Community-based natural resource management – What are conservancies really about?

Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site – Celebration and support for local communities
July 15, 2012
Wildlife and communities – Back from the brink
July 15, 2012
Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site – Celebration and support for local communities
July 15, 2012
Wildlife and communities – Back from the brink
July 15, 2012

by Maxi Louis and Helge Denker, Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations

Conservancy map 1998

The communal-conservancy programme has taken Namibia by storm, with 59 conservancies having been registered in the past decade. The programme has become one of the most successful CBNRM initiatives on the planet. But what makes it so successful?

Community-based natural resource management, or CBNRM, is practised in many parts of the world. The concept is simple: local people benefit from the use of wildlife and tourism resources in their area by forming a community-based organisation which manages those resources. It is the ‘resource user as best manager’ principle.

The framework that enables the concept is provided by Government through empowering legislation that gives communities legal rights over resource use. The National CBNRM Programme in Namibia is a government programme under the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), run in partnership with a number of stakeholders united under the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (NACSO).

Equal usage rights

Conservancy map 2003

To put the Namibian programme into context, a little background is needed. Prior to Namibia’s independence in 1990, communal area residents had no rights to utilise wildlife – and thus had no incentives to conserve it. All wildlife belonged to the state and traditional own-use hunting was considered to be poaching. A variety of factors led to severe declines in wildlife populations, including drought, rampant poaching by military forces during the independence struggle, commercial poaching and poaching for the pot by community members. This left many areas devoid of game.

Commercial farmers had already received legal rights to use wildlife in the late 1960s, resulting in large-scale wildlife recoveries and a rapidly developing game industry on private land. Yet Namibia’s communal areas were sorely neglected. After independence, the Namibian Government soon formulated legislation, passed in 1996, that gave communal area residents equal usage rights – by forming conservancies that would be able to manage the resources in a sustainable manner.

In an arid system made more inhospitable by poor soils, as is the case across most of Namibia, agriculture delivers only limited returns. The use of indigenous natural resources, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to deliver significant benefits to rural communities, which often live in remote, underdeveloped areas.

Significant benefits

Conservancy map 2010

Conservancies facilitate livelihood diversification and rural development. They are not aimed at replacing traditional livelihood activities such as crop production and livestock herding, but rather at providing new livelihood strategies that can be integrated into existing land uses. At the same time, conservancies deliver significant conservation benefits through the sustainable use of indigenous natural resources.- To qualify for rights to wildlife use, communities must:

• be legally constituted as a conservancy;

• have clearly defined and accepted boundaries;

• be composed of registered members from within the conservancy;

• have a representative committee with a sound accounting system; and

• have an equitable revenue distribution and sustainable game management plan.

Once these criteria have been verified, an aspiring conservancy is formally registered through the Government Gazette and recognised by all ministries.

In February 1998, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in the Otjozondjupa Region became the first communal conservancy to be registered. It was followed later that year by Salambala in Caprivi and Torra and #Khoadi //Hôas in the Kunene Region. These first conservancies are all highly successful and launched a demand-driven movement that continues to show rapid growth. The 59 communal conservancies currently registered cover more than 13 million hectares and engage around 230 000 community members. This represents over 16% of the country’s surface area and over 12% of its population. Another estimated 20 to 25 conservancies are currently in various stages of formation and it is believed that a final number of about 90 conservancies may cover around 21% of Namibia.

Benefits generated graph

This tremendous growth has been driven by several factors. First and foremost, conservancies are able to generate direct and immediate benefits through trophy hunting, tourism and other resource uses. This allows communities to diversify their livelihood strategies, vital in remote areas where there are few economic opportunities. Of similar importance is community empowerment. Local people finally have the right to determine their socioeconomic future based on utilising the natural resources in their area to best effect and, just as importantly, have collective cash income to realise their aspirations.

All-round benefits

The economic benefits generated by the programme have been impressive: In 2008, overall income for the CBNRM programme was close to N$42 million. Conservancies generated over N$32 million in cash and in-kind benefits, with the remainder coming from related CBNRM activities outside conservancies. Joint-venture tourism and trophy hunting generated the largest portions of income, bringing in N$16 946 268 and N$8 244 412 respectively. The growth curve in national CBNRM income has been steep and the benefits have motivated further conservancy formation and continued commitment by Government and support agencies.


Conservation benefits have been equally impressive. Wildlife in the communal areas of Namibia has shown remarkable recoveries. The natural growth of populations freed of poaching pressure has been bolstered by generous reintroductions, mostly donated from national park stocks by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Plains game has shown wide-scale recoveries, which have been followed by rebounding large-predator numbers, including cheetah, hyaena, leopard and lion. The Ministry’s faith in conservancies has been underlined by the translocation of the rare black rhino out of a national park into open conservancy land.

The conservancy programme has been fortunate in having the ongoing support of Government. The work of the MET has been supplemented by committed and capable NGOs that have complemented each other’s work in different regions. Secure donor funding over a long period has allowed effective support services, while increasing and meaningful engagement by the private sector in both the tourism and hunting industries has created fruitful partnerships that have increased the financial independence of conservancies. With much trial, error- and innovation, this network of technical and financial support has allowed the programme to overcome numerous challenges.

There can be little doubt that the successes in Namibia have been the result of a fortunate constellation coming together at the right time, made up of a wealth of natural resources, a supportive Government, dedicated NGOs, private-sector engagement, visionary individuals and trusting donors – and communities taking on the responsibility of contributing to rural development and conservation by managing conservancies for the benefit of local people.

This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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