Interview with Dr Mohamed Bakarr : Conservation in Africa

Dr Mohamed Bakarr  (© Njoroge Wa Chege)
Dr Mohamed Bakarr (© Njoroge Wa Chege)

“My advice to budding African scientists is to develop their career with a mind-set on influencing transformational change.” M. Bakarr

In our previous post we left you with news and updates on the Student Conference organized by the TBA African Alumni Group (TAAG).  We are glad to be back with an inspiring interview with Dr Mohamed Bakarr, Senior Environmental Specialist at the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He was one of the Keynote speakers at the conference and presented a talk on “Global change and the future of biodiversity conservation in Africa”. Originally from Sierra Leone, Dr Bakarr worked for the World Agroforestry Center and Conservation International before joining the Natural Resources Division at GEF in 2009.

F.M:  Do you agree that it is some form of sustainable approach to ensure that local people are interested and able to contribute to conservation? 

M.B: I have always believed that conservation must embody democratic principles in order to succeed; by this I mean conservation has to be by the people and for the people. The fact that the livelihood of local people is intertwined with nature implies that conservation in any form has to account for the goods and services on which they depend.

Protected areas are the most effective tool for biodiversity conservation, but tend to be maligned in Africa as an excuse to alienate local people, leading to their impoverishment. On the contrary, protected areas do in fact create options and opportunities for local transformation as long as their establishment takes into account livelihood needs of the people.

F.M: With regards to local involvement  have you noticed changes in opportunities available to young scientists in Africa? Would you say these opportunities are enough?

© Njoroge Wa Chege
© Njoroge Wa Chege

M.B: Conservation science is still very much an evolving discipline, and most especially so in Africa. The social, economic, cultural, and political landscape in Africa is so diverse that it presents very complex challenges for conservation across the continent. Although major scientific advances have contributed greatly toward understanding the status and distribution of biodiversity, progress with species and habitat conservation remains hampered by issues of governance and accountability of institutions.

These challenges require African solutions that are Africa-driven, and can only be realized by engaging young professionals and homegrown talent from a range of disciplines. Together, they can redefine the conservation profession and make it more attractive to others as a means of creating a critical mass.

The good news is that there are now many institutions of higher education in Africa that offer training with multidisciplinary skills to support conservation, including my alma mater Njala University in Sierra Leone.

F.M: Would you agree with me if I say that the opportunities are heterogeneously distributed across Africa? What are the missing gaps and barriers according to you to improve the situation?

M.B: Indeed opportunities are not uniform across the continent, but that should not in any way be a barrier for aspiring African professionals. Because biodiversity and threats are not uniformly distributed, conservation opportunities have to be driven by actions and solutions that are targeted to particular contexts. So it should not be a problem that eastern and southern Africa has a lot more conservation professionals than western and central Africa.

The main barrier I see is the inadequate networking and south-south exchange among professionals working in those regions. In this regard, the TAAG conference is quite timely for creating a space to facilitate such networking. I therefore have no doubt that the conference will quickly be highly sought after by African professionals.

F.M: During your talk at the TAAG conference, you focused about drivers of global change.  I do believe it is a dynamic area. How well has the conservation community been able to adapt to these changes according to you? 

M.B: The drivers-based approach is nothing new to the conservation community. The major problem is that it requires a multi-disciplinary approach to dealing with inherent complexities – from working with people to dealing with institutions and policies. The conservation community must find ways to embrace this approach if we are to safeguard the Planet’s natural assets on which we all depend for survival. And that means mobilizing new expertise that embodies relevant skills in the natural, social, and political sciences.

F.M: And for emerging scientists reading the blog, what are these areas/fields of study that still remain neglected but yet are crucial according to you? Or is there also a need for changes in approaches?

Sites of imminent species extinction in Africa (From Ricketts et al., 2005): One of the challenge for committed conservationists.
Sites of imminent species extinction in Africa (From Ricketts et al., 2005): One of the challenge for committed conservationists.

M.B: I personally believe that conservation must involve all aspects of society in the long run, but the passion and commitment should be driven by those with specific career interests in environment and nature. Africa needs conservation professionals that are passionate and committed to nature, but must be willing to acquire skills in other relevant disciplines. This will help them to engage constructively with other professionals in seeking practical solutions to environmental problems that are appropriate to the context and needs of the African people.

F.M: Strong scientific basis is no doubt important for conservation but it is generally agreed on that there is a gap between science and policy-making? What advice would you give to budding scientists wishing to reverse that trend?

M.B: It is true that policy-making should be informed by the best available science in order to support transformational change. Science that informs policy-making can either be “demand-driven” or “supply-driven.” Gaps are inevitable when the science is purely academic and disconnected from reality, or when policy-making ignores facts and is driven by self-interests.

The bottom-line is that African scientists must endeavor to generate knowledge that is useful and appropriate for advancing conservation. So my advice to budding African scientists is to develop their career with a mind-set on influencing transformational change. There is much science to be done to inform policies on all aspects of conservation from habitat protection, to species management, ecosystem restoration and sustainable use. The sky is the limit!

F.M: To conclude: would you share your own inspiration that led you to be in this field?

M.B: My inspiration is not atypical for most conservation and environment professionals. I developed a passion for nature very early in my childhood and went on to nurture that passion throughout my education. Perhaps my greatest advantage was having mentors that I could look up to, and who contributed greatly toward enriching my knowledge and experience. I also get inspired every day by stories of achievements and breakthroughs in conservation, especially those driven by ordinary or every day people. They give me hope that in the midst of all the bad news about loss of biodiversity and climate change, future generations will have something positive to build from, in making this Planet safe for all mankind.


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