Desertification: Bottom-up strategy pays dividends

Conservancies a major force to be reckoned with
June 19, 2012
Sold out – the ekipa – buttons made of ivory
June 19, 2012
Conservancies a major force to be reckoned with
June 19, 2012
Sold out – the ekipa – buttons made of ivory
June 19, 2012

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has cited the way Namibia is combating desertification as a good example for other countries in Southern Africa. However, the way desertification is dealt with may seem unusual, considering the issue is land degradation and loss of productivity – one of the most serious environmental problems facing Namibia.

Instead of placing the responsibility of solving these problems completely on scientists as was previously attempted elsewhere in the world, the current phase of Namibia’s Programme to Combat Desertification (NAPCOD) targets communities as farmers and caretakers of natural resources. This approach is based on the widespread recognition that no intervention will  succeed without the involvement of local communities.

“In the long term, active community involvement is considered a far more sustainable way to manage precious natural resources better and to find alternatives for farmers to make a living in rural areas,” says Shirley Bethune, national co-ordinator of NAPCOD, based in the Directorate of

Environmental Affairs

The chief focus of NAPCOD is to combat desertification by improving the drought preparedness of farmers, both communal and commercial, as well as of other key players such as service organisations. The ultimate goal is to improve the ability of communities to cope with the dry conditions and reality of Namibia’s climate.

Appropriate activities that can complement incomes earned from farming are one way of reducing people’s dependence on a vulnerable resource base. These may also provide a way of coping during periods of drought. “It is not an alternative, but something to fall back on,” Nickey Gaseb of the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, one of the NGOs jointly implementing NAPCOD with Government, explains. “With time a shift will be seen in land management.”

One of the objectives of the programme is to strengthen the capacities of selected community-based organisations and community members to plan and manage their natural resource base sustainably. This relies to some extent on another main objective, namely that of strengthening the capacity of service organisations to ensure that they are able to provide more effective and appropriate services to community-based natural resource users, managers and organisations.

Increasing community participation is another manifestation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) principle of promoting a strong “bottom-up” approach in addressing the problems of land degradation and loss of productivity. Namibia is one of over 110 countries that have ratified the Convention, which is implemented through NAPCOD.

In line with this approach, improved community participation was also one of the important aspects of the recent Desertification 2002 process in Southern Africa that the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) organised. Communities from South Africa, Namibia and Zambia were involved in the three-year process that built up to an international symposium in Cape Town, hands-on visits to communities and a feedback workshop held at Gobabeb in April this year.

Dr Mary Seely, Director of the DRFN, has described the Desertification 2002 Conference as “unique” because of the participation of the communities. The visits to the rural communities after the symposium provided a rare opportunity for delegates to experience what communities are doing to combat land degradation and desertification in fragile environments with variable rainfall, droughts and limited water resources.

The Desertification 2002 process was also an opportunity for Namibia to showcase how desertification is combated in the country. The conference, with the theme Connecting Science with Community Action, promoted co-operation between communities and scientists to combat desertification. According to Dr Seely Namibia is unusual in this respect, in so far as scientists are working with communities to address land degradation. “There has been a lot of lip service in the past on the subject of connecting science and community action. Nobody has taken the extra step and we thought we would do it properly this time.”

The uncommon nature of the event was emphasised by the Executive Secretary of the Convention, Hama Arba Diallo, who attended the symposium and had the chance to meet people from remote communities, such as the Topnaars of the Namib Desert, face to face.  Addressing the more than 150 scientists, community members and other delegates, he emphasised the need to give a right to be heard to communities when addressing land degradation.  “No one can promote sustainable development without community participation,” he said.

Land degradation has a strong link to poverty. It is the reason why the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has been described as a convention for the people of Africa. It is the only environmental convention that addresses the livelihoods of people and the one with the strongest development link. However, the emphasis on involving people on the ground means that dramatic short-term results are unlikely to be seen, as involving rural people can be a slow process. This was one of the challenges identified in the second national report on the implementation of NAPCOD.

