In “Zambia: Wildlife Poachers Trade Guns for Gardens,” reporter Bridget Huber travels to Zambia’s ecologically rich Luangwa Valley, where conservationists are trying to save species from extinction by convincing poachers to become farmers instead. The story is online today with our media partner, Al Jazeera America.
The nonprofit Community Markets for Conservation, or COMACO, helps poachers “pursue alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping, market gardening and carpentry, along with farming,” writes Huber. “It also confronts the more insidious threat of habitat loss by helping farmers transition to sustainable agriculture and makes it worth their while by buying their crops at above-market prices.”
COMACO’s approach is a radical departure from the law-enforcement tactics used to stop poachers in the region, which in some cases have escalated to “shoot-to-kill” policies. Dale Lewis, the nonprofit’s founder, and other conservationists argue that when people are hungry, the most extreme punishments won’t deter them.
Villagers turned to poaching because they were unable to feed themselves, Huber explains, noting that wild game became a way to add meat to their diets, but also to trade meat and ivory for cash and other food. COMACO was born in the 1990s when Lewis and his partner, William Banda, saw poaching decrease after they distributed cornmeal to villagers in the Luangwa Valley.
Today, COMACO instructs more than 100,000 villagers in sustainable growing practices. They sell their crops for a premium price (sometimes 10 to 20 percent more than market value) to COMACO’s processing factory, where they are turned into peanut butter, honey, rice, and a hot-cereal mix. The nonprofit’s label, “It’s Wild!” earned $2.6 million in Zambian supermarket sales between 2013-2014.
“COMACO gives loans of seeds, technical assistance and, in some cases, the materials to build poultry houses, wells and efficient stoves,” Huber reports. “A 2013 internal survey of former poachers in 13 chiefdoms found that incomes had improved in all but one. In some places, incomes tripled.”
Animal populations, meanwhile, have “stabilized” in areas where COMACO is heavily involved. But elsewhere in Zambia, poaching, especially of elephants, may be escalating. One law enforcement official told Huber that the country needs more citizen-led efforts like COMACO, because police lack the manpower to control poachers.
The end of violence could actually be COMACO’s largest success. Huber writes, “Many of the former poachers who now work with COMACO said they’ve gained something priceless since handing over their guns: freedom.”