Developing tools to interpret the environment

Okahandja Cultural Village – Representing ethnic diversity
July 26, 2012
Private land conservation in Namibia
July 26, 2012
Okahandja Cultural Village – Representing ethnic diversity
July 26, 2012
Private land conservation in Namibia
July 26, 2012

Dr Mary Seely, who has lived in Namibia since the early 1960s, was Director of the Desert Ecological Research Unit (DERU) at Gobabeb in the central Namib Desert for over 20 years. In 1990 she founded the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), incorporating DERU, to develop knowledge and understanding of Namibia’s primarily arid environment. Dr Seely details the Why, What and How of the DRFN.

Having been in existence for more than a third of a century, the non-governmental organisation known as the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) (formerly as DERU) enters the twenty-first century. A new year, a new century and a new millennium offer the opportunity to reassess the why, what and how of the Foundation.

Firstly, the DRFN no longer focuses only on deserts, but works throughout the arid and semi-arid areas of Namibia. This comprises more than 97% of the country. Moreover, research is just one of the many activities of the DRFN and occupies far less than half of its time and attention. Although a Foundation, with a Board of Trustees and all this entails, the DRFN is not the kind of foundation people tend to expect, namely an organisation that provides funding on request. Furthermore, although the DRFN is a Namibian NGO and mainly active in this country, its focus has broadened to encompass the SADC region and beyond.

In its Mission Statement the DRFN incorporates the following overall goals:

•    Developing knowledge and understanding of the environment;

•    Developing the tools to interpret the environment and raise appropriate awareness; and

•    Training people to take ad-vantage of the awareness and to apply it to Namibia’s development.

In short, the DRFN wishes to contribute to the sustainable development of Namibia through application of environmental understanding to the challenges facing this arid country.

Putting aims into action

Examining an event in the life of the DRFN provides a good way to find out what the Foundation actually does. For the past eight years, the calendar year of the DRFN has started and ended with SDP, the Summer Desertification Project.

This project was conceived to provide young Namibians from the University and Polytechnic of Namibia with an overview and experience of environmental research – from problem identification to presentation of the final results. The first part of the programme takes place while some of the ten or so students are finishing exams, at a time when we learn about computers and have various people talking about aspects of the environment with which they work. In December we move to the field where we gather information – through interviews with people living in the area and through our own observations and measurements.

Kuiseb River

Kuiseb River

Four years ago it was in eastern Oshikoto, where we investigated the environmental impact of illegal fencing; in 1999 it was in the Otjozondjupa Region, where we investigated development options in Western Bushmanland; followed by the lower Kuiseb River Catchment area, where we examined different types of resource use and degradation. In December 2000 our SDP again concentrated on the Kuiseb River.

After the Christmas break, the group reassembles at Gobabeb, where we analyse and write up the results. This leads to the major “kick-off” event of the year for the DRFN, the “Information Weekend” at the end of January. This is where the students present their results to a large audience of partners and friends, including donors, diplomats and government officials, and where a good time is had by all. Staff of other projects join in at Gobabeb, after a relaxing Christmas season, and all at the DRFN are once again ready to continue their projects or support activities. Bringing us back to our purpose, the SDP is typical of most DRFN projects, having elements of training, research, awareness creation and application of these to Namibia’s development.

Environmental education and research

As a donor-funded NGO, the DRFN is involved in a variety of projects, short and long term, all contributing to its overall mission. During the past two years the following longer-term projects were concluded:

•    A six-year Environmental Education Project, Enviroteach;

•    The finalisation of a series of books on grazing and water for rural water extension officers and an associated radio drama;

•    The publication of Namibia’s Water, A Decision Makers’ Guide; and

•    Namibia’s National Programme to Combat Desertification (Napcod), Phase II.

Projects initiated during this period include the Hoanib River Catchment Study, NetWise, the Regional Awareness Project and Napcod Phase III. Other short-term projects initiated and concluded in this two-year period, included Namibia’s Climate Change Country Study, and contributions to State of the Environment Reports on Water, Socioeconomics and the Industrialised Environment.

Rain in the desert. Photo ©Joh Henschel

Rain in the desert. Photo ©Joh Henschel

DRFN’s Long Term Ecological Research programme, some elements of which are more than 30 years old, is now incorporated into the International Long Term Ecological Research network. The dynamic nature of the DRFN’s overall programme in no way distracts from its overall mission. Indeed, the wide portfolio of projects contributes to realigning and sharpening its focus on application of environmental understanding to development in Namibia.

The above projects also illustrate the range of the DRFN’s partners.

Direct contracting partnerships include the Ministry of Basic Education and Culture, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The DRFN prides itself on being an NGO working with rather than in opposition to Government – a more traditional role for environmental NGOs worldwide. Indirectly the range of partners is far broader, ranging from NGOs such as Namibia’s NGO Forum and the Namibia Nature Foundation, to government entities such as Namibia’s Water Resources Management Review and the National Institute for Educational Development, and the private sector.

During the past two years the DRFN’s partners have expanded to the SADC region and include the SADC-Environment and Land Management Sector located in Lesotho, the Institute for Water and Sanitation Development in Harare and the National Botanical Institute in Cape Town. Formal Memorandums of Understanding have been established with the Polytechnic of Namibia, SADC-ELMS, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the University of California at Riverside and the Norwegian Agricultural College, Noragric.

How does the DRFN accomplish all this?

First and foremost, all of it requires people. The DRFN has a varied staff, of whom more than 80% are Namibians working on the various projects, sometimes several at the same time. Staff includes volunteers – be they from Namibia, Germany, the US or elsewhere – who contribute to projects, usually alongside counter-part longer-term staff members. Interns from the Polytechnic of Namibia, and from various Universities overseas, spend varying periods gaining hands-on experience and, at the same time, contributing to DRFN projects. Other people, ranging from senior research scientists to students working on degrees, contribute to the DRFN’s overall programme, while carrying out their own research projects (at their own expense).

The SDP programme mentioned above is one of the best sources for recruitment of DRFN staff. Interns often return to join the DRFN staff after gaining their degrees. Many of the staff continue studying – and this is strongly encouraged – either while working with the DRFN or while studying full-time elsewhere with funds which the DRFN has been instrumental in finding. Some staff members leave for government or academic positions, or when the projects they have worked on reach completion.

Another group of people contributing to the “how” of the DRFN is its Board of Trustees. Comprised mainly of individuals from Government and private business, the Board meets several times a year to review the financial status and policy directions of the DRFN.

Donor and other funding

A major effort is directed at securing donor and other funding, while the Environmental Evalua-tion Associates of Namibia (Pty) Ltd (EEAN) and our Communi-cations Unit earn some of our requirements. EEAN takes on the environmental assessment component of a number of interesting projects. These range from rural water-supply development plans to road upgrading; from a proposed hotel and a naval base in Walvis Bay, to a tourism plan; and from a radio tower construction to promotion of solar energy.

The Communications Unit edits publications, prepares brochures and provides a number of other services, some in-house for DRFN and others for outside clients. Both these fund-raising arms of the DRFN use current and associated DRFN staff to carry out jobs and take advantage of the training opportunities provided.

Donor partnerships are central to the functioning of the DRFN and include the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the Norwegian Agency for Develop-ment Co-operation (Norad), the German Government through the Gesellschaft für Technische Zusam-menarbeit (GTZ), the Director General International Co-operation of the Netherlands, the British High Commission and the British Council.

As can be seen, many components of our programme, staffing and funding contribute to the achievement of our mission. We could also examine structure, planning, location and other aspects. In all instances it is the people with whom we work, directly and indirectly, who contribute to making the DRFN what it is.

This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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