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Transforming Conservation for Locally-Driven Development in Namibia

The following case study is an extract from Protecting Community Lands and Resources in Africaa book of case studies that highlights land rights advocates’ innovative community land protection efforts.

By Fidi Alpers, IRDNC

Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) works to support the Khwe San community in Bwabwata National Park (BNP), Namibia to protect their access to and benefits from the natural resources on their ancestral lands. Bwabwata was only recently transformed into a national park in 2007; as a result, there are high-level political and economic incentives that prevent the Khwe community from accessing their customary ownership rights to the lands themselves. Therefore, instead of asserting land rights as a strategy, the focus has been on empowering the community through a government-driven, community-based natural resource management programme (CBNRM).

IRDNC uses a multilevel methodology to facilitate this process:

  • Engaging with communities through their traditional authorities and elders, gaining a better understanding of their roles, building trust and working with existing community processes;
  • Engaging with government through consistent, participatory approaches. IRDNC acknowledges its role as an NGO is to contribute regularly to policy and law-making, partly through discussions with government officials.
  • Engaging with community institutions and community-based organizations, to develop the leadership skills and potential of select individuals within the community who have a natural ability to lead and advance their community forward.

IRDNC is based on the ground and has been working with the same communities for many years, which has been key to building trust with both governmental and traditional authorities. When engaging with traditional authorities and communities, it is important that IRDNC’s work is not imposed externally. Gaining legitimacy for IRDNC’s projects while promoting respect for traditional authorities is essential, and this is achieved both by tapping into existing knowledge systems and drawing traditional authorities and elders into every project. Honoring the support of traditional authorities demonstrates to the community that their elders are valued and respected rather than irrelevant, which strengthens the traditional leadership structure and cultural core of the community.

Context: Indigenous Knowledge Systems of the Khwe San and Resource Rights within Bwabwata National Park

The approximately 5,500 Khwe San residents of the Bwabwata National Park in Namibia have a rich cultural knowledge that has enabled them to subsist in the region’s dry deciduous woodlands for centuries via hunting and gathering. In fact, an estimated 75% of their nutritional requirements are still secured from gathering wild resources. Traditionally, women were responsible for collecting wild foods and supplies such as reeds, grasses and wood, while the men hunted. Khwe elders can still recall chasing large wildlife species to the point of collapse from exhaustion, then returning home laden with kudu, eland or sable antelope meat for their families. However, in 1963 the area was proclaimed the West Caprivi Nature Park and several years later hunting was banned. This policy had a tremendously negative effect on the Khwe San community, as they simultaneously lost both the capacity to subsist independently on their ancestral homelands as well as a core element of their cultural identity.

For most indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge is a critical factor in the community’s collective welfare and survival. Khwe San indigenous knowledge systems are based upon a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle and ethos, and include expert knowledge about biodiversity and natural resource management. Various academics report that San trackers and hunters demonstrate a complex skill set, including an advanced ability to observe, qualify, and assemble facts about human and animal behaviour and the natural environment in a manner that surpasses the capacity of many professionals in western society.

However, most Khwe youth see indigenous knowledge as belonging to the previous generation and as having limited practical application in the modern world. The formal education system plays a central role in furthering this trend. First, because the Khwe San reside in remote locations, their children often must attend boarding schools in urban centers far from home. Separated for long periods of time from their families and the ways in which traditional knowledge is communicated, Khwe children are taught foreign systems of knowledge in a language other than their own. There is a gaping disjuncture between Khwe knowledge systems, teaching styles, and supporting social values and those associated with mainstream Namibian society and the formal education system. The end result is that San children feel alienated in Namibian schools and drop out prematurely, with their sense of self-confidence diminished and without the qualifications they need to get jobs in the formal sector. They often return to their rural settlements with a negative outlook on their own culture and value system.

A Tekoa guide from the Khwe San community leads a trek through Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

A Tekoa guide from the Khwe San community leads a trek through Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

Supporting Access and Benefits Sharing between the Khwe and the National Park

From 2005-2009, IRDNC had a formal mandate within Bwabwata National Park to help residents to establish a representative legal association and an integrated national park management program between the resident community and the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET). However, successful implementation of this shared governance institution has been a serious challenge. In the absence of a functioning co-management relationship, IRDNC has supported the Khwe community to lobby for, and receive, access and benefits on the land. The organisation and the community are strategically focusing on these rights as a first step, as there are high-level and political incentives and historical land issues that prevent the Khwe community from accessing their land rights.

Within Bwabwata National Park, poverty has fuelled some overharvesting of natural resources. To address this, IRDNC worked with and counselled traditional authorities (and thereby their communities) on this overuse. The community subsequently chose resource monitors to monitor sustainable use. Parallel to these community discussions, IRDNC also met with key government officials about the Khwe community in Bwabwata, discussing the need for community benefit-sharing as a method of sustainable conservation of the National Park. It became important for the community to prove and justify to the government that wildlife and natural resources such as high value plants were being protected. The community’s monitoring system became one way to provide evidence to the government that resources were well-kept and that monitoring of the use of these resources was actually taking place. The government, over time, came to recognize local efforts and has supported periodic game counts to provide further evidence of the positive impact of the Khwe community’s sustainable natural resources management.

