|Table of contents
NATURE IN LOCAL HANDS: The Case for Namibia’s Conservancies
WHEN NAMIBIA GAINED INDEPENDENCE IN 1990, TEENAGER PASCOLENA FLORRY WAS herding goats in the country’s dry, desolate northern savannah. Her job, unpaid and dangerous, was to protect her parents’ livestock from preying jackals and leopards. She saw wildlife as the enemy, and many of the other indigenous inhabitants of Namibia’s rural communal lands shared her view. Wildlife poaching was commonplace. Fifteen years later, 31-year-old Pascolena’s life and outlook are very different. She has built a previously undreamed-of career in tourism and is the first black Namibian to be appointed manager of a guest lodge. Her village, and hundreds of others, have directly benefited from government efforts to devolve
wildlife management and tourism development on communal lands to conservancies run by indigenous peoples. “Now we see the wildlife as our way of creating jobs and opportunities as the tourism industry grows,” she says. “The future is better with wildlife around, not only for jobs, but also for the environment” (Florry 2004).
Namibia’s establishment of conservancies is among the most successful efforts by developing nations to decentralize natural resource management and simultaneously combat poverty. In fact, it is one of the largest-scale demonstrations of so-called “community-based natural resource management” (CBNRM) and the state-sanctioned empowerment of local communities. Most conservancies are run by elected committees of local people, to whom the government devolves user rights over wildlife within the conservancy boundaries. Technical assistance in managing the conservancy is provided by government officials and local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In late 2004, 31 conservancies were operating on 7.8 million hectares of desert, savannah, and woodlands occupied by 98,000 people. Fifty more were in development (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:iv).
Still in their infancy, Namibia’s conservancies have their critics and remain to date imperfect vehicles of local democracy and poverty alleviation. Their active membership can be limited, for example, and wildlife user rights are vested in committees, not directly in village households. Yet they have already delivered clear benefits for both wildlife and people. Zebra, oryx, kudu, and springbok populations are rebounding in many locations, and cash, jobs, and game meat are flowing to communities. Less tangible but equally important gains include the strengthening of local institutions and governance, women’s empowerment, and greater community cohesion.
A New Idea for Wildlife Management
Namibia is a strikingly beautiful country of desert dunes, woodland savannah, open plains, and river valleys. Its small but growing population of 1.8 million people is highly dependent on natural resources for food and livelihoods. Large areas, primarily in the wildlife-rich plains of the north, are communally managed by more than a dozen different ethnic tribes.
In the apartheid era, when Namibia was governed by South Africa, game animals were declared protected, stateowned assets—a policy that discouraged those who inhabited communal areas from joining in conservation efforts (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:29). By the early 1980s ecosystems were rapidly deteriorating in the north, with rampant poaching of elephant ivory and rhino horn and severe over-use of drought-prone land. Populations of Namibia’s world-renowned wildlife, including the desert elephant, endangered black rhino, zebra, lion, impala, and oryx, plummeted.
In the mid-1980s an innovative anti-poaching program developed by Namibian conservationist Garth Owen-Smith provided an early template for community-based conservation. He won the trust of traditional leaders in the Kunene region, who agreed to appoint local people as community game guards and work with local NGOs to promote an increased sense of stewardship over wildlife (Long 2001:6). Meanwhile, Namibia’s Nature Conservation Department (now the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, or MET) had devolved wildlife user rights to white-owned freehold farms. Private farm owners were allowed to sustainably utilize animals for game meat, trophy hunting, and tourism (Weaver 2004).
Following independence, these two models formed the basis of government action to extend the same kinds of use rights that farm owners had enjoyed to those who lived on communal lands. The Nature Conservation Act of 1996 enabled the establishment of conservancies—legally gazetted areas within the state’s communal lands—through Namibia’s Community Based Natural Resource Management Programme. Within the communal areas the state devolved limited wildlife rights to conservancy committees. These included rights to the hunting, capture, culling, and sale of “huntable game” (oryx, springbok, kudu, warthog, buffalo, and bushpig) and the right to apply to MET for permits to use quotas of protected game for trophy hunting (Long 2004:33).
To qualify, communities applying had to define the conservancy’s boundary, elect a representative conservancy committee, negotiate a legal constitution, prove the committee’s ability to manage funds, and produce an acceptable plan for equitable distribution of wildlife-related benefits (Long 2004:33).
Once approved, registered conservancies acquire the rights to a sustainable wildlife quota set by the ministry. The animals can either be sold to trophy hunting companies or hunted and consumed by the community. As legal entities, conservancies can also enter into contracts with private-sector tourism operators.
