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According to FAO statistics, Namibia’s forests are declining by 0.9 per cent per year, an alarmingly high figure if you take into account how difficult it is for plants to grow here. High pressure on arable land, frequent droughts, floods and uncontrolled wild fires are the major factors that prevent forests from prospering. Illegal logging, the uncontrolled use of wood for fires, overgrazing and bush encroachment are man-made problems that add to the dramatic, damaging transformation of ecosystems, landscapes and habitats.
In 2004, aware of the consequences should this decline go unabated, the Namibian Government established the Community Forestry programme in the north, targeting forest, woodland and savannah areas owned by local communities. The premise is that if local people are obliged to manage their community forests sustainably, they will in turn receive the right to manage and market forest products and other natural resources to generate income. This combination of conservation and business opportunities is a driving force in poverty reduction and enhancement of rural livelihoods.
Community Forestry is part of Namibia’s Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) approach. Funded and supported by two German development agencies – the German Development Bank (KfW) and the German Development Service (DED) – the programme has developed through several essential phases, beginning with the process of establishing community forests.
The first step and part of an ongoing pro-cess is the creation of awareness campaigns carried out by the Directorate of Forestry to reach rural residents of communal areas, informing them of the opportunity to obtain the rights to use forest resources and other natural resources. Interested communities may apply for support to establish a community forest at their local District Forestry office. Once the relevant ministries and the traditional and political authorities agree, the pro-cess of establishing the community forest is launched.
With the assistance of the local forestry staff and trained facilitators, community members form a management body to manage activities, liaise with external support organisations, and draft a constitution, providing the legal framework for a community forest, plus a detailed benefit distribution plan for its future.
The next, crucial step is boundary demarcation. Neighbouring communities, traditional authorities and local government institutions must agree on traditional rights, rights that had often never been confirmed in writing. Once the community forest is gazetted, the decision for sustainable management in favour of all other forms of land use is set and can be withdrawn only by the local community or Government if forest rights are violated.
Long-term decisions for nature conservation are made and community members have to be aware what they opt for. Therefore, information campaigns and training of supporting staff has a high priority, especially in the beginning of the process. Later on training is provided, not only in forestry issues such as fire management, inventories or resource assessments, but also in management skills such as accounting and basic marketing.
A serious management plan is needed to obtain sustainability in forest management. This is accomplished with the help of experts. However, special participatory approaches are used to assure community involvement in resource assessment and rural appraisals. Based on the data collected by trained local assessment teams, a joint management plan that regulates the use of resources is drafted.
During the first four years of the project, local members of Forest Management Committees were trained in participatory natural resource assessment and sustainable forest and woodland management. They are now the carriers of local expertise and can actively participate in forestry-related decision-making and serve as ‘trainers of trainers’ in their respective regions.
By the end of 2007, forty community forests covering an area of 1.6 million hectares had been set up with the number of beneficiaries rising to approximately 60 000.
Resource use varies in all community forests, depending on what is available and on standards of use set by community members. The most common products, however, are firewood from dead wood, timber and construction materials like rafters, droppers and thatching grass.
Namibians, particularly those living in rural areas, rely heavily on the trade of natural resources for their livelihoods, and although community forest projects generate income, monies raised are not sufficient to sustain the communities. It has to be emphasised that conservation is the primary purpose of any community forest. If you mislead people on this, you’ll end up having encouraged them to sell their resources and fail to obtain sustainability. This is a lesson learnt from the first two phases of the community forestry project.
Nonetheless, income generation is a crucial point for motivation and linking integration with other land-uses, particularly in communal conservancies, and is the crux and challenge of the third phase of the project.
Applying an approach similar to that of the CBNRM towards nature conservation and game management in communal conservancies, the concept of community forests and how they can benefit rural people will expand. Close co-operation with local communities and communal conservancies will be at the top of the agenda and will encompass the following:
Wildlife needs habitat, thus the appropriate management of forest, woodlands and savannahs is a key factor in habitat conservation; it cannot be treated separately.
When community forestry members are able to benefit from income generated via hunting quotas and tourism activities, their motivation for supporting conservation issues rises.
Forest management is a labour-intensive activity; employment opportunities are created which can be cross-financed with income from game management.
Natural resource management in general needs a joint approach; all parties on all levels have to work towards the same objectives.
Under this strategy, Community Forestry will expand into communal conservancies and spread to other areas of the country. While the first two phases concentrated on the north-eastern regions of Caprivi, Kavango and Otjozondjupa, areas with less forest but the same urgent needs of woodland preservation and management will follow. It is hoped that by 2011 and the end of the third phase, Namibia will have at least double the number of integrated community forests in which local community members benefit from sustainable management and income generated from their available natural resources.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.