Finding the Right Balance Between People and Wildlife

As Tupa’s story demonstrates, young girls often become vulnerable to something like human trafficking as a result of increasing pressures on their household and family.  For the Himba, such pressures often stem from the power and influence of western environmental organizations and the growing tensions between cattle and wildlife.


Since independence, there have been few transformations to the Namibian landscape as profound as the communal conservancy movement. Conservancies are at the heart of Namibia’s community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) program, a sweeping, all-inclusive strategy to promote sustainable management of natural resources, create economic development by devolving rights and responsibilities over wildlife and tourism to rural communities, and the always nebulous but oft-repeated objective to  “build capacity,” which in this case means administrative and logistical support for conservancy staff and patrolling teams of wildlife monitors called game guards. In order to achieve all of this, local communities are encouraged to form conservancies, which are legally recognized, geographic entities in their own right.  The entire program is driven by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and a small army of homegrown conservation organizations with satiated monograms like “Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation.”  It often feels like the Namibian government, and the notoriously underfunded and overwhelmed Ministry of Environment and Tourism in particular, are being forced to play catch-up to this growing cabal of power and influence in their own backyard. 


In a small amount of time, an astonishing amount of land in Namibia has come under the control of the conservancy movement.  By the end of 2010 (which best captures the timeline of Tupa’s abduction), 59 conservancies accounted for over 16% of the total land area in Namibia.  Approximately 234,300 people lived in a conservancy, a huge number in a country with barely two million total residents at the time.  And with the number of areas that are in the process of legally registering as new conservancies, these numbers could easily double within several years. Given the Kunene’s abundant wildlife, most conservancies are clustered in and around that region.  The notable exception to this is the Caprivi, or the long, thin panhandle in the northeast part of the country that jabs straight east into the heart of the continent.  Wildlife numbers are high in the Caprivi due to the regions proximity to the vast Okavango Delta.  Outside of these two areas, most conservancies have little to no wildlife, leaving many to wonder why they registered as a conservancy in the first place.


At first glance, the economic benefits to communities that participate in the conservancy movement look fairly impressive.  According to the CBRNM’s unflinchingly upbeat reports, the combined total of cash and non-cash income that went to conservancies in 2010 was a whopping $34,469,362 Namibian dollars.  Most of this money was generated through joint venture tourism and trophy hunting contracts, though other activities such as the distribution of game meat figures into this amount as well.  However, even if you take these numbers (which represent the precious few figures that WWF and it’s partner organizations release each year) and do some quick math, you begin to see a different picture.  Taking into account the average annual exchange rate between the Namibian and U.S. dollar in 2010, and dividing the total benefits by the number of people living in a conservancy, you end up with an annual benefit per person of around U.S. $23.00, or about the going rate in the Kunene for exactly one-quarter of a goat or half a dozen bottles of Tassenburg. Of course, this assumes an equal distribution of benefits in a country that is the global poster child for the exact opposite.  It also does not take into account operating costs for conservancies (which are substantial), nepotism and corruption (a fact of life in Namibia), and the money that is siphoned off by the many consultants who are in some way affiliated with the support network of non-profits that drive the project itself. When these things are taken into account, you begin to understand why the day-to-day lives and living conditions of rural inhabitants are the same under the conservancy movement as they were prior to it.  The average resident never sees a Namibian dollar.   


In fact, even the Namibian Government admits there is scant evidence to show that the benefits derived from the communal conservancy movement have reached the local people.  In a January 2010 research discussion paper by Namibia’s Directorate of Environmental Affairs, it was found that Kunene households participating in the conservancy program were no better off in terms of wealth or assets than those that did not participate.  Not surprisingly, the report, which was remarkably exhaustive in its methodology, was relegated to the shelf when it came out, and has received little attention from conservationists working in Namibia.  Why should it?  It would only jeopardize what has become an astonishingly profitable enterprise for the program itself: over a sixteen-year period from 1992 to 2008, the USAID invested an estimated US $40 million in Namibia’s CBNRM program, an amount that was roughly matched through government and private contributions.  So, while millions of dollars pour in, wildlife numbers increase (WWF is meticulous about measuring this), and more land is placed under conservancy control, the actual impacts on the people remain shrouded in mystery.  This is a strange thing given the entire rationale for the program, which hinges on being “community-based.”   