The concern that NAPCOD is yet to become a truly national project and that its activities are limited to the communities in the few selected pilot areas where it is working is expressed in the report. “The pilot areas for programmes related to combating desertification are small islands in a much larger area of unsustainable practices, and the message is not spreading spontaneously,” it states. It states, furthermore, that on a countrywide scale, the programme has not significantly changed the way people use natural resources. “Over-exploitation and unsustainable use are still widespread, and the proportion of the population living in poverty and vulnerable to risks of drought has not changed significantly.”

People working in the field, however, say that the efforts will eventually lead to better land management and relieve the pressure on natural resources. “But,” says Gaseb, “This will only be seen ten years from now.” Whatever the challenges for the future that the programme needs to address, Namibia’s course of action to combat desertification has so far been considered a good example in the Southern African region.

Another compliment for the way that Namibia tackles combating desertification came in 1997 when the DRFN was appointed as a centre of excellence for research, networking and training in desertification issues within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an appointment endorsed by the SADC Council of Ministers.

International recognition of Namibia’s efforts to combat land degradation and desertification is further borne out by the fact that Namibia was invited by the Secretariat of the Convention to host the 6th African Regional Conference to prepare for the first session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC).

Over 120 delegates are expected to attend this conference in Windhoek in July, when 52 African countries will each present their national reports on the implementation of the convention to combat desertification in their countries. A highlight of the Conference promises to be a round-table meeting of representatives from Namibian communities with the Executive Secretary, Diallo, who has invited them to voice their opinions on combating desertification in Namibia.

Progress in Combating Desertification

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is being implemented in Namibia through the National Programme to Combat Desertification, known as NAPCOD. Since Namibia signed the Convention in 1994 and ratified it in 1997, NAPCOD has entered its third phase. The fourth phase is currently being planned. NAP-COD is funded directly through bilateral agreements with the governments of Germany and Finland and seeks additional funding for smaller related projects as the need arises.

Two government ministries, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development, jointly administer NAPCOD. What is especially unusual is that NAPCOD activities are jointly implemented by Government and a consortium of two NGOs, the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) and the Namibia Economic Policy and Research Unit (NEPRU).

Several related projects, including projects on bush encroachment, a SADC-wide network for information exchange, and the recent Desertification 2000 – 2002 Conference process, make up the broader NAPCOD activities. Core activities occur at both national and local level, with the emphasis on community-based action in pilot sites in communal areas in the north, west and south of the country.

NAPCOD components dealt with by the NGO consortium are the development of national and local level indicators to monitor desertification impacts and strengthen the capacities of community-based organisations and their service organisations to enable them to cope better with the realities of making a living in dry-land areas.

NAPCOD activities dealt with by the Directorate of Environmental Affairs in the MET are those dealing with the management of NAPCOD, policy review and sharing experiences with the rest of SADC, the African region and the

international community. The DEA, through its newly formed Conventions Unit, is responsible for ensuring that Namibia meets it obligations in terms of this convention and the other ratified environmental conventions, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the International Convention on Wetlands.

Opportunity to reform

Just over a decade ago Namibia’s independence presented the opportunity to reform the country’s outdated legislation and revise policies dealing with the conservation, management and use of natural resources, and to revise these to include stronger community ownership of re-sources and participation in the sustainable management of these resources. NAPCOD re-viewed the policies pertinent to desertification in 1996 and identified disincentives of sustainable development. As several of these policies have since been revised and new policies developed, the most pertinent being the National Drought Policy of 1997, it is now appropriate to assess the applicable policies, plans and legislation and how they relate to combating desertification.

The main emphasis in NAPCOD III has been community participation. Communities have been involved in conducting their own surveys to assess natural resource and socio-economic conditions and changes, to plan activities that promote sustainable development and combat desertification, to operationalise planned activities and to monitor and evaluate progress. This hands-on approach has been used successfully at NAPCOD pilot sites throughout the country.

The main achievements in monitoring desertification are the development of the national and local level indicators to monitor desertification and land degradation. The current index is based on four key indicators: population pressure, livestock pressure, rainfall and soil erodibility.

Creating awareness

The main activity for creating awareness of desertification is-sues has been the desertification 2000-2002 Conference pro-cess that successfully brought scientists from around the world together with Government and NGO representatives responsible for the implementation of the UNCCD.

