tourists will elevate that biodiversity into the equivalent of a cash crop worth nurturing.
Until now, with 56 routes developed, this plan has proved to be viable but only mildly effective. The daily grind of eking out a living is the focus of most people’s attention and more needs to be done to create awareness of how even the tiniest biodiversity feature can be big when it comes to attracting visitors. So now we have developed and are installing a method of exciting interest in this by having each route choose a flagship species to monitor. The idea is to re-awaken pride in local habitats and bring the indigenous knowledge surrounding them to bear on taking care of their status. It is too early to tell whether this works but initial interest is quite strong.
Implementing the Open Africa initiative led to the development of www.openafrica.org and then the first route, the Southern Overberg Fynbos (featured in these images). Dreamers are visionaries and according to the futurist, Joseph Okpaku, they tend to dispense with the stepping-stones in crossing the river from the known present to the unknown future. Visionaries simply conjure the picture of a Utopian end in mind, and then work backwards in trying to find a way to get there. That is exactly what we did, with the kind of idealistic verve that inevitably leads to some hard encounters with reality later on. But for now we weren’t worried by such trivialities as to where to find money, how to build relationships, what to do about capacity building and so on. Bedazzled by our own vision, we hurtled along regardless. Not regardless of some core principles however, one of which was that we would never impose anything on communities from the outside. Our role is that of a catalyst in an initiative in which the participants make all their own decisions.
Following the Open Africa idea, for that is all it was to begin with, a think tank was formed to come up with a plan. By 1995 the plan solidified into the vision to link the splendours of Africa in a continuous network of tourism routes from the Cape to Cairo. The next thing was to operationalize the how part of doing this. We decided from the start that the way to go was through utilising IT and the web in particular, even though it was only in its infancy at that stage. We imagined, as we ask you to imagine, a network of participants connected to Africa’s magnificent wildlife, plants, and landscapes linked across borders according to their particular features on a website that could be interrogated for information from anywhere in the world. On the one hand this would put these participants into collectives that galvanise them around a vision of common purpose, enabling collaboration and better coordination, whilst on the other it would place their wares in the global marketplace without financial or other barriers to entry. Dr Don Pinnock, a noted academic, author, magazine editor and journalist called it “an African Dream” and through his good offices compiled a map for us to illustrate what was intended.
Publication of the map in Getaway magazine (www.getaway.co.za) served as the catalyst for the formation of the Peace Parks Foundation (www.peaceparks.org) by billionaire industrialist Anton Rupert. The PPF’s aim is to facilitate the creation of a vast network of transfrontier parks, a concept that has since made great strides and one that complements the Open Africa initiative perfectly. Bigger parks not only mean better conservation but also more attractions, creating greater opportunities for the local entrepreneurs Open Africa nurtures. So we were off to a good start.
The formation of Open Africa has its roots in the lead up to the freeing of Nelson Mandela back in the early 1990’s. Worried that the euphoria surrounding the prospect of South Africa’s political emancipation was masking the other great problem, of joblessness not just here but in Africa generally, Noel N de Villiers was going around giving addresses on the seriousness of this and how it could at least be partially overcome. His line was that Africa is too far behind in the traditional sectors of the world economy to compete well enough to avoid massive poverty, but that, paradoxically, the global environmental crisis was providing an opportunity to change all this.
Africa covers one quarter of the Earth’s land surface area. This continent is custodian of most of the world’s animal and plant species and also the birthplace of humankind. In the scenario likely to develop where green concerns focus the attention of people everywhere more and more on nature, the rarity value of these assets could be turned into a huge attraction for tourists. The kind of tourism this attracts has to be special however. Not only to create jobs but to inspire those who are benefiting from it to conserve the resource base, for poverty is ravaging nature in the same way as it is devastating the people who inhabit it.It was thinking along these lines that started what became Open Africa.