What is noticeable about the conservancy movement is a massive communications strategy that emphasizes only the positive.  WWF and the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations – or NACSO as it is known – have initiated a steady media blitz consisting of sunny press releases, colorful websites, and featured articles in such respected news dailies and outlets as the Huffington Post, National Public Radio, and National Geographic.  Hardly a year goes by that senior staff do not exult over some prestigious international conservation award or promote themselves on the TED lecture circuit.  In fact, these days, if people have even heard of Namibia, it is most likely due to the marketing campaign associated with the conservancy movement.  It is a well-oiled machine that for one reason or another attracts a diverse array of CEO’s, corporate big shots, jet-setter elites, and other high-end funders, mostly from the United States.  In the Kunene, and prior to his death, it was not unusual to see Paul Allen’s trio of matching black helicopters shuttling himself and his personal rock band from one safari camp to another.


Lost amongst this nexus of sanguine promotional pieces and high society bootlicking are the often unintended but negative consequences that inevitably come with any massive land scheme, regardless if it happens to be initiated by a “green” and seemingly benevolent group of non-profit organizations. The Himba, with their cattle-centric, semi-nomadic lifestyle, are perhaps the single biggest group who have the most to lose.  Their cows do not always fit neatly into the picture of pristine wilderness proffered to tourists (and funders) by the conservancy movement. But the tourism industry and the conservancy movement are in lockstep with one another, and tourist dollars are what keeps everything going.  While tourists might find the Himba themselves to be photogenic, rarely do you see them clamoring to take pictures of their cows.  It would be better if the Himba remained in one place and without their livestock, preferably on designated tourist routes and in one of the growing number of “traditional Himba villages” that have popped up across the region and charge various fees.    


The fact that the Himba do move, and move frequently, leads to other conflicts as well.  The Himba and their livestock often cross conservancy boundaries, which creates disputes over grazing rights and access to water since individual conservancies view such resources as belonging solely to their own members, though Namibian law does not necessarily support such ownership rights.  In fact, conservancy boundaries were drawn up without taking into account either political-administrative regions or areas of control associated with traditional authorities, thus creating a confusing overlap of rights and decision making powers. Adding to this ambiguity, each conservancy subdivides and constantly revises their respective areas into their own management zones with associated directions that spell out what you can and cannot do.  This includes the kinds of hunting, tourism, mining, and grazing/farming activities that are allowed in each area, as well as which areas have been designated as exclusive wildlife zones.  Just like conservancy boundaries, management zones are largely arbitrary creations and rarely discernable from the landscape itself, so it is easy for local residents to move from one to the other without ever knowing it – that is until conservancy staff decide to do something about it, which is itself a politically motivated decision tied to local squabbles and power struggles.  It would take an incredibly well informed, highly literate, and politically connected individual to know anything about the current state of land management zones and directions in any one area.  In the meantime, wildlife populations have increased almost every year under the conservancy movement, as have the number of conflicts between wildlife and livestock herders.  This too is a deterrent to mobility – nobody wants to bring their cattle into an area with a healthy population of lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals, hyenas, elephants, and so on. 


So why does the conservancy movement continue to grow and expand in the traditional territory of the Himba?  Part of the answer lies with a very effective marketing campaign at the local level, combined with the fact that the full consequences and impacts of the program are simply not known.  Senior staff are very good at delivering a seemingly endless supply of strategic planning meetings, workshops, and assorted gatherings, most of which would be poorly attended if it were not for the free food.  Along with the food come promises of local jobs and income that can be derived from wildlife, promises that are packaged together with colorful summary charts and tables displaying the millions of dollars generated by the conservancy movement.  It is an undeniably tempting proposition, especially to rural and remote villagers who have few other cash-based income opportunities from which to choose. On paper at least, becoming a conservancy looks like a no-brainer.  


