Science - April 5, 2012

Nature pays better

In today's world, nature reserves are increasingly expected to be self-funding. So the new nature manager is an entrepreneur. Trained in Wageningen. A safari in Europe? Why not? We can learn a lot from Africa.

The Voi Safari Lodge in Kenya makes nature profitable.
Life's not bad, seen from the veranda of The Chief's House in Kenya. This is what you call a room with a view, with 8000 hectares of African wilderness spread out at your feet. OK, it doesn't come cheap at 800 dollars a night. But Machiel Lamers, assistant professor of environmental policy, has spent a night there. 'For the residents' rate of 250 dollars, mind you', he stresses. 'It's a truly fantastic sight. You are on top of a mountain with a view over a valley. A stylish lodge to yourself, your own staff, a swimming pool. And you can just sit and watch the elephants passing by.'
The Chief's House is one of the lodges at The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, which -its website proudly proclaims - raises top end holidaying in Kenya to a whole new level. On the afternoon before his luxurious overnight stay here, Lamers was the guest of the local Maasai community. The contrast could not have been greater. But that is precisely what these sorts of nature management companies are all about. Lamers: 'Nature for the rich in order to generate incomes for the poorest of the poor.'
Lamers is researching the ins and outs of enterprises such as The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille together with extraordinary professor René van der Duim (Tourism and Sustainable Development) and Jakomijn van Wijk (Maastricht School of Management). They are looking at projects in Kenya in which tourism has been linked up with nature management in a close collaboration between NGOs, the local population and private investors. The investors supply the funding, the local population provide the land and the NGO is the driving force behind nature conservation on the land. The profits are shared. It is potentially a win-win situation.
Nature entrepreneur
The key question for these sorts of ecotourism projects, according to Lamers, is: how do you create value from nature? 'How do you exploit the value you see in wild nature areas without destroying it? How do you make sure people can earn money from nature, and protect it at the same time?' And that is precisely the question facing Dutch nature conservation organizations. With a government that is pulling out, nature increasingly has to earn its own keep. 'The government's policy is: look for a new income generation model', says VHL lecturer in Tropical Forestry and Nature Management Judith Jobse. 'Nature conservationists are becoming more enterprising, and are even becoming entrepreneurs.' Jobse is the initiator of an education and research project which is all about this kind of nature entrepreneurship. The project is working closely with the Rewilding Europe foundation.
After all, why go all the way to Africa for a taste of the wilderness? You can find it in Europe too. Rewilding Europe aims to create ten new wildernesses in Europe by the end of this decade. These are vast areas of a hundred thousand hectares each, most of them in Eastern Europe or on the border between Spain and Portugal. They are tracts of abandoned farmland that is now becoming degraded. With changing agricultural policies, Europe seems to be left with more and more of these kinds of areas. Areas which, according to professor Van der Duim, are crying out for new economic uses. Sustainable tourism is one such use.
The link between the European wilderness-makers and Wageningen UR is Wouter Helmer, director of the ARK foundation and Rewilding Europe and honorary lector (associate professor) at VHL. He inspired Jobse to start up a ground-breaking project to address the new nature entrepreneurs' need for training. Such a training course is now under development in collaboration with Van der Duim and others. 'Here you have a nice example of how the collaboration between VHL and the university can work in practice', says Van der Duim. 'Until recently we only knew each other as names on a list of people you intended to get in touch with at some point. Now we seek each other every week. That's how it goes. Collaboration grows up because you get together on themes that have something in them for both of you.'
The first steps towards the education of a new kind of nature entrepreneur have been taken now. A new BSc minor in Tourism, Conservation and Development was launched by Van der Duim and several colleagues last month. VHL students can take the minor too. VHL and Helicon - the third educational institution involved in the project - are also going to develop new course modules focusing on nature-related entrepreneurship.' Students at all three institutions will do research and internships in projects run by Rewilding Europe or ARK, which runs comparable projects in Eastern Europe. The first student leaves soon for Western Iberia, one of the planned new wildernesses on the border between Spain and Portugal. Van der Duim: 'The student is going to find out who owns the land there and what they want to do with it. A beautiful case for the course.'
Earning money
Nature-related entrepreneurship is still in its infancy. As is the new concept of a European wilderness. The European Serengeti has not yet left the drawing board. And students who actually start up businesses are still a distant dream. 'But it is definitely part of the idea that they draw up business plans', says Van der Duim. Because in the end, that is what it is all about: earning money from nature and for nature. Perhaps by running lodges, the way it is done in Africa. Jobse: 'But you can also consider reintroducing large ruminants, game harvesting, local products and hunting. In many cases, that will be linked with tourism. But there are all sorts of possibilities, depending on the district.'
The new nature entrepreneur is needed closer to home as well. 'Rewilding Europe is a large-scale plan. The philosophy can be applied at numerous places and on different scales', says Van der Duim. 'Even in our country we are badly in need of new models of exploitation. The trick is: how do you make sure some of the money you earn is spent on nature conservation?'
The study of the projects in Kenya shows that the path is not always smooth. For example, the projects there create social inequality because one individual is better able to benefit from the new situation than another. Wherever there is money to be earned, fraud and corruption are not far behind either.
But Lamers also sees many good developments. Much of the money that is earned is spent on education and health. Not only that, but local clinics are being built and tourism generates new jobs outside the livestock sector. But above all: nature benefits from it.

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