The first four conservancies were legally recognized in 1998. By October 2004, there were 31, with 31,000 registered members spread across six geographic regions. Conservancy committees had also set up 18 joint-venture agreements with private safari hunting and tour operators (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:iv)
This rapid expansion can be traced to a combination of factors. Government leadership and community enthusiasm were the prime ingredients. But an equally crucial factor was a strong commitment from support organizations. Collectively known as NACSO—the National Association of CBNRM Support Organisations—these included the University of Namibia and 12 national NGOs. The biggest support NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), works with 40 conservancies in the wildlife-rich northern regions of Kunene and Caprivi, and is codirected by Garth Owen-Smith and Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn.
“Local people decide themselves if they want to form a conservancy. No pressure is put on anyone,” says Dr. Jacobsohn. “Our experience is that a small group of people hear about the opportunities conservancies offer—on the radio, from MET, from neighboring conservancies and so on—and become a ‘task force,’ driving their community towards conservancy formation” (Jacobsohn 2004).
Some communities go it alone, while others seek help from ministry officials or a NACSO organization to hold public meetings, write a constitution, elect management committees, and consult households living within proposed conservancy borders. Not all resident adults need to sign up for a conservancy to be approved, but many community meetings are held in an effort to draw in all stakeholders. “At some point,” says Dr Jacobsohn, “MET officials or the support NGO, if there is one, try to verify on the ground that there is majority support for the conservancy” (Jacobsohn 2004). The entire process takes two to three years (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:30).
While the success of Namibia’s conservancies is dependent on local peoples’ enthusiasm and commitment, the movement has also been significantly bankrolled by international donors. By late 2004, the development agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands, as well as the World Bank and the European Union, had spent N$464 million on the effort to build a national community-based natural resource management program (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:17).
By 2004 this investment had begun to show strong economic results. Five of the longest-running conservancies— Torra, Uibasen, Nyae Nyae, Marienfluss, and Salambala—were financially self-sufficient, and four more are on track to become so in 2005 (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:v).
Conservancy Winners: Wildlife, Communities, Women
Perhaps the most striking benefits of Namibia’s experiment in people-led natural resource management are to wildlife. Populations of elephant, zebra, oryx, and springbok have risen several fold in many conservancies as poaching and illegal hunting has fallen. Northwest Namibia now boasts the world’s largest free-roaming population of black rhino, while game in the large Nyae Nyae Conservancy have increased six-fold since 1995. In Caprivi’s eastern floodplains, seasonal migrations of game between Botswana and Namibia have resumed for the first time since the early 1970s (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:v)
Income and jobs from tourism, lucrative sport hunting of trophy animals, and community hunting quotas have combined to make wildlife more attractive to communities as a managed resource than as a poaching prospect. To attract wildlife, and reduce conflict with humans, improved management techniques have also included new water holes for elephants, protection of domestic and livestock water sources from elephants, and land-use zoning to separate designated wildlife habitat from village and cropping areas (Long 2001:9) In some areas, including the Nyae Nyae, Uukwaluudhi, and Salambala Conservancies, game animals have also been successfully reintroduced (Barnes 2004:4).
According to Chris Weaver, director of the Windhoek-based WWF-LIFE conservancy program, which funds several NACSO groups, these gains indicate “a massive shift in the attitudes of communal area residents towards wildlife. The strong embracement of the conservancy movement demonstrates a willingness and desire to incorporate wildlife into rural livelihoods, as they are now viewed as an asset to livelihoods” (Weaver 2004).
Namibia’s conservancies have significantly altered the country’s land-use landscape—to the benefit of biodiversity. Eighteen registered conservancies sit alongside or between national parks or protected game reserves. This facilitates the safe, seasonal movement of wildlife between parks and communal lands and adds an extra 55,192 km2 of compatible land use to Namibia’s protected area network of 114,080 km2. Conservancies have also successfully adapted their traditional land-use pattern of subsistence activities—such as livestock grazing and dryland farming—to incorporate new tourism opportunities. Many, for example, have set aside large, dedicated wildlife areas for tourism and for sport or community hunting (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:iv)
Reducing Poverty, Empowering People
Benefits for human populations are also clear-cut, although they vary among conservancies. Over 95,000 Namibians have received benefits of some kind since 1998, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a funder and supporter of the conservancy effort (USAID 2005:1). These benefits include jobs, training, game meat, cash dividends, and social benefits such as school improvements or water supply maintenance funded by conservancy revenue (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:43).