In addition to its potential and widely promoted economic benefits, the Himba have another reason to turn to the conservancy movement that is unique to their situation.  Since independence, the Namibian government has pushed for the construction of a hydropower dam on the Kunene River at Epupa Falls.  The Epupa Dam Project, as it has become known, would be a massive undertaking in the heart of Himba territory, the energy benefits of which are truly extraordinary.  It is estimated that enough water flows in that particular part of the Kunene River in a single day to power Windhoek for a year.  In fact, the project could make Namibia completely energy self-sufficient, thus ending its current dependence on surplus power from South Africa, which has become an increasingly costly and tenuous situation given the growing need for power in both countries.  The project would also lead to a very cheap source of energy and almost certainly attract additional foreign investment while lending itself to a whole new crop of development projects. 


The majority of Himba oppose the Epupa Dam Project, and do so for very good reasons.  They are acutely aware that the potential impacts could be quite serious to their way of life.  The damn would inundate an estimated 380 square kilometers of prime grazing land, displacing hundreds of families and creating tremendous pressure in other areas. It would also destroy over 6000 palm trees that provide omarungunuts, an important source of food in times of drought, as well as flood several culturally significant gravesite areas.  The resulting body of standing water could also lead to an increase in vector-borne diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis. Perhaps the greatest impacts, however, would result from the tremendous influx of people to the area, beginning with the huge labor force required to build the dam and continuing with the increase in tourism and more permanent communities that the dam and reservoir would inevitably give rise to.  In Africa, paved roads, massive migrant labor camps, trucking traffic, and the sudden growth of communities have historically been a recipe for crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and social diseases like AIDS. The Himba are well aware of this, particularly the older generations and the traditional authorities, who already fear that their youth are negatively influenced by western values.  As they see it, the Epupa Dam Project threatens their entire culture and sense of identity.


The on-again, off-again negotiations between Himba leaders and the Namibian government have done little to acquiesce these fears.  Several feasibility and social impact studies were begun when the project had more inertia in the years following independence. Some of these were backed by the government and thus more blatantly pro-development while others, associated more closely with indigenous rights groups or conservation organizations, were decidedly less so.  Having no knowledge of what a dam on the scale of the one proposed at Epupa Falls might look like, the Himba were led to believe that it would resemble the small earthen dams that one finds throughout the Kunene, most of which contain brown puddles of knee-deep water no more than twenty or thirty yards across.  Local anthropologists and environmental activists quickly dispelled these notions, which led to a fundamental distrust of government officials among the Himba, and an outright hatred of representatives from NamPower, Namibia’s state-owned power utility company.  Government officials did little to help their cause by sending in the police to break up meetings between Himba representatives and a public interest law firm, branding the Himba as “enemies of development.” In a particularly poor display of social acumen, Namibia’s Minister of Trade at the time, Hidipo Hamutenya, told BBC television that, “…the Himba should abandon their old customs and learn how to wear shirts and ties and suits like me and everyone else.”  The entire process was derailed after one official announced that the dam would be built even as the feasibility study was in full swing.  Ultimately, Himba leaders successfully lobbied the United Nations Human Rights Committee to intervene on their behalf, which led the World Bank and other international investors to pull their financial support from the project.      


However, the Namibian government’s preoccupation with damming the Kunene River has never really diminished.  In more recent years, they have revised their plans with a focus on building a dam in the Baynes Mountains just downstream from the Epupa Falls area. While the dam itself and the inundation area would be smaller, many of the impacts would be similar if not exactly the same.  The new proposal prompted Himba leaders to submit a petition in January 2012 to the Namibian government, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the United Nations outlining a lengthy list of grievances about the revised dam proposal, as well as other issues, including: fears of potential “land grabs” in their territory, threats to their constitutionally protected traditional governance structure, an absence of health services and culturally appropriate educational opportunities, and the general lack of consultation over issues ranging from large-scale mining projects to climate change.  This fairly remarkable petition, entitled “Declaration by the Traditional Leaders of Kaokoland in Namibia,” has received widespread international attention and, perhaps more than any single issue, reflects the deep-seated resentment towards the Namibian government and the dominant SWAPO Party that has festered since independence.        


Under these circumstances, the conservancy movement has gained considerable traction in Himba territory, sweeping in like a white knight to position itself in a kind of salvation-like role vis-a-vis the Namibian government.  Himba leaders have actively sought out environmentalists and conservation-minded organizations in order to assist them in their ongoing disputes with the government. Yet for many Himba households, it must seem like their leaders have invited the fox into the henhouse.