Conservation legends call it a day
WINDHOEK - Long-serving Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) directors, Garth Owen-Smith and Margie Jacobsohn have retired.
The couple, also known as conservation legends in Namibia, pioneered innovative approaches to sustainable resource management, especially regarding community-based natural resource management (CBNRM).Â
IRDNCÂ reportedly tested approaches together with Government and communities and assisted in the implementation of national policy and legislation successfully.Â
Partnership has been developed between Government, private sector and community structures whereby IRDNC has provided initial financial and technical support to enable improved resource management as well as the improvement of the quality of people-s lives in conservancies, under the duo-s leadership.Â
The CBNRM programme therefore is providing a wide range of support and assistance to conservancies in different areas.Â
The IRDNC has and continues to assist communities to develop locally initiated management frameworks within the conservancies that help to enforce and guide local implementation, monitoring programmes and improve management decisions.Â
Smith and Jacobsohn also piloted the introduction of community game guards in partnership with traditional authorities, way before independence.
'This was not easily taken up by the colonial government, this was seen as crazy. How on earth can you make poachers into game rangers, the idea was unprecedented,' said IRDNC Co-director John Kasaona, who knows the couple closely.
According to Kasaona, Owen-Smith-s conservation approaches with local communities made him more unpopular with the colonial administration to the extent that he was constantly monitored to see whether this was not another approach to support Swapo.
In 1970, Smith was thrown out of the Kunene Region, known at the time as the Kaokoveld, by the South African regime that regarded him as a security risk.Â
He then spent some years farming and working in conservation in Australia, former Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and in South Africa. In 1978, when he was finally able to return to South West Africa, he embarked on what would become his life-s work of saving the remnants of Kaokoveld-s rich wildlife, which at that point had been almost entirely wiped out by illegal hunting.
With independence, the Namibian government embraced the approach of CBNRM and that was turned around into a law that today benefits all Namibians.
'It has become an internationally recognised programme that has become a model for others to follow. And just think, in the beginning everyone thought it was a crazy idea,' Kasaona said.
'While we celebrate your retirement, I congratulate you (Garth and Margie) for your support and long-term vision for CBNRM in this country and your passion in enabling rural communities to find their own solutions and to drive their own development agendas,' Environment and Tourism Minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, said at the farewell party.Â
Nandi-Ndaitwah said with the IRDNC support and other partners, the CBNRM programme has grown from a small pilot project to one of the country-s major development programmes.Â
Today, CBNRM is firmly entrenched in Namibia-s national development plans and poverty reduction strategies, and conservancies are included as part of Namibia-s rural development strategies in the National Development Plans and Vision 2030.
The minister was particularly impressed by the Community Game Guard system, though initiated in 1983, which came to be fully implemented with the support of Garth and Margie through IRDNC whereby local people were appointed by and responsible to their traditional leaders.Â
The Community Game Guards- role was not just to catch poachers but also to stop illegal hunting by conservation extension, monitoring wildlife and anti-poaching patrols in the areas where they lived.
'Although this community empowering approach went against the political climate of that time, it made a major contribution to the recovery of wildlife in Namibia-s Kunene Region,' Nandi-Ndaitwah added.
She noted that the active participation of local people in conservation also nurtured a vision of wildlife becoming a valuable cultural, social and economic resource.Â
In 1990, at the request of the traditional leaders, IRDNC started a similar community-based programme in the Caprivi Region.Â
Today, this programme is operating in almost all the conservancies.Â
During the 1980s, when the Kaokoveld, in the Kunene Region, was experiencing war, drought, poaching and apartheid, Jacobsohn, an anthropologist who did her doctoral research in the north-west, joined Owen-Smith in challenging current conservation thinking that saw local people as 'the problem-.Â
They believed that communities who lived with wildlife were, in fact, part of the solution.
Wildlife had been alienated from local people by colonial conservation policies and the only way communities could benefit from what was previously theirs was to poach it.
If local ownership was restored to communities, they believed, wildlife might survive.Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn formed IRDNC to facilitate and promote this philosophy.
The programme started in 1983, as an attempt to control rampant illegal hunting, which had decimated all wildlife species including black rhinos and desert-adapted elephant.Â
In Kunene and then also the Caprivi Region, it also focused on facilitating social and economic benefits to rural people from the wildlife they live side by side with.
Colleagues and friends attended the couple-s farewell function, which was also the launch of Owen-Smith-s book titled 'An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld-.