ABELLO: Our circle-shaped prison cell

Oscar Abello

Last week the prestigious Goldman Prize was awarded to Hammerskjoeld “Hammer” Simwinga, a Zambian man who is currently director of the North Luangwa Conservation Project. The prize is sometimes called the Nobel Prize for the environment.

When Mark and Delia Owens established the NLCP in 1986, over 1,000 elephants were being poached annually in the North Luangwa National Park of Zambia. The 2,000 or so families in the area lived mostly on the income generated by the poaching industry.

The NLCP selected 14 specific villages known to depend most heavily on poaching and instituted a system of targeted small business investment to build sustainable enterprises with safe and legal jobs. Such businesses include fish farming, beekeeping, sunflower seed pressing, agricultural projects and food storage facilities.

Consequently, the local black-market poaching industry was starved of workers and could no longer operate. Between September 1994 and May 1997, not one elephant in the area was shot. Leaders from other regions have sought the NLCP’s guidance to institute a variety of policies with similar goals.

The project continued to expand after 1997 under the leadership of Simwinga, exceeding all expectations. Success is crucial, as it is an example of rural development. In the world’s brief history of helping poor countries work their way out of poverty, rural areas have often been neglected, despite the fact that the vast majority of the world’s poor lives in these areas.

Success also stands as one more example of how commerce must be central for long-lasting efforts against violence and poverty. Simwinga’s strategy is predicated upon persuading people that keeping the elephants alive can bring the villagers more money than killing them, according to the BBC. Convinced of this, the locals turn to other sources for income, which do not involve the killing of elephants but do involve earning enough to make a decent living.

Worlds away, in rich nations like ours, shrinking markets for ivory-based products help to drain profit margins for illicit ivory suppliers. If demand were larger, suppliers could charge higher prices and thus pay higher wages to their workers in Africa and elsewhere, making it near-impossible for the NLCP to draw workers into more elephant-friendly jobs.

Notice the two arms of justice working in this example – on one hand, there is falling demand for ivory products, and on the other hand, business investment draws poaching workers into other enterprises.

Let’s not forget the losers in this example – not only the poachers but also the manufacturers of elephant-hunting guns and bullets, the traffickers who bring the ivory to markets and the government officials who are bribed to turn a blind eye to illicit activity. These people have much to lose and will do anything to keep the poaching industry alive.

Think about the poor villagers who had no opportunity to make a living except working for the local poaching industry. Think about rich consumers, whose demand for ivory continues to sustain the poaching industry in other regions. Think about the suppliers, who will do anything to keep themselves in business. Poverty is a prison cell shaped like a vicious circle, and as long as one person is trapped inside, we all are.

Breaking out of our prison takes courage from consumers to look behind what they buy and know where it comes from. It takes courage from workers to venture out and start their own businesses. It also takes courage from global financiers to invest in small- and medium-sized businesses of the developing world, to provide jobs and opportunity beyond violent places like the poaching industry.

Peaceful commerce will help engender peaceful, honest and open government. As it stands, too many businesses profit from violence instead of peace, but with courage, we can reverse the balance of power. Money, profit and commerce are capable of great tragedy and great triumph. If you’re wondering who gets to decide what road the world takes, I’ve said it before: It’s your choice.

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Oscar Abello is a junior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]