In 2004 total income from the CBNRM program nationwide reached N$14.1 million, up from N$1.1 million in 1998. Of this, N$7.25 million was distributed across communities in the form of cash dividends and social programs, with the rest earned by individual households through wages from conservancyrelated jobs and enterprises. Tourist lodges, camps, guide services, and related businesses such as handicraft production employed 547 locals full-time and 3,250 part-time. In all, 18 conservancies received substantial cash income, averaging N$217,046 in 2004 (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:v,43).
Community hunting quotas provide another important direct benefit. Game meat distribution has proved highly popular with communities, providing both prized meat and a sense of community autonomy (Long 2001:9).
In each conservancy, once revenues are being generated (often within two years of registration), the membership and committee choose how to spend the conservancy’s income and distribute benefits. Some opt for cash payouts to members or households. In January 2003, for example, Torra gave each adult conservancy member the equivalent of US$73. Others fund services such as school classrooms, new water pumps, or diesel fuel for operating pumps (USAID 2005:3).
A 2002 World Bank study of 1192 households in Caprivi and Kunene found benefits spread equitably across conservancy members. In Kunene the researchers recorded a healthy 29 percent increase in per capita income due to the combined direct and indirect effects of community-based natural resource management, and that did not include non-financial benefits such as bush meat (Bandyopadhyay et al. 2004:16,13). These findings suggest Namibia’s conservancies are starting to play a significant role in fighting rural poverty.
Positive Gender Agenda
Conservancies are also having a major impact on women’s empowerment and well-being. By 2004, women made up half of all conservancy members, and three in ten management committee members. They had also captured the majority of new jobs generated, boosting both their income and social status. At luxury Damaraland Camp in Torra Conservancy, for example, over 75 percent of employees are women (Florry 2004).
“These are local people who would never have found jobs anywhere else,” says Pascolena Florry, whose own horizons expanded dramatically as she worked her way up from waitressing to camp manager. “The conservancy has given them training and skills and increased their self esteem and sense of worth.” Before tourism developed, she recalls, opportunities for paid work were almost nonexistent. “I grew up in a small village. The goats were our only income and there was no one to protect them from wild animals, so that is what I used to do. Life is better now. My family has more money, we are able to do more things” (Florry 2004).
The shift in power to local communities, after decades of centralized power, has also produced intangible benefits. Foremost among these are a greater decision-making role for citizens, a deepened sense of community, and growing pride in wildlife recovery and conservancy success.
The process of managing a new democratic institution has empowered those taking part, and given them new skills. Officials from the NGOs and MET train and mentor newly elected committee members on priority setting, decisionmaking, and conflict mediation (USAID 2005:5). In high-membership conservancies such as Torra, village households are also very involved in decision-making. “People understand that this is an opportunity that was not there previously. They feel conservancies give them power over how to take care of the animals…and a chance for a better future,” says Paula Adams, Torra’s community liaison officer. “They attend our meetings and tell us they want to build more tourist camps. If something is happening that’s against the conservancy’s interests, they report it. For example, if a farm’s water pipes are damaged by elephants, they tell us, so we can go and fix it” (Adams 2004).
Active members across Namibia’s conservancies also play a hands-on role in natural resource management. They collect and analyze wildlife population data, using a simple, standardized recording system, and conservancy committees apply the findings to management activities. This people-led monitoring has been so successful that it is now being introduced in national parks and protected areas in Zambia, Mozambique, and Botswana (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:vi).
Despite their well-documented benefits, however, Namibia’s conservancies remain a work in progress. Three issues, in particular, are raising concerns within the government, donor, and NGO communities. The first is that the ad hoc manner in which some conservancies distribute their benefits does not always favor the poorest households. The second is that limited participation in conservancies is hampering genuine local governance and empowerment. The third is that the recovery of wildlife populations has increased the number of natural predators of the livestock upon which many conservancy households depend. A deeper, more structural problem is the limited nature of local rights, with conservancy residents denied full property or tenure rights. Despite periodic discussion of land reform, ownership of all communal lands is retained by the government, in a holdover from colonial times.
Limits to Poverty Alleviation
Every conservancy must produce a plan for equitably distributing benefits before it is registered by the government. In theory, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism could de-register a conservancy that violated this policy. But in practice, there is no blueprint for what constitutes “equitable” sharing of benefits, leaving conservancies to go their own way. Some specifically target poorer, more vulnerable households; others do not. Some spend revenue on social services such as school equipment or water supply maintenance, others on cash payouts. Some only distribute benefits to registered conservancy members, others to all households.
