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Do critics of Namibia’s communal conservancy system want to reinstate colonial and apartheid wildlife policies?

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John Kasaona is Executive Director of Namibian conservation NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC). He was born and grew up in the Ovahimba village of Otjindakui in north-western Namibia in 1971.

Why is it that certain segments of Namibian society and outsiders keep throwing stones at conservation initiatives driven by black local communities? This to me is like someone throwing sand in your food.

The majority of rural people in Namibia find themselves living on peripheral, marginal parts of their motherland. They find themselves here because of racial discrimination by the previous regime, which did not regard them as responsible, legitimate citizens who could own assets or be entrusted with Namibia’s natural resources.

After they were pushed out to marginal lands, their traditional uses for wildlife were categorised as “poaching” — i.e. harvesting state-protected resources without permission. These laws and their consequences brutalised and created fear among the original owners of the land, thus preventing them from benefiting from their own resources.

It is therefore not surprising that rural communities were hostile towards conservation authorities before independence. This situation posed a massive threat to wildlife populations in these areas at the time, as there was no incentive for people to look after the government’s animals.

When Namibia achieved national independence, everyone — including the rural residents — hoped that the terrible disrespect of their dignity as human beings that they had endured would come to an end. The rural communities also looked forward to being free of colonial masters dictating to them how to manage their natural resources.

The adoption of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) was therefore a welcome change that restored rights and responsibilities that the previous government had destroyed.

It is therefore deeply distressing to see the concept of CBNRM being continuously attacked by certain Namibians and even outsiders. Like the apartheid government, these critics claim that rural communities are irresponsible and therefore should not be allowed to manage wildlife and other natural resources. Yet these same local communities took years to rebuild their natural resource base after it was destroyed by the policies and actions of the colonial regime.

The recent critics are following a familiar approach — seeking to confuse, destroy and create fears of inferiority among local communities. They are trying to devalue the noble conservation initiatives that Namibian people are undertaking.

One wonders who benefits from continuously disparaging the hard work of some of Namibia’s poorest people? No one really knows what motivates these constant attacks. Are people not happy that the Namibian government devolved wildlife user rights to the goat herders, villagers, and cattle farmers in our communal areas? Would these people be happy if the residents of communal lands remained disempowered?

If our legitimate, democratically elected government granted these rights to rural communities, why are they still viewed as illegitimate wildlife managers? It is telling that none of these critics investigate wildlife management on white-owned game farms — those farmers are clearly seen as legitimate.

One also fails to understand why the achievements of the Namibian CBNRM programme are not mentioned; only the challenges we face are constantly emphasised. It seems that these critics hate seeing rural black communities taking on responsibility and making progress.

Why is it that certain segments of Namibian society keep throwing stones at conservation initiatives driven by black local communities? This to me is like someone throwing sand in your food. For the sake of peace and stability in our beloved country, this needs to stop.

Going beyond Namibia, our CBRNM programme is not answerable to international visitors who have done nothing to assist us in our conservation efforts. Perhaps the international critics are unaware of our history.

These communities were never forced to engage in conservation — Africans have been living with wildlife since time immemorial until their traditional practices were disrupted by colonialism. Now people are advocating for a return of colonial practices, which would discontinue the good work that these communities are doing. Although they are bent on destroying and discrediting the efforts driven by local communities, they do not offer better alternatives to link wildlife conservation with rural development.

I ask these visitors: if Namibia and its people are not doing well in your opinion, why should it bother you? Why are you not focusing on your own country and its issues? It is not fair to criticise others without first looking at the state of conservation at home.

The least you can do is respect what the communities are doing under difficult circumstances — it is not easy to live next to roaring lions knowing that the next day you need to send your children out there to herd the goats. While our people live this difficult life with wild animals, others enjoy comfortable lives while criticising everything that these communities are trying to achieve.

After many years of drought, we see the headlines claiming that wildlife has disappeared in communal conservancies. Wildlife — like cattle, goats and sheep — is affected by drought. Although some wild animals die during drought, many of them will move far away for better grazing, only to return with good rains.

I challenge you all to come see how the areas look like after the rains, and to come and witness the wildlife numbers recovering in the future.

Conservation is being politicised by those who are not actually involved in daily conservation efforts. These attempts to destroy our livelihoods and take away our rights will not silence us. We know that some people in Namibia and outside do not like black rural communities dominating the conservation arena in Namibia, yet we still thank our government for crafting a law that grants rights and responsibilities over wildlife to poor rural residents. History will not be repeated. Local residents in communal areas are going to liberate themselves from unrealistic expectations and unjust criticism from both within Namibia and beyond our borders.

Let me conclude by saying that decent people who are truly concerned for our rural communities would not just sit back and criticise, but rather step in with advice and offer assistance. For Namibians, that would be an expression of true patriotism. We are not opposed to external support and help offered in good faith.

We would therefore encourage non-Namibians who are concerned due to the misinformation that is being spread about Namibian CBNRM to come and see for yourself what is happening and how you can help. DM

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