The delegates, mainly from African countries, shared experiences with community representatives from South Africa, Namibia and Zambia. The community visits, where delegates could see for themselves the realities of coping with making a living in areas vulnerable to desertification, were a highlight of these experiences.


The process of preparing the second national report has revealed several challenges that NAPCOD should address in future. These include:

• the fact that, with the possible exception of the pilot sites, NAPCOD has not yet changed the way people use and manage natural resources;

• practical commitment to sustainable resource management remains low and alternative methods of income generation are viewed as supplementary sources of income, thus having an impact on poverty reduction but not necessarily relieving pressure on natural resources;

• the lack of recognition that many government activities are in fact contributing towards combating of desertification;

• the challenge of replication of pilot area activities to the national level to make NAPCOD a truly national programme;

• the need to produce tangible impacts and to distribute useful outputs; and

• the need to ultimately secure user rights over communal rangeland resources similar to those now available for wildlife, water and forestry resources.

Desertification issues are ad-dressed in the current National Development Plan, which emphasises sustainability. The issue also forms part of Namibia’s National Assessment Report prepared for the World Summit on Sustainable Development and land degradation, warranting a chapter in the Natural Resource Sector of the recently drafted Vision 2030.

Know thy enemy

Bush encroachment is regarded as part of the process of desertification because it results in a significant reduction in the productivity of rangelands. The decline in the capacity of Namibia’s rangelands is estimated between 50% and 100%, with a connected loss in income of more than N$400 million per annum.

The Bush Encroachment Project, managed by the Directorate of Environmental Affairs, is building on long-term research by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development in Namibia and the SADC region, with support from the Finland International Development Agency. The overall objective of the project is to promote and establish appropriate systems for diverse and sustainable land management in bush-encroached areas. Specifically, the project will develop a common information base on and understanding of the issues related to bush encroachment, and prepare a monitoring and integrated management programme.

The management structure of the project consists of a supervisory board, the National Programme to Combat Desertification (NAPCOD) steering committee controlling policies and progress, a smaller project support team dealing with operation issues and a technical group working on bush encroachment for practical and scientific inputs. Progress for each of the seven expected results of the project is summarised as follows:

• Improved understanding of the causes and impacts of the species-specific bush encroachment process: An extensive literature study has been conducted to assess the contribution of factors such as climate and soils, fire regimes, poor rangeland management such as high stocking rates and wrong practices, reduction of herbivores, biological interactions, temperature and socio-economic policy environment.

• Improved understanding of the impact of bush encroachment on the socio-economic situation of farmers and the impact on biodiversity: These results will reflect the productive status of the land. Surveys to determine the impact of bush encroachment on fauna in both communal and commercial farming areas were carried out and the data are being processed and analysed. Economic losses in income and land productivity were also investigated and recorded.

• Updated and time-sequenced, historical information in map and GIS database form available for researchers, planners and general public: the data of almost 160 case studies in commercial areas, 110 sites surveyed by the MAWRD, and 200 sites in communal areas are in the process of being analysed. Bush densities, height classes, species composition and wood freight will be determined and mapped for the affected areas. These findings are also used for satellite image interpretation to determine the future value of satellite imagery to monitor and track national trends in bush encroachment.

• Improved monitoring systems and methodologies for land capability assessment purposes: indicators and methodologies to measure change were investigated and tabled.

• Sustained and functional mechanisms and capacity to operate and manage the bush monitoring and management project developed for phase 2 of the project: on-farm research data obtained from commercial farmers are being processed to determine best practices and options for combating bush encroachment. These data will be supplemented by scientific research findings and stored in a Bush Expert Database for use by interested parties.

• Compiled policy analysis of bush encroachment related issues for policy reforms: this study has been completed, existing policies were assessed for their appropriateness, several shortcomings were identified and recommendations were made for reform.

• Increased awareness of bush encroachment dynamics and operational networks for information and experience sharing: all key stakeholders are working closely together through technical working groups, ministries with direct interest in the problem, NGOs, scientific institutions and members of the steering committee. A few institutions have been identified for inclusion in the existing informal network. A great deal of awareness has been created through these partners as well as through presentations at international and national conferences and local farmers meetings, radio talks and press releases.

Information compiled from Namibia’s Second National Report on the Implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, April 2002.

This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



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