Community-driven documentation and monitoring of natural resources has been enhanced by using tools and methods to visually indicate on maps key features of natural resource use, such as access points and natural resource locations. Participatory resource mapping and zoning helps to generates discussion within and between communities. IRDNC has assisted communities to produce digital maps and share these with government. In the coming years, IRDNC and the community will present scientific maps on plant species and other resources and organize a harvesting trip with government to encourage government recognition of access to other resources.

IRDNC has also supported Khwe communities to negotiate for more equitable, empowered community-investor partnerships through liaising with government officials regarding the allocation of high value tourist concessions within Bwabwata National Park. Kyaramacan, a Khwe community-based organization within Bwabwata, has been awarded a high value tourist concession within the park that they wish to develop into a lodge IRDNC is assisting Kyaramacan in ongoing negotiations between the government, investors and the community and in managing its contracts. This has included negotiation of three concession contracts between the government and Kyaramacan.

Overall, IRDNC has been successful in supporting communities to assert and use resource rights within the National Park. Five years ago, there was no legislation or policy allowing communities to benefit from natural resources within the park. With pressure on governments for communities to benefit from wildlife (through hunting, tourism etc.), and lobbying for legislative change, the Khwe have piloted a system for community-based use and management of these natural resources. Community monitoring has created the data to prove that community resource use was not causing harm, which supported a legislative change and contract with the government to allocate hunting concessions within the park. This has led to an increase in the number of wildlife that can be sustainably hunted by community members, resulting in more meat and benefits for the community. There has been a direct correlation between better protection of wildlife (through monitoring and management) and better benefits for the community.

Development of the TEKOA Tracker Training Programme

During interactions with community members out in the bush, it became clear to IRDNC staff that the real talents, passions and interests of the Khwe involved “walking and talking,” wherein elders lead community youth on walking trips into the wilderness while orally sharing, coaching and training them on Khwe cultural knowledge and values. Listening to the elders’ lessons during these trips revealed their heart-felt concern that as older members of the community passed away, rich cultural knowledge was being lost forever. After discussions with the community, IRDNC supported Khwe elder Sonner Gerea to attend workshops and seek financial assistance to develop a community-led tracker training project in which elders could teach traditional knowledge to local youth in their own time, language, curriculum and setting. Tracking was chosen as the preliminary focus because it is one of the skills that is rapidly disappearing amongst Khwe community members due to lack of use, and also one that youth can leverage for financial gain.

After the proposal was accepted and initial funding granted, the next step was to identify elders in the community who still had wildlife tracking knowledge despite the forty-year ban on hunting in the area. Sonner Gerea and the IRDNC team ventured into the Khwe San villages within Bwabwata National Park, and found many people who talked about hunting and remembered particular events, but only five individuals who still possessed deep traditional tracking knowledge. IRDNC recruited these elders as traditional knowledge teachers, then asked village headmen to put forward the names of eligible young community members who might be interested in attending the tracker-training sessions.

Tekoa guides in training learn how to track wildlife in Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

Tekoa guides in training learn how to track wildlife in Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

In 2008, the Khwe officially launched their Traditional Environmental Knowledge & Outreach Academy (TEKOA) tracker-training programme in Bwabwata National Park. Through the TEKOA program, Khwe elders train their school-going (and school-leaving) youth in various aspects of their rich heritage, including tracking, ethno-botany, traditional leadership, conflict management strategies, history, and Khwe San language skills. The programme supports community elders and youth to spend time together which in turn builds relationships, restores dignity, and hones youth’s skills in ecological management applied science, including wildlife tracking and sign interpretation skills in the bush. An intermittent programme at first, the mobile tracker training team now operates for approximately 4 days per month, creating a regular space for community members to learn from one another and breathe new life into their traditional skills.

In Bwabwata National Park there are few opportunities for formal employment. Locally available economic opportunities are largely informal, and many of these are exploitative and under-paid. The Traditional Environmental Knowledge Outreach Academy (TEKOA) Tracker Training Programme aims to turn this situation around. By exposing the youth to their natural heritage of traditional Khwe knowledge, the program both hopes to increase their confidence and sense of self-worth, and to equip them to become the future holders of knowledge in a community that is rapidly transitioning from its hunter-gatherer existence. The curriculum also aims to provide life skills and coping strategies for the modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, to support youth to develop vision and hope for their futures.

