Namibia’s Conservation paradigm: Use to Conserve versus Protect to Conserve

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Southern Africa’s point of departure on conservation issues is fundamentally different to that of most other countries in the world, and its conservation track record stands out as being pretty successful. Why then, asks Dr Chris Brown, Executive Director of the Namibia Nature Foundation, don’t other countries follow Southern Africa’s example, and why do so many people, including many with genuine conservation interests at heart, oppose its approach?

Whenever there are international discussions and negotiations on conservation issues, the different philosophy adopted in much of Southern Africa stands out in stark contrast to that of many other parts of the world. Whether it is a debate about elephant management at CITES, or sustainable use of natural resources at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Southern Africa’s point of departure is fundamentally different to that of most other countries and regions of the world. Southern Africa’s conservation track record also stands out as being generally pretty successful and, in some cases, spectacularly so.

Namibia is usually one of the more eloquent and consistent nations in its support of the Southern African approach to conservation; an approach that links the wise and sustainable management of natural resources to improving people’s livelihoods and harnessing its indigenous biological diversity for economic empowerment and development. Yet, if Southern Africa’s approach is so successful, why don’t other countries and regions follow its example, and why do so many people, including many with genuine conservation interests at heart, oppose its approach?

In this short article I will attempt to answer these questions. Mostly, people from other regions of the world don’t understand the economic systems in the semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions (areas receiving less than 600 mm of rain per year) of Africa – particularly Southern Africa. It is this lack of understanding, and indeed their desire to support what is perceived to be best for conservation, as they understand it, that drives their defence of a somewhat simplistic approach to conservation, rather than any ma-licious intent to undermine conservation in our region. Yet the end result is that they do, sadly, undermine perhaps the soundest approach to conservation practised anywhere in the world.

In a nutshell, Namibia’s approach to conservation and sustainable development is firstly to treat natural re-sources as having significant economic value. There is no upper limit to this value, and the greater the value, the better. As in the agricultural sector, new ways are always being explored, mainly by the private sector, to increase, enhance and add value to natural resources. The second component is to promote the sustainable use of these resources. Such use may be consumptive and/or non-consumptive. Whether it is one or the other is not the issue. The issue is that natural resources should be used in the most effective and efficient ways, within the bounds of sustainability. And thirdly, that the benefits of such resource use should be equitably distributed, so that they contribute significantly to household livelihoods, economic empowerment, rural and national development and social stability. The benefits (and potential benefits) should also influence people’s decisions regarding land-use options and their commitment to the effective management of the resources.

Under a regime in which natural resources are fully valued, one could look at land-use in different regions and calculate how much money one could make per hectare (or per 100 ha – or any other sized area of land) from different types of uses. One could compare conventional agricultural uses with enterprises based on the use of indigenous biological diversity (the wild plants and animals that occur naturally in an area). One could ask the question, “how much could I make per 100 ha from agricultural activities such as crop production and livestock ranching – essentially using exotic biological diversity – in areas of different rainfall, e.g. less than 100 mm, 100–200 mm, 200–300 mm and so on, up to high rainfall areas of perhaps 3 000 mm?” The answer is that the average productivity of the land under agriculture increases slowly to about 500–600 mm, then increases very sharply as rain-fed cultivation becomes reliable. These values could be plotted on a graph. There would be considerable variation around the average figures, depending on factors such as proximity to markets, soil fertility, groundwater availability, etc.

If we asked the same question for indigenous biodiversity, we would first need to specify which region of the world we wanted to consider, because the value of indigenous biodiversity varies hugely from continent to continent. Wildlife in Africa, particularly its charismatic large megafauna, is one of the continent’s comparative and competitive advantages. The wildlife of no other continent even closely approaches the actual and potential value of that of Africa. The value of wildlife in Africa has been systematically undervalued across the continent. This has been largely exacerbated and abetted by colonial policies and approaches, treating wildlife less as a valuable commodity and more as an interesting and quaint attraction, with some countries having never moved beyond these legacies. Also, ‘protectionist’ conservationists and conservation organisations, mostly from overseas, have often adopted a simplistic attitude of ‘protect to conserve’. So secondly, we would need to assume that there is an open market for natural resources, that regulations and bureaucracy are not prohibitive and that the playing field between enterprises based on exotic agricultural biodiversity and indigenous wild plant, animal and ecosystem biodiversity is level.

If we plotted the average income that could be generated from indigenous biodiversity per rainfall area of Southern Africa, we would find that, in areas where the rainfall is below the amount required for reliable cultivation (about 600 mm), significantly greater returns can be achieved when land uses are based on indigenous biodiversity rather than on agricultural production. These indigenous biodiversity uses would include: tourism, trophy and sport hunting, live sale of wildlife, meat and craft production, use of wild plants (such as medicinal plants), and many subsets of options such as ecotourism, wilderness trails, special-interest groups (e.g. bird-watching, geology), bow hunting, photo safaris, etc. However, at rainfall levels above those required for reliable cultivation, significantly greater returns can usually be expected from agricultural activities than from enterprises based on indigenous biodiversity. The graph in Figure 1 illustrates these trends. Again, there is wide variation around these average figures, based on factors such as proximity to well-known national parks and spectacular natural features, diversity of ecosystems, etc.

