CLEANING UP THE GREEN-WASHERS
Safari-going tourists are increasingly choosing sustainable ‘green’ lodges over gold taps. Some of the most luxurious safari lodges in Africa are prime practitioners of eco-tourism, but many others are green-washers who reportedly only pay lip service to eco-ethics. Incensed by these green-washers, long time travel and environmental writer David Bristow teamed up with co-founder of Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation Colin Bell. Their aim was to create a Green Safari model – a set of eco-standards for safari lodges. The result was Africa’s Finest, a book that with every turn of the page sets the standards, salutes the very best Green Safari destinations in Africa and has the reader aching to travel further – and greener – on this beautiful continent.
Bristow and Bell had to spend time in many of these idyllic places. It’s right to envy them, but it’s also important to know that it was a completely independent study done at their own expense. It took a year of planning and another two years of research conducted by themselves and a team of conservation experts. Their time was often spent snooping around ‘back of house’ and evaluating lodges on 102 points divided into four categories:
– Successful conservation work.
– The effectiveness of their community outreach programmes.
– Their use of renewable energies.
– Their waste treatment and disposal.
We chatted with Bristow at his home in Cape Town to find out more about his time ‘back of house’, why community is key to conservation and what destinations this extremely well travelled writer regards as his personal favourites.
AG: Tell us about one of the worst lodges.
DB: One large operator in South Luangwa (Zambia) didn’t want us the see their waste disposal system. One of our environmental consultants was staying there and they kept sending him on game drives to keep him from snooping about. So he just asked one of the drivers to show him their rubbish disposal, and was shown the worst open pit refuse dump you can imagine, with wildlife rummaging through it. Not only that, but grey water from the kitchen was being pumped right into the wetland – unfiltered, no grease trap – into this pristine environment. The average tourists would never see that. So we encourage tourists to request to see back of house, the heart of the operation.
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AG: Is it harder for big, luxury safari operators to be green?
DB: On the one hand no, they have bigger resources to call on. But in other cases yes, because of the demands and expectations from guests. Take Singita for example. They have a camp called Pumashana in Zimbabwe. Behind the scenes there are these diesel generators pumping out carbon to keep the place turning over. It’s high end. Their guests want for nothing so you can’t have things not working. But beyond that they are feeding 20,000 school children every day of the year. They’ve also implemented an agricultural system that guarantees their food security. They have workshops training mechanics and irrigation engineers. People are being taught how to manage their water and food supply in a dirt poor part of a desperately poor country. Yes, you have a small lodge pumping out carbon, but without that lodge 20,000 kids, their siblings and parents would be destitute. So we say: Yes, there are betters ways to generate power, but they are doing more on a day to day basis than most safari operators on this continent to help their community.
In Tanzania, Singita has another fabulously luxurious camp, and they’ve increased the size of the migration corridor on the western Serengeti. They’ve bought the land from the community which would otherwise have turned the land over to agriculture and impacted on 20 or 30% of the migration. Outside of that corridor they’ve implemented community programs focusing on health, education and agriculture.
AG: What should a safari operator focus on – community or wildlife?
DB: They go hand in hand. If you look at the Zimbabwean Campfire program it laid out what Ecotourism was, before the phrase became sullied. Ecotourism is a nature based experience, around a strong conservation ethic supporting the local population. These are the legs of the three-legged pot, and if one leg fails the pots falls over.
This is what it’s ultimately about: The land we know as a national park or reserve once belonged to Maasai, or Himba or San and so on. Then colonials moved them off to make game reserves because their land had the best water sources and grazing. Now those people sit on the boundaries looking at the riches inside. It cannot last. The community should be able to see the land as their asset and be made partners in the safari business, or the safari business will lose its tenure and the wildlife will end up in that three legged pot. For example, communities are killing lions because they prey on cattle. There are conservation programs dealing with this but many aren’t effective without direct community involvement. And you won’t sell a safari without lions. Look at Kenya. In 1950 they had 6 million people and 20,000 lions. In 2013 there were 40 million people and fewer than 2,000 lions. By 2020, finding a lion in Kenya could be like trying to find a needle in a haystack – and then Kenya will really be stuffed. Kenya is a poor country, it relies on tourism. The Maasai are putting pressure on the land because people in power are not sharing, and the Maasai are being undone. One of the things that some tourism operators do is channel profits away from sight of communities. They take the money from paying guests and divert it to overseas bank accounts. Not only do they dodge local taxes but they cheat their neighbouring communities out of bed levies owing to them. In East Africa, where the practice is endemic, it’s called “leakage”. These eco-pirates have done more than anyone else to sully the name and reputation of ecotourism.
AG: Kenya is going through such a tough time, but are there places in Kenya that are getting it right?
DB: Don’t get me wrong, Kenya is astounding. It has gob-smacking variety – from Mount Kenya to Lake Turkana, Amboseli to Lamu. And the conservancies work better with communities. Some years ago every Maasai was given tenure to land. The conservancy model is that you pay him for that land. With that money he buys cattle, but he has less land to run those cattle on. Now they are running their cattle on conservancies. So, if you don’t embrace the community as partners, it won’t be sustainable. You need full community partnerships with responsible community members on the controlling boards. As soon as you have transparency it’s much easier to get transparency on the community side. Namibia does it very well because they have been working with communities from the word go.
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AG: The average tourist will go on an African safari once or twice: How do they choose the most eco-friendly trip?
DB: Well the idea behind this book is: if you want to really help Africa, stay here – we’ve done the work for you. No other independent study of the industry is available. But most tourists go through tour operators, so we encourage those operators to use the book as a guide. Staying at these places gives visitors the best chance of making a positive difference, even partnering with an indigenous community to uplift their living conditions through wildlife conservation.
AG: Which lodges are your personal favourites?
DB: My favourite part of the project was finding the little guys. In a wildlife scenario: Shenton Safaris and Remote Africa in Zambia. They are small operators doing the real thing without blowing their trumpets. But I like the sea a lot. In the Zanzibar archipelago off Mafia island is a little island called Chole. A Cape town guy, Jean Devilliers, built a lodge as a means of sustaining the small dhow building community there – dhows are not commissioned much any more so he took it on as a personal project. The lodge is built amongst baobabs and an old German fort covered in massive wild fig tree roots. There’s fresh seafood from local fishermen and fantastic diving in the marine reserve which enjoys the biggest concentration of whale sharks in the Indian ocean. It’s green at every level. It oozes eco-ness.
Then there’s Mike Kennedy in Lamu archipelago, on a little island called Kiwayu – which means “moonlight”. The whole lodge is eco: It’s wind and solar powered. It’s made out of woven palm leaf matting – a barefoot beach lodge with coral reef on one side and mangrove on the other – paradise if you don’t want the gold taps. For the kind of person I am those two places stand way and above anything else I have ever seen.
Parting comment from the Editor: This book is an invaluable resource for travellers and the travel industry alike, as it sets the bar and challenges all African establishments to aim high and all travelers to seek out the special places that put community and biodiversity above short term profit. By Bristow’s own admission they missed a few deserving establishments that should be in this book, and I am equally sure that some that made the cut will fall out of favour at some stage. They also didn’t focus on places specialising in non-motorised activities like walking, horseback, canoe and cycling safaris which are, by definition, the greenest of the green. Hopefully the wave started by the authors will grow to eventually become the normal way for a lodge to operate.
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