Dale Lewis has introduced market-based conservation that recognizes the interconnectedness between a broad range of wildlife species and livelihoods, with humans playing a central role as protectors of the ecological system. As a result, poaching around the valley has been reduced by about 50 percent. Dale is currently working in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, home to nearly 20 percent of the human population and significant wildlife.
The New Idea
Dale believes food shortages are the driving force behind poaching and therefore the top hindrance to successful conservation programs. Changing this situation demands more than stronger punishment for destroying the environment, it requires new social, economic, and environmental architecture, with a redefining of roles for communities living in and around wildlife conservation areas. Dale has introduced sustainable farming practices that promote the co-existence of humans and wildlife, while increasing food stocks all year round for families that face food shortages. Connected to this is the first community-based decentralized food processing infrastructure in Zambia which guarantees new incomes for households.
Dale has successfully created new roles for former poachers, by using his farming and economic program to mobilize them as the drivers of this new social and economic architecture. They have become ambassadors of the market-based conservation idea to others in the valley, teaching them about responsible farming and becoming enforcers of new rules that require farmers benefiting from Dale’s program to meet environmental protection standards to protect the environment. For example, a group of top performing farmers—many being former poachers—are tasked with monitoring the compliance of farmers to use responsible farming practices that protect water catchment areas and wildlife.Compliance with the new environmental standards is rewarded with premium prices for their farm produce.
Sustaining the interest of the communities requires the creation of a sustainable economic model that is competitive and profitable at the local and international level. Dale has successfully created such a system with “It’s Wild”—the top selling brand among rice, soy meal, and honey sectors in the Zambian market. His brands have attracted interest from ShopRite and Spar, leading supermarket chains across southern Africa, compelled the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to adopt market-based conservation, and attracted global commercial brands such as Walmart and the Government of Zambia to work with him to spread his work across Zambia and southern Africa.
Historically, conservation practices have advocated for a clear distinction between human and wildlife settlements. These traditional conservation practices are grounded in drawing artificial boundaries between animal and human populations and are animal rather than people-centered. These policies, which set the benchmark for other actors in the field, plan for wildlife and then seek to find ways to fit in the existing human population. So far, this approach has been unsuccessful.
Chronic poverty often forces farmers to choose growing cash crops at the expense of food crops. The result in the Luangwa Valley, like most farming areas in Zambia, has been acute food insecurity. Further, farmers actually receive less than a fair price for their produce with the majority of the financial benefit taken by middlemen and dealers in the cities—deepening their poverty. Because traditional conservation programs neglect human populations in these ecologically sensitive areas, communities exploit the environment to make up for food shortages and to raise additional income to cover basic needs. They resort to poaching and logging, over fishing. For instance, many Zambians began to hunt and kill rhinos (especially black rhinos) and elephants for their ivory horns and tusks, which were sold on the domestic and international markets. In the 1970s, Zambia had an elephant population of about 35,000, yet by the early 1990s only about 6,000 elephants remained. The story is very similar in the east, central, and southern areas of Africa; where the black rhino was dominant, fewer than 4,000 remain from a population of 65,000 in 1970. Faced with the extinction of the black rhino and the decimation of the elephant, the Zambian government initiated several wildlife conservation policies, including reduced human access to land in wildlife zones, aimed to reduce poaching.
Dale believes the failure of traditional conservation approaches is largely due to a limited view of wildlife protection areas, perceived as areas that need to be protected from humans rather than recognizing humans, animals, and the environment as part of the same interdependent ecosystem. Instead, human populations need to be recognized as stakeholders and therefore protectors of the ecosystem. Accomplishing this requires creating new structures, tearing down artificial boundaries created by traditional conservationists, redefining roles, changing behavior, and incentivizing and empowering communities to drive these new structures.
In 2003 Dale founded Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), a membership organization of farming households to implement three key initiatives: First to lift households from food insecurity to self-sufficiency. Second, to improve household incomes from agriculture through community-based value addition and access to markets and finally, a compliance program that ensures continued adherence to new sets of behavior that protect the environment. Dale begins by organizing farmers into producer groups around a community trading center (CTC) where farmers buy and sell their farm produce. Each farmer group has an average of 2,000 farmers. COMACO works with farmers at six CTCs across the Luangwa Valley. To join a group each farmer must commit to three tenets: (i) take up training on sustainable land tillage that protects rather than drains the environment (ii) commit to produce their own food, and (iii) hand over the snares and guns they used for poaching and be custodians of the environment, including wildlife. Each group elects a leader who represents the group in COMACO meetings. Once organized, each group is taken through training and receives guidance on new farming techniques until they grow enough food to sustain them through a year. Only when they begin to harvest surplus produce does COMACO begin to purchase from a farmer. The importance of waiting for a household to become food secure, is that in the past, farmers opted to sell all their food for money. In other instances, farmers abandoned growing food crops in favor of cash crops that commanded a higher price on the international market. This created food shortages across the Luangwa Valley and yet there was no guaranteed market for their cash crops, leading to widespread poverty and pushing families into poaching and other practices damaging to the environment. COMACO thus emphasizes growing food crops first for food security then guarantees markets for surplus farm produce. Dale has created one of the top selling local food brands known as It’s Wild in Zambia and it will soon be Zambia’s first locally manufactured breakfast cereal. It’s Wild is symbolic of poor, hungry and environmentally irresponsible farming communities that have reformed and are now feeding the nation of Zambia.
