Last week, from 6-7 March, I had a chance to attend the Workshop on harmonisation of legal and policy frameworks on wildlife-related crimes, organised by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), held at Imperial Golf View Hotel, Entebbe, Uganda. The Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) is a regional organization that comprises the three Partner States inter alia the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, whose mandate is to enhance the partnership in areas of conservation, inclusive growth, peace and security in the Greater Virunga landscape. It is important to note that GVTC has panoply of important programmes and activities designed to conserve endangered flora and fauna.
It is against that background that Partner States adopted the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration Treaty whose main objectives are: “to promote and coordinate conservation of biodiversity and other socio-cultural values within the Greater Virunga wildlife protected area network; to develop strategies for Transboundary management of biodiversity; to promote and ensure coordinated planning, monitoring and evaluation of implementation of transboundary conservation and development projects; to promote and coordinate tourism development in GVL; to secure sustainable funding for Conservation of GVL; and to enhance and harmonise the generation and sharing of knowledge, experience and best practices for evidence based decision making.”
Although Partner States took an impressive step of adopting and signing the GVTC treaty, which is obviously a sign of commitment, the journey is far from over. The treaty has to be implemented across the Partner States. But, as a matter of international law requirement, ratification must be done in order to give the treaty effect. Of course, without ratification the GVTC treaty will never be enforced and it would obviously beat its prime purpose. As such, it is worth urging the Partner States to show the same commitment exhibited in signing the treaty, by ratifying it. Once ratification is done, each Partner State will have an obligation over its own natural resources, which includes conserving landscape biodiversity, preventing and punishing poaching and illegal trade of wildlife and encroachment on wildlife resources et cetera. The ultimate objective is to conserve the flora and fauna in a sustainable way.
Besides, once the said treaty is ratified, the Partner States will be required to treat each other equally. As well, they will have responsibility to reduce poverty as well as to improve livelihoods of communities around landscape biodiversity. In so doing, community participation will be realised.
Most importantly, in my view, ratification of GVTC treaty will promote tourism development in the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL). To Rwanda, for example, it will boost the tourism sector which is the top income earner. Likewise, tourism contributes significantly to the GDP of the other Partner States. In truth, there’s a host of motivating factors for the Partner States to ratify the GVTC treaty.
Interestingly, on the ground, there’s a wonderful spadework being done by the GVTC. Nevertheless, this calls for full support of all stakeholders, most notably the Partner States and non-state actors (e.g. NGOs, civil society organisations and private sector) to address some of the intractable challenges. Such challenges are poaching or trafficking critically endangered species (e.g. gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, the crowned cranes, and the parrots) and loss or degradation of other protected species.
Turning to harmonisation of policies and laws on wildlife-related crimes, there’s a barrage of shortcomings, such as rampant corruption, lack of coordination between stakeholders, lack of harmonization of laws and policies between partner states, inadequate legislation, ineffective enforcement and compliance, lack of effective control of human wildlife conflicts, negative forces in the Greater Virunga Landscape, and large population which depends largely on natural resources for livelihood and high poverty in the communities.
It goes without saying that the above identified challenges can never be fixed without the full support of all stakeholders which can be reflected, more importantly, in ratifying the relevant treaty, establishing the existing partnerships.
More practically, it will readily necessitate the harmonisation of policies and laws on wildlife crimes. This doesn’t necessarily mean making uniform or model laws but at least to recognize consistently wildlife crimes and other intractable challenges across the region. Furthermore, penalties ought to be reviewed, not necessarily to be the same, but at least to be realistic to the current situation and in the light of best practices. Equally, this calls for strengthening law enforcement agencies to be more effective in combating wildlife crimes.
As noted elsewhere, tourism revenue sharing with communities need to be harmonized within the Partner States. As often as not, some of the challenges faced in the Greater Virunga Landscape flow from poor communities that are not able to make ends meet. So, providing them some of basic needs would act as incentives to the protection of the national parks.
In closing, the GVTC ought to press ahead working closely with the Partner States, through relevant ministries or agencies inter alia Rwanda Development Board, Uganda Wildlife Authority and Institut Congolais Pour la Conservation de la Nature, not only to ratify the treaty, but also to enhance smooth collaboration. Moreover, no single country can tackle existential challenges acting individually, but through collaboration. And that must be the golden rule to achieve GVTC’s objectives.
The writer is an international law expert.