Successes of the TEKOA tracker-training programme include:

  • As youth increasingly come to appreciate the wealth of environmental knowledge that their elders possess, the community is developing a newfound respect for community elders and the natural system. This not only helps to foster an attitude of environmental conservationism amongst youth, but also restores pride and cohesion within the community at large.
  • Elders and youth in the program have worked hard to achieve formal endorsements of their knowledge through internationally recognised “CyberTracker” certificates. At the most recent CyberTracker evaluation in April 2014, three community members successfully identified 100% of the very challenging wildlife tracks they were tested on and trailed a pride of lions for 11 hours over two days through the bush.
  • Approximately 10 community members have found employment as a direct result of the tracker training programme. They have been employed as community game guards in the Bwabwata National Park, anti-poaching rangers on private farms, and as tourist guides who can offer special tracking experiences.
  • Through this program, the community is developing the skills and confidence to establish a more ambitious cultural restoration project. Plans are now underway to build a permanent centre for traditional environmental knowledge training and scientific research within the Park, in order to preserve indigenous skills and share them with a wider audience. The vision is to employ a professional cadre of trackers (many of whom will have been through the tracker training programme) and run courses for government rangers, ecological monitors and researchers, community game guards, conservation staff from the wider region, and other guides, scientists and tourists from across Namibia and beyond.
Lion tracks in Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

Lion tracks in Bwabwata National Park. © IRDNC

Strategies for Success

The process followed to get the TEKOA raining programme up and running was critical to its success. The following are reflections on the key “process elements” that contributed to TEKOA’s success:

  1. “Build a fire from community sparks”: Paying attention to the true passions and concerns of the Khwe community was vital to the development of the project. Although the core of IRDNC’s mandate in the Bwabwata National Park was to train community members to follow formal management procedures within their association, IRDNC staff found that the community’s passion for traditional ecological knowledge was a spark that could light a real fire of success within the community. Because this was what Khwe elders wanted to do and did well without any prompting, IRDNC decided that the community’s vision for the TEKOA programme was a project that merited time and investment. The success of the programme has since validated that decision.
  1. Hand over the pen to get passion on paper”: Sonner Gerea is a Khwe San resident of Bwabwata and current Chair of the community’s Custodian Committee that engages, involves and promotes Khwe cultural values within the Bwabwata National Park community. In 2007 he was asked by IPACC to prepare a project plan for an initiative in Bwabwata National Park. Having never written a formal project plan before, Sonner requested technical assistance from IRDNC. Knowing that the project needed to be locally-driven to be a success, and that the proposal stood a better chance of securing funding if Sonner’s personal passion for it was conveyed on paper, IRDNC did not accept this request. Instead Sonner was encouraged to write down his thoughts in whatever manner he felt comfortable. He made rough notes on paper, and though imperfect in form, this draft proposal was later selected to become the first step in making the community’s dream come true.
  1. “Respect community wisdom and decision making”: At every stage of the programme, the village headmen have been the ones to decide who should be evaluated and trained. Although there have been some misjudgements along the way, with some of the selected individuals failing to show serious interest in beginning stages, the community has found its most committed learners over time. If IRDNC had taken these decisions into its own hands and run the selection process for elders and learners, it is likely that the programme would have been delegitimised by accusations of favouritism and ultimately would have failed.
  1. “Link every small initiative to a bigger dream”: The tracker training programme has never been narrowly envisioned as a way for people to simply practice identifying wildlife spoor. Instead, programme participants describe it as a major effort for them to keep core elements of their hunter-gatherer society’s culture alive. In addition, almost since its inception, the tracker training programme has been visualized as the first step towards establishing a more ambitious indigenous knowledge academy in the Park. The vision of one day having an “indigenous university,” through which community members can teach each other and outsiders traditional knowledge such as tracking and medicinal plant usage has added greater meaning and significance to each training session. Some of the trainees hope to be professors within this academy and others envisage tourism related spin-off enterprises. All of them describe the future institution with pride. In addition to providing added motivation for local learners, this larger vision has elicited interest and support from outside institutions and international visitors. In June 2014, for example, thirteen German travel agents visited Bwabwata National Park to help develop a tracking-based product they can market to clients in 2015. This type of outside interest and commitment further motivates Khwe youth to keep up the effort with their learning!
  1. “Remember that hunger trumps culture”: Although the programme has been successful, community elders and supporting NGOs cannot rest on their laurels. There are many participants in the programme who are involved for the sake of preserving their culture, but their commitment could be shaken if traditional skills cannot also help them ward off hunger. Cultural restoration has given the community an important sense of pride, but it must also enhance their chances of securing a successful livelihood. This is why the TEKOA programme is now also encouraging young trackers to develop tourist-handling skills and set up micro-enterprises through which they can share their cultural knowledge and earn a fair living.

Looking to the Future

TEKOA is planning to support the community to realize their larger cultural restoration dreams, and is currently involved in early-stage communications with the Namibian Government regarding the establishment of a permanent training academy in the Park. It is envisaged that, following initial start-up donor funding, this academy could run as a financially sustainable entity through which fees from external participants would sponsor the learning of Khwe youth – creating a secure future for knowledge sharing. This project will also provide a model and inspiration for other San communities in Namibia who are in a position to build upon traditional skills.

February 8, 2016 | Namati Author