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Big interview with Son of the soil

Conservationist and community developer

Meet Tiego Jordan Mpho, a passionate conservationist and community developer.

Born in Maun, 45 years ago Mpho has ditched the bright lights of Gaborone for a quiet but fulfilling life in the tiny and dusty village of Habu on the verge of the Okavango Delta where he is coordinating a community project for a green economy and sustainable ecology.

Running a Project under Wild Entrust Africa, a wildlife conservation organisation formally known as Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, Mpho deals with livestock farmers and promotes community co-existence between livestock and wildlife.

An environmentalist par excellence, Mpho doubles as the interim Chairperson of the Fauna Conservation Trust of Ngamiland, which is responsible for making sure that the long awaited Maun Education Park, comes back to life.

A die-hard member of Botswana Congress Party (BCP), Mpho has tried his luck in Ngami for a parliamentary seat in 2019 general elections and lost the primaries before he decided to swap the freedom square for the bush life.

In this candid interview with FRANCINAH BAAITSE, he talks about it all, from his love for the community, to losing elections and his divorce.

Q: Kindly run us through your community development work in Habu?

Initially Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, focused on predators, your wild dogs, lions, leopards and the like and then the founder immediately realized that you cannot preserve predators if you do not work with livestock farmers who kill animals once they have predated on their livestock.

It then became very obvious that you have to work with local communities and so it expanded from Botswana Predator Conservation Trust to Wild Entrust Africa.

And then there was an additional programme called Coaching Conservation, which is a programme that looks at working with school children, especially at primary school level to change their attitude and give them leadership skills and to teach them about nature at a young age.

So Wild Entrust has these three programmes, Predator Conservation Research in the Delta, Community co-existence in Habu, and Coaching Conservation.

Q: How does Habu community benefit from all these?

We live in a district that is a red zone for beef export as you know due to Foot and Mouth disease.

We assist communities in Habu to produce what we refer to as free range grass-fed organic and wildlife friendly beef.

The idea is to demonstrate what is referred to as commodity based trade (CBT).

Q: And what does that mean?

What it means is that instead of focusing on live animals we focus on the tradable commodity, which is beef, and if you focus on the meat do you have to put up a cordon fence?

A fence is put up to prevent movement of livestock so that your livestock does not mix with buffalos and get infected with Foot and Mouth virus, but if you focus on the beef you don’t need the fence. If you can remove the bone, remove lymph nodes and refrigerate the meat at a certain temperature, scientifically you have destroyed all traces of the disease and the meat becomes perfect for human consumption.

Q: Are you therefore saying cordon fences are not necessary?

The first thing that was done by government of Botswana was to refurbish the Maun Meat Commission (BMC) so that it becomes CBT certified, in other words it can process commodity-based beef.

Immediately you do that there is no need for cordon fences, which gets on the way of migratory wild animals like Zebras, buffaloes and wild beasts.

These animals often die in large numbers because of fences built for disease control.

Q: How?

When they want to cross to where they know they can find water sources and they find fences, they walk around the fence for miles in the heat until they collapse and die.

Thousands and thousands die because of cordon fences, which create what we call species fragmentation.

Q: Would it be your recommendation therefore that Foot and Mouth disease shouldn’t be much of a worry?

It shouldn’t be much of a worry at all because of CBT.

The world Trade organisation has actually incorporated CBT in its trading rules and beef from a red zone can trade internationally as long as it is produced according to certain protocols, which we are demonstrating out of Habu showing that people living side by side with wild animals can have their beef CBT certified.

Q: How is life in Habu?

Habu is an ethnology linguistically diverse community in Ngamiland.

You have five ethnic groups, Herero, Ovanderu, Basarwa, Bayei, Hambukushu and Batawana living together in poverty.

There aren’t many opportunities for income generation and a lot of young people in Habu for example aspire to be Ipelegeng workers.

There are just no opportunities for employment, which is why we are working with the community to improve the beef value chain so that the people are able to earn from their livestock.

Q: Habu must be an interesting place?

It is.

It will be remiss of me if I do not mention that Habu Chief who was just installed two weeks ago as chairman of records, Mokadi Masedi, is a visionary and has played quite a big role in attracting international attention to the plight of his people hence the programmes that are being implemented through donor funding.

Q: When did you develop love for nature and conservation?

I come from Maun and during my university breaks, I worked in tourism camps in the Delta as a handy man and that is when I absolutely fell in love with the Delta.

My father is a hydrologist so in the 60s he too worked in the Delta mapping the whole area so perhaps from his career I developed the love for this amazing ecosystem, and gravitated towards environmental sciences.

Q: You left your well paying job at the United Nations to join politics and lost. Do you still want to go back to politics?

In politics you don’t lose, but learn, so I learnt a lot in 2019, but for me it has always been recognizing the fact that our people are so rich yet so poor.

By rich, I mean they have such an amazing natural capital that they live amongst and within but yet they are poor because there is a governance crisis and that is where the resource curse in Ngamiland comes from.

The reason I am working in Habu and so excited about it is because it is giving me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do as a politician.

Q: Are you still interested in politics then?

I am interested because politics has a lot of power to catalyze change, especially in countries like Botswana in which civil society is not very well developed.

I am interested to use that power correctly, but I am quite happy with the work I am doing in Habu and I hope it will bring about the change that we seek and that such change can be scaled up across the whole of Ngamiland so that these approaches we are demonstrating in Habu can be incorporated by all communities in the district and why not the entire Botswana as well!

Q: So what are the lessons you learnt from politics?

I learnt a lot!

I came to understand what a political party is and what politics is and sadly politics is run by mobs.

Q: What is a mob?

A mob is a soulless idea with people in its possession, so you got a lot of political party followers who have no clue about party issues, they are probably part of the party because somebody says, or somebody gave them a t-shirt or their relative is following it, so the reason for what politics was designed for is not what obtains on the ground because of the mob.

Q: Not an easy game huh?

As a politician you really have to understand your voter, you have to know what makes them tick and what is important to them?

However for the most part what is important to the voter is not necessarily what should be important to them and that is why a candidate can buy a voter with a P200 note or even less, with a t-shirt or even less with a can of beer.

That is why democracy fails, our voters do not understand the issues that democracy hopes they should understand and use as a criteria for voting, so people are not always voted for what they bring or promise.

Q: Moving away from work and politics, are you a family man, married with kids?

I was married.

I am a divorced family man.

I have three children and they are with their mother in Gaborone.

She is a wonderful mother so I am happy about that.

My only regret is not being able to see them enough because I am in Habu.

I do try to make time to see them as I will be going there end of this month so I can be with them; take them to and from school and other activities and be part of their lives.

You know children can blame themselves for their parents divorce and that is a tragic thing so it is important for parents to assure the children that the divorce really had nothing to do with them and that both their parents still love them very much.