Dale creatively engages community leaders in the structure of COMACO. He has recruited and trained the community chiefs all across the Luangwa Valley as Area Extension Managers who serve as the link between the farmer groups and COMACO. Once local leaders are integrated into the structure, trust is created between the farmers and COMACO. Each community has a number of farmer groups and the chiefs play a very important role recruiting new farmers into existing groups or forming new farmer groups within their area. The chiefs also monitor the democratic process of electing Lead Farmers for each group.
Lead farmers are selected for their outstanding commitment to the three tenets of COMACO. Once selected, Lead Farmers mentor farmers in their respective groups. Dale is looking into providing information on health, sanitation, and other important social services to his network of farmer groups. He created the Better Life Book, a compilation of important information on farming, wildlife, health, and other lessons that are delivered by Lead Farmers. Each day a Lead Farmer visits at least one farmer in their group. Lead Farmers also implement the compliance program that monitors farmers’ observance of the three key tenets of COMACO. Once a farmer is found to be compliant they qualify for a premium pricing of 4 percent markup above market prices for their produce. Behavior that is contrarian to the three tenets attracts a penalty, for example, six farmers in one group were involved in snaring and the community still had in its possession 100 snares. COMACO stopped buying produce from that community on condition that all the snares and guns were turned in. After several months, the community turned in the snares and guns and COMACO resumed working with them.
To date, COMACO has reached 53,000 farming families representing over 1 million people in the Luangwa Valley. The government has noticed his impact and is engaging Dale to explore ways of replicating his market-based conservation model across Zambia. Both local and international retail businesses such as ShopRite, Game, General Mills, and Walmart have been inspired by Dale’s work and have pledged their support—providing him with pro bono expertise in research and manufacturing, machinery and equipment, and distributing his It’s Wild products nationally and internationally. COMACO products also include Zambia’s number one selling rice brand, honey, and health food mixes. They are on the verge of launching Zambia’s first locally manufactured breakfast cereal. The inspiring story of former poachers now turned farmers feeding the country has resonated not only with Zambian consumers but also with businesses and government. It is already evident how the success of COMACO has begun to influence behavior change in all these spheres. Looking ahead, Dale will double his impact by recruiting another 40,000 families from South Central Zambia over the next four to five years. He also hopes to launch a community radio station called “COMACO Farm Talk” to provide extension services to farmers more efficiently and to further spread his model. The President of Zambia has pledged his support to Dale and has urged him to take his program to scale on a national level: A plan Dale is eager to see through.
Dale was brought up in conservative and secure family. He enjoyed a close relationship with his parents and grandfather, who in different ways, all influenced Dale and made him the man he is today. Dale’s grandfather and father took him on hunting and fishing trips quite often, and as a result, he developed early on a fascination for nature and its history. He collected snakes and kept a collection of aquariums, birds, insects, and plants all around his parent’s home. Another childhood passion was golf, and he spent a lot of time on a nearby golf course with close friends and earned money on the weekends working as a caddie. A people person, Dale was also involved in school councils and different societies throughout his early schooling.
Although his parents wanted him to go to medical school, Dale knew he wanted to become a zoologist and went on to study evolutionary biology at university. While there, he left the campus dormitory and the fast life that came with it, to instead live a quiet life with a farming family a few kilometers outside of town, bicycling to and from school for a couple of years. Dale also took a part-time job at the college museum, where he spent a lot of time with the curator, who later asked him to take a trip to Africa to do his research on the dispersal behavior of the indigo-bird. Dale jumped at the opportunity and took two years off school to go to Africa to study in the Lochinvar National Park in Zambia. He describes this experience as profound and life-changing. During this time, Dale was introduced to the Luangwa Valley. He was entrusted to do more research in Costa Rica and following that he applied for a grant from the National Geographic Society to do a film on the Mosquito Indians in Nicaragua—to study how ethnic groups interact with and use their natural resources. Dale recounts this experience as another transformational one as it exposed him to the plight of local communities exploited by opportunistic commercial entities and made to destroy the natural resources that have sustained them for generations. For his doctorate thesis, he went back to the Luangwa Valley to study the relationship between human populations and elephants which were being poached at their highest rate in Zambia’s history. While doing this, he realized he wanted to do something about what he was finding and that he wanted to spend his life in conservation.
Dale spent the many years that followed carrying out studies and experimenting with different programs under the WCS based in Zambia. It became clear to him that the conventional way of thinking about conservation didn’t work in the case of Luangwa. Dale tried many mainstream approaches but they simply didn’t yield good results. Poaching was still on the rise and the snare business was booming. He realized that the problem was complex and required a complex approach that is more than simply creating artificial boundaries between humans and animals. In questioning the industry assumptions that prevailed at the time, Dale realized that wildlife could not be divorced from the ecosystem around it. He saw that the people who shared their habitat with wildlife only encroached on it due to the pressures of poverty and chronic hunger. The connection between conservation, poverty, and hunger started to become apparent to Dale.
In 2003 he decided to test his insights and created the “food for work” experimental program with support from USAID who donated 600,000 bags of grain to see whether indeed food security could reduce poaching. The results where staggering, as Dale found that over 60 percent of previously poaching households given food through the program did not engage in poaching activities for the entire period of the program. Despite his breakthrough findings however, ideological differences between Dale and the WCS—which still believed the best way to protect animals was at the exclusion of humans—led to the end of their working relationship. Dale went on to found COMACO to implement his approach in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. Dale’s working relationship with WCS later went on to be reinstated when his success became widely recognized and his approach accepted as the new paradigm in conservation.