To promote self-governance, NACSO support organisations encourage communities to set their own priorities. Chris Weaver, WWF-LIFE program director, acknowledges this can create teething problems. “In some cases there has been a pushpull between wealthier households, who own livestock, and will have to give up grazing land for wildlife management, and poorer households who will benefit a lot more from conservancygenerated cash handouts than better-off households.” He insists, however, that communities must run their own affairs if conservancies are to succeed long-term. “We don’t prescribe. We believe the committees should make their own mistakes, learn from them, and adjust the next year” (Weaver 2004).
This laissez faire approach, however, was criticized by an international panel of social scientists that in March 2004 urged Namibia’s government to ensure benefits were targeted to the poor. On the basis of an intensive three-year study covering eight conservancies, known as the WILD report, they recommended that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism:
Limits to Local Governance
A second major challenge facing Namibia’s conservancies is their democratic deficit. Many local people do not register themselves as conservancy members or vote for committee members. Although typically a majority of in-boundary adults join up, the WILD report identified several conservancies with a minority membership. A 2002 survey of a thousand households in seven conservancies found that only 34 percent identified themselves as “conservancy participants” (Bandyopadhyay et al. 2004:15).
In addition, the 1996 legislation originating conservancies vests legal ownership rights over wildlife in management committees, not directly in the conservancy membership. Conservancy committees are elected by the membership and hence are clearly meant to be directly accountable to conservancy members, but there is no legal obligation for this enshrined at the national level (Long 2004:35).
Limited participation in a conservancy’s membership and activities can contribute to other problems, such as slow distribution of cash and meat to resident families. Even flagship Torra Conservancy did not make any cash payouts to members until January 2003, three years after it became financially independent (Baker 2003:1).
In some conservancies there is also evidence that more highly educated community members disproportionately control management committees. Field researchers for the WILD project, working in eight conservancies in Caprivi and Kunene, also found that people employed in conservancybased tourism tended to come from wealthier local families (Long 2004:17). On the other hand, the 2002 World Bank research team found no evidence that social elites were capturing a bigger slice of benefits than other community members. “In Caprivi there was some evidence that poor households benefited more than richer ones, whereas in Kunene we found that benefit distribution was poverty-neutral, with everybody benefiting equally,” said Kirk Hamilton, lead economist at the World Bank Environment Department (Hamilton 2004).
According to Margaret Jacobsohn, high-handed behavior by wealthier residents has mainly been a problem during conservancy development. “In one area, an elite group blocked a conservancy for two years until a locally constituted Dispute Resolution Committee helped resolve the situation. A conservancy has since been registered, with a democratically elected committee that represents the whole community.” While acknowledging that the conservancy movement is “a long way from perfect democracy,” Jacobsohn remains optimistic. “The technical support providers—NGOs and government—are constantly adjusting to ensure that as much power as possible is devolved to the local, household level. It’s an evolutionary process, improving year by year” (Jacobsohn 2004)
Some government officials have argued that every adult resident should automatically receive conservancy membership. But NACSO organizations have resisted, arguing that community-based management will only work if citizens accept 121 responsibilities as well as rights (Jacobsohn 2004). Nevertheless, expert criticism of the limits to community participation is growing. The 2004 WILD report, submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, argued that higher membership levels were essential to increase pressure on committees to act competently, distribute benefits efficiently and equitably, and take actions approved by a majority of residents.
While praising the conservancies’ achievements, the WILD report bluntly concluded that “the extent to which rural people will continue to support conservancies… depends on them gaining a stronger voice in local decisionmaking. The requirement now is to shift attention to supporting local capacity to address improved participation, and, in so doing, develop a more inclusive approach to planning that specifically addresses issues of livelihood security and diversification at household level, particularly for poorer groups” (Long 2004:9, 12).
Sensitive to such criticisms, NACSO and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism have drawn up plans to strengthen participatory democracy across conservancies. Performance indicators, to help residents and support organisations measure committee performance and hold management committees to account, are also in the works. “Getting more involvement from the community membership and more transparency in how a conservancy operates will be a key focus over the next five years,” asserts Chris Weaver. Practical proposals include delegating decision-making down to the village level instead of conservancy committees, increasing information flow by posting regular financial and other bulletins in public locations, and making annual committee meetings more transparent (Weaver 2004).
While tourism based on the attraction of Namibia’s majestic wild animals has brought undisputed benefits, the recovery of wildlife populations is not without trade-offs. Livestock in Kunene, and crops in Caprivi, are still the main breadwinners for many conservancy households. Tension is growing in some areas as cattle, goats, and crops succumb in increasing numbers to predators or marauding elephants. In Caprivi, for example, average crop losses equal 20 percent of local households’ average annual income. Research suggests that poorer families suffer the most, which undermines the anti-poverty efforts of conservancies. It also encourages illegal, low-level wildlife poaching for food, a problem especially prevalent among poorer households (Long 2004:xxi).
