High environmental degradation is one of the key developmental challenges facing Zambia today. This is because rural livelihoods are largely natural resource based. High poverty levels lead to the majority of citizens over-depending on the environment for livelihoods, making the environment unable to adequately renew itself to ensure sustainability. This has resulted in depletion of renewable natural resources which could have been preserved with effective sustainable environmental management practices.

The Government of Zambia acknowledges soil/land degradation, deforestation, wildlife depletion, water pollution and inadequate sanitation, and air pollution in the Copperbelt towns as the key environmental problems that Zambia needs to address to ensure environmental sustainability.  To tackle these challenges, the Government put in place a number of policies, structures and programmes such as the National Conservation Strategy of 1985, the National Environmental Action Plan (1994), the Environmental and Pollution Control Law, among others. However, the impact of these progressive provisions has been minimal on the ground. 

One of the main shortfalls of the current Environmental and Natural Resources Management strategies is the lack of effective community engagement and participation in the conceptualisation and implementation of the strategies. This results in ineffective top-down responses with limited adoption at community level. Considering that some of the causes of environmental degradation are a result of livelihood human activity, leaving out the community in the conceptualisation, design and implementation of response strategies is a sure way to fail as it compromises the impact. Local communities require empowerment to diversity into alternative sources of sustainable livelihood and poverty reduction strategies, positive sustainable usage of environment and natural resources for livelihoods, and application of conservation principles.

Examples of key environmental challenges that require effective citizen engagement are:

Soil/land degradation: This is a common and localised problem in most districts in Zambia. The main cause of the problem is poor farming practices, population pressure and lack of diversification of sources of livelihoods.  Heavy use of chemical fertiliser to produce maize which is the common crop in  the country has led to serious soil/land degradation, reduced production and land abandonment in some cases.

Fish depletion: This issue is relevant to areas along the lakes and rivers where fishing is the main means of livelihood. The areas are arid and land degradation is high. This has led to crop failure and food insecurity and the need for fish capture and trading as alternative sources of livelihood. Over-reliance on this resource, poor fishing methods and overfishing, inadequate law enforcement, and lack of community involvement in fisheries management have made it difficult for this natural resource to renew itself to sustainable levels.

Deforestation: Deforestation remains one of the main environmental problems in Zambia due to high demand of wood and its products.  Among the major causes are indiscriminate clearing of forests for agricultural production especially by small scale farmers and forest harvesting for livelihood or economic purposes such as timber, fuel wood and charcoal. The demand for fuel for curing tobacco, charcoal production as an alternative means of livelihood, search for new farmlands due to land abandonment in cases of degraded farmland are all human actions that can be addressed effectively through involvement of community members in appreciating the challenges, the causes and exploring options and identifying alternative livelihoods.

While the Zambia environment management strategies have adopted the Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) approach which is driven by the principle of community participation, the actual implementation has been superficial and in some cases non-existent. Community members have remained on the periphery of Environmental and Natural Resource Management Programmes resulting in top-down approaches and strategies with limited uptake of at local community level, and low impact.

At Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf), we are motivated by the need for effective community engagement and involvement in Environment and Natural Resource Management to foster positive change. Effective community engagement on this issue must start from policies and laws which then translate into programmes and strategies with supporting institutions for implementation.

Starting 2016, PSAf will be working on a project that seeks to address the problem of limited and ineffective community involvement and engagement in Environment and Natural Resource Management. This intervention aims at improving environmental sustainability in Zambia by engaging effective community involvement and participation in environmental sustainability programmes.

Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of PSAf. For feedback, email: lilian@panos.org.zm. This article was also published by the Zambia Daily Mail and on the Panos website.

Image credit: Lusaka Times