Putting local communities at the centre of African conservation: A tribute to Professor Marshall Murphree

As this special thematic issue of Current Conservation was being fnalized in late October, we received news of the passing of Professor Marshall Murphree at the age of 90 in his home country of Zimbabwe.

During the past year, one of the foremost themes in conservation has been the marked surge in support for what are now termed ‘IPLC’ (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities) conservation efforts. In the African context, no individual had a greater infuence on the thinking around community management and governance of natural resources, and the implications for conservation policy and practice, than Marshall Muphree.

Murphree became a key fgure, with ultimately a global infuence on conservation, starting in the 1980s when Zimbabwe was pioneering new ideas and feld-level management experiments in wildlife management. From his academic home at the University of Zimbabwe’s Center for Applied Social Sciences (CASS), which he led starting in 1970, he provided much of the key design thinking behind Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indignenous Resources). CAMPFIRE’s aim, drawing on earlier experiments with devolving ownership of wildlife on private ranches in Zimbabwe, was to create a new paradigm of community-driven conservation, based on community-level ownership of wildlife and the resource’s economic value.

These new ideas and management experiments in Zimbabwe would ripple throughout Africa and indeed the world during the 1990s, largely because Murphree was able to connect academic theory, particularly in the new feld of common property scholarship (then also being pioneered on a wider global scale by future Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom), with practical management realities in African rural communities. His work provided rigour to the emerging ‘new paradigm’ of community-based conservation, as well as fueling a growing community of scholars and practitioners from across southern Africa, many of whom studied at CASS and collaborated with Murphree on a profusion of papers and research projects during that time. By connecting southern Africa with parallel ideas and initiatives taking place elsewhere, through new networks such as the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASC) and the IUCN Sustainable Use Specialist Group, which Murphree helped found, these efforts had a huge role in changing global conservation in ways that are only today seemingly coming to fruition.

Murphree’s work was both highly collaborative and politically charged. At the heart of his work was recognition that community-based conservation was not primarily about wildlife, but concerned with the political dimensions of shifting power to marginalized rural communities.

He said what few other conservationists were able or willing to state: that community-based conservation ultimately was tied to “a potential agrarian revolution” and “ a largely unrecognised struggle over property rights in rural Africa.” To put it more plainly, it could be said that ‘power to the people’ was the underlying theme of all of Murphree’s work and conservation agenda. Murphree fully recognized that the community conservation experiments of the 90s had only just started to make headway in this larger, critical political project. He used the memorable phrase ‘aborted devolution’ to describe the limitations that government figures tended to place on reform efforts, often undermining the key tenets of community conservation.

Are conservation efforts in Africa and around the world now finally starting to overcome those vested interests and put more meaningful rights in the hands of the local communities and Indigenous Peoples who live on the land? Time will tell, but Murphree’s ideas and vision will continue to provide a core foundation for the efforts of activists and scholar-practitioners for years to come.

Further Reading

Murphree, M. W. 1993. Communities as resource management institutions. International Institute for Environment and

Murphree, M. W. 2000. Boundaries and borders: the question of scale in the theory and practice of common property
management. Eighth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property. Vol. 31.

Hulme, D. and M. Murphree. 2001. African wildlife and livelihoods: The promise and performance of community conservation.James Currey Ltd.

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2021 Sep