Although the Ministry of Environment and Tourism acknowledges rising human-wildlife conflicts, it has no policy on how institutions should deal with the problem. In 2003 IRDNC (a support NGO) took action by successfully piloting a compensation scheme in four Kunene and Caprivi conservancies for households that had lost livestock to predators. In 2005 the compensation schemes will be extended to cover elephantinduced crop damage in some conservancies (Jacobsohn 2004).
A related problem, likely to get more urgent as wildlife numbers rise, is lack of land tenure. Unlike white-owned freehold farms, conservancies cannot bar outsiders from bringing their animals to graze on communal lands within their boundaries, even though this causes pressure on resources used by local wildlife and livestock. In Torra, for example, the conservancy committee zoned land for wildlife and tourism use and developed internal rules to regulate grazing access on this land. But livestock farmers from outside the conservancy simply ignored these rules, and continued to assert their open access grazing rights (Long 2004:148). The conservancy’s lack of full property rights prevents it from legally excluding them.
Practice Makes Perfect: Sustaining and Reforming Namibia’s Conservancies
The very success of Namibia’s community-based natural resource management program is producing enormous, some say unrealistic, expectations for the future. With an estimated 100,000 people actively supporting the registration of 40-50 new conservancies, one in every nine Namibians may soon live in a communal area conservancy (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:iv). Namibia’s government is anxious to use this expanding network of citizen-led local governance institutions as a broad vehicle for rural development in a poor nation.
In 2001 new legislation made provision for communityrun forests, managed by community bodies (including conservancies) with ownership rights over forest products. In 2003 new freshwater fisheries laws allowed community institutions, including conservancies, to assume management of local fisheries (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:13). The government is also encouraging conservancies to diversify into social programs, including HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
But some NGOs caution that conservancies should not take on responsibility for implementing government programs or move too far from their original conservation objectives. As Chris Weaver sees it, “Conservancies were developed as a conservation initiative with spin-off benefits for development. They are contributing significantly to national income, but they are not going to solve all the poverty or rural development problems of Namibia” (Weaver 2004).
Conservancies also remain far from self-sufficient, with most still dependent on donor support. Of the more than 40 established and fledgling conservancies that IRDNC assists, only two are self-financing, although a majority are expected to be independent or earning significant income by 2010. While joint-venture tourism and sport hunting offer the best revenue-generating opportunities, they still provide a minority of jobs in most conservancies. Experts see a strong need to diversify livelihood options, especially among poor families, to avoid over-reliance on tourist income (WWF and Rossing Foundation 2004:44-45).
At the political level, pressure is also growing on government ministers to institute land reforms that will increase the security and long-term viability of conservancies by granting tenure to residents of communal lands. The WILD report recommended to Namibia’s government that securing community tenure over conservancies was “a necessary step in strengthening conservancies’ rights and authority with respect to resource use and allocation.” Such rights were needed, the authors argued, to give conservancy committees legal grounds for excluding outside livestock herds which were depleting conservancy resources and revenues (Long 2004:157). New regional Communal Land Boards, to be established under the Communal Lands Act 2003, may provide a vehicle for land reform, as both conservancies and traditional authorities will appoint representatives alongside those of various government departments. The boards will be responsible for granting land-use leases, but their full responsibilities and the influence that conservancies may wield on them are yet to become clear (Long 2004:157).
To address all these challenges and expectations, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, USAID, and WWF launched a new five-year plan in October 2004 that aims to make most conservancies self-sustaining, with a broader rural development role, by 2009. Chris Weaver summarizes the approach as “an expanded conservation strategy with add-on benefits for development.” Conservancies will be encouraged to expand beyond tourism and wildlife use into forestry, fisheries, water management, and sustainable farming, and to use the income gained to invest in other enterprises such as small support businesses.
In six short years, Namibia’s conservancies have developed from a hopeful experiment to the cornerstone of government plans to reform the management of the country’s unique natural resource base. For local support NGOs, however, the central focus for the next five years will be on improving conservancy governance and participation.
On the front line in Kunene, Dr. Jacobsohn is clear that financial self-sufficiency alone will not guarantee long-term success for the conservancy movement. “Earning income is not the hardest part. It is learning to run a local institution effectively and efficiently that is the biggest challenge. We are requiring remote rural dwellers, the majority of whom are subsistence farmers, to manage not just wildlife, but also staff, an office, and a vehicle.We are asking them to stick to a constitution, be transparent, communicate with members—do everything that managing a democratic institution involves. These are the conditions towards which NGOs are aiming so that we are no longer required.”