Lessons Learned from USAID/Zambia’s Integrated Approach to Biodiversity Conservation

At the center of Zambia’s Greater Kafue Ecosystem, Kafue National Park is the country’s oldest and largest national park. Close to the eastern border with Malawi, the Luangwa Valley houses the country’s only black rhino population and more than 9,000 elephants.

These biologically significant landscapes are also important for the local communities that depend on the rich biodiversity of Zambia’s wetlands, forests, and wildlife for their economic well-being. 

However, unchecked poaching, deforestation, and habitat loss and degradation threaten these conservation areas, the species that inhabit them, and their capacity to support sustainable livelihoods for the local communities that depend on them. 

USAID supports the Government of Zambia and local communities, conservation non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and other key stakeholders in conserving the biodiversity of the Greater Kafue Ecosystem and Luangwa Valley. USAID/Zambia’s unique approach to biodiversity conservation integrates economic development and improved livelihood activities with natural resource management and conservation goals. The Mission connects communities with alternative income streams, like ecotourism and sustainable agriculture, to build their capacity to protect their natural resources.

“When you support traditional conservation practices, such as law enforcement, that aim to protect and preserve wildlife and forests in these communities, it tends to work out very well,” says Jassiel M’soka, a Natural Resources Management Specialist at USAID/Zambia, who manages USAID activities in the Kafue region. USAID’s holistic approach to biodiversity conservation in Zambia provides a useful framework for work in other places, and builds on past agriculture and private sector work that focused on conservation friendly agriculture efforts in the COMACO program.

When Angela Kabuswe joined USAID/Zambia as an Environment Specialist in 2014, the Economic Development and Environment Office had just received its first round of funding for biodiversity programming.

"Initially, our focus was on conventional conservation, protecting and preserving biologically significant areas. However, this approach has increasingly changed to integrate the economic well being of the communities living around protected areas,” says Angela, who supports USAID's activities in the Luangwa Valley.

The Zambian government had already established protected areas, and communities living near these areas were required by law to participate in conservation efforts while generating economic benefits. However, with their management capacity limited and external natural and human forces threatening the areas, it was difficult for the communities to successfully combat poaching and habitat loss on their own.

To address these challenges, USAID/Zambia transitioned to an integrated conservation approach that focuses on the needs of local communities by utilizing the tools and resources already developed in the agriculture, maternal and child health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene sectors. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Jassiel, Angela, and the rest of the Environment Team looked to successful programs in these other sectors and learned that reducing poverty and improving livelihoods are important to effective conservation efforts.

This integrated approach is part of the Mission’s two Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient, Thriving Societies (HEARTH) activities. The USAID Eastern Kafue Nature Alliance works to improve the health, livelihood opportunities, and prosperity of local communities through integrated market-driven approaches while supporting the protection and sustainable management of the landscape’s wildlife, forests, and fisheries. The USAID Luangwa Livelihood and Conservation project aims to enhance the resilience and health of natural resource-dependent ecological and human communities by maintaining and improving the populations of key wildlife species and ensuring that important habitats are managed effectively. 

USAID’s HEARTH activities contribute to the Mission’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) and Learning Agenda Action Plan. The Learning Agenda, which supports USAID’s intentional, systematic, and resourced approach to adaptive management in Zambia, helps the Mission improve its organizational effectiveness and achieve improved development outcomes. It is part of the larger CLA approaches already in place at the Mission to help each activity refine its approaches and collaborate with other teams to achieve the Mission’s main development objective of reducing rural poverty in Zambia. The Environment Team integrates CLA approaches and applies a collaborative conservation approach to contribute to that objective.

USAID tracks the results of this cross-sector collaboration and includes the co-benefits of the Mission’s activities across sectors in its annual Operational Plan (OP) to guide funding and programming decisions. Capturing these results for the OP is truly a Mission-wide endeavor. Instead of each team drafting its own section of the OP, they set aside time to review the entire document together to add linkages to other sectors.

When it comes to tracking the benefits of their work, the Economic Development and Environment Team employs a rigorous data collection and monitoring, evaluation, and learning process. They hold internal learning events twice a year and technical review meetings each quarter. These events provide an opportunity to review the data and make sure it is being collected and documented accurately.

The benefits of USAID/Zambia’s integrated approach to biodiversity conservation are already visible. Since the black rhino population was reintroduced, the Luangwa Valley has recorded zero poaching thanks to sustained multi-stakeholder law enforcement strategies that place communities at the center of resource protection. Investments in ecotourism; development of alternative businesses, such as honey and chili production and safari hunting; links to new and existing markets; and access to microlending, savings groups, and business hubs that provide development assistance, skills training, and financing, provide alternative resources for communities and incentivize biodiversity conservation.

By considering communities’ needs and working across sectors, other Missions can also develop more comprehensive and sustainable biodiversity conservation programs and promote a culture of collaborative learning. “The Environment Team is not standalone,” asserts Jassiel. From the design stage, “it helped to direct efforts where we really needed to focus,” explains Angela, “because we had all the key voices at the table.” By integrating lessons learned and successful activities from other sectors, USAID/Zambia is a model for how USAID Missions can break down silos to achieve improved development outcomes and impact in biodiversity conservation and beyond.