The problem with chiefs

Community projects in rural Africa almost always have to receive the blessing of traditional leaders –  the local chief or chieftainess – before anything can really be done.  This blessing often, however, involves hefty back-handers in order to secure such a deal, otherwise the chief vetoes your whole plan.  Chiefs were given more authority under colonial rule, especially in British colonies, than they had enjoyed before and were essentially an extension of the governing systems in towns and cities.

If you don’t have a good relationship with your local chief you might have land disputes, court cases, even death threats.  If you do have a good relationship with your chief, chances are you dread seeing them or hearing from them because they always ask for something, more money, a new car, new TV, battery for tractor, etc.

So why is this such a big deal for conservation?  Well, in Zambia for example, areas outside of designated towns and cities are part of various chiefdoms – including National Parks, Private Game Reserves, National Forest Reserves, Game Management Areas, etc.  You will probably end up paying your chief a monthly stipend, helping to build their house and other odd jobs – taking money away from being put to use in rural health centres, schools, sinking boreholes for clean drinking water, helping agriculture, etc.  You will also know that the land rent that is supposed to go to the community, distributed from the chief’s personal bank account no less, never gets distributed further than the outside of his compound gate except if being transferred to an offshore account.

Instead of spending this valuable money, time and other resources on your conservation effort, you are knowingly giving it to a corrupt person who does nothing for their community because there honestly isn’t anything else you can do.

If you start a community trust and make sure there are over 6 people that have to unanimously decide on what money is spent on, the chief will have to part of it and will either buy everyone’s votes or veto absolutely anything and everything that doesn’t include them getting at least 10% commission for being “the ruler of this area, it is traditional after all for me to be paid for my position as chief”.

If community trusts were set up and the local chief received, on top of their government stipend, 5% of the trust earnings, and the balance was spent on sponsoring gifted children to further their education, to build a maternity ward at a Rural Health Centre, and refurbish the broken roof of a class room, the communities would benefit a lot more than they are currently.  The chiefs, however, will never let this happen and will forever seek to skim benefits from the communities as payment for their chiefly services.

Until chiefs – or equivalent traditional leaders – are stripped of their power and sense of entitlement, conservation is not worth the hassle or money they demand.