There is probably nowhere else in the world outside of the lower rainfall areas of Africa – particularly Southern and East Africa – where, on a large scale, the value that can be earned from indigenous biodiversity significantly out-competes that from agriculture. Few people are aware of this situation. Most of the countries and organisations that try to dominate world conservation thinking and that are most vociferous (particularly the USA, parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand), come from regions where the right side of the graph in Figure 1 applies, i.e. where agriculture generally produces more returns from land than do enterprises based on indigenous biodiversity.

In this sector of the graph, the logical approach to land management in an open-market economy would be to remove the less productive indigenous components and replace them with exotic agricultural components, be they crops, pastures or livestock, or a combination of these. This would obviously lead to a loss in indigenous biodiversity, both at habitat and species levels. The response from conservation bodies, both in government and those of civil society, is to set aside land as nature reserves and national parks. The second response is to list particular species as endangered, to place constraints on their use and to regulate for their protection. This usually removes any market value that they had, and places the burden of responsibility (and the cost) for their long-term welfare on the state.

A third response is to pay landowners to manage their land in particular ways to achieve conservation objectives, essentially to subsidise their loss of production under the optimal profit-making agricultural land-use against less profitable, but more environmentally favourable activities. Within the economic systems and incentives prevailing under these higher rainfall conditions, the conservation response is protect to conserve the biodiversity and environmental health of the area. It generally involves defensive, reactive responses to deteriorating environmental conditions. This is the thinking and the paradigm that, with all good intentions, but with poor knowledge and little understanding, is pushed upon the lower rainfall areas of Africa. Countries, organisations and people – even technical people – assume that the same sets of conditions apply in other parts of the world as do in theirs, and that a defensive and protective position should be adopted to conserve indigenous biodiversity and natural habitats.

The situation in the more arid parts of Southern Africa, covering over 60% of the region and essentially the whole of Namibia, is completely different. This area falls within the left-hand side of Figure 1, where indigenous biodiversity generates potentially greater returns than does agriculture. This means that managing the land for indigenous species and natural habitats is financially the most viable form of land use. Anything that enhances the value of indigenous biodiversity sustainably, increases the attraction of this form of land use. Anything that diminishes the value of indigenous natural resources, undermines the conservation of indigenous species and habitats, and swings the balance towards agricultural production systems and the degradation of natural ecosystems.

The conditions on the left of the graph allow for a proactive, low-cost policy environment that creates strong incentives for both conservation and economic development. Market forces are working for conservation, not against it. Environment and development come together in a win-win situation – working towards sustainable development in its ideal form. A defensive position does not need to be taken. Indeed, a “use to conserve” approach is required, to continuously enhance the value of natural resources and indigenous biodiversity.

From a conservation perspective, as well as from the perspective of addressing poverty and promoting rural and national development, there is no more effective and cost-efficient policy condition than (a) working to create the highest value for indigenous biodiversity so that it outperforms other types of land use, (b) devolving rights and responsibilities over all natural resources to the lowest appropriate local levels so that people manage for their optimal sustainable benefit, (c) ensuring that, together with the devolution of rights goes the necessary tenure and proprietorship over the resources, in ways that enhance people’s confidence in their rights, (d) encouraging market innovation to constantly explore and expand on enterprise options based on indigenous biodiversity (keeping in mind that the agricultural sector has been investing in adding value to this sector for millennia, while the sector working with indigenous biodiversity has tentatively entered the market only in the last few decades), and (e) reducing the bureaucratic and regulatory framework to make the sector as efficient and competitive as possible.

This then is the battle that Southern Africa fights for its conservation paradigm. It is a battle well worth fighting, because the approach is efficient and effective, and it works, even under sub-optimal conditions. The conditions are sub-optimal because (a) national and internatio-nal restrictions on trade in some species undermine their potential value, (b) devolution of rights, tenure and proprietorship over natural resources have not been sufficiently widely and consistently ap-plied, and (c) bureaucracy and centralised regulations have reduced efficiency in the indigenous biodiversity sector. These three areas combine to lower the overall value of indigenous biodiversity in the region, and consequently weaken the incentives for achieving conservation and economic empowerment goals.

Yet despite these sub-optimal conditions, the policy environment in Namibia has gone sufficiently far to show that the approach works. Indeed, it works very well. Two sets of indicators demonstrate this. The first is in the response of indigenous biodiversity to the policy environment, as seen in the status of some key wildlife species in the north west of Namibia over the past 20 years, where rights have been devolved to local communities (Figure 2). The second is the financial benefits earned by communities as a result of this devolution (Figure 3).

The graphs speak for themselves. I am not aware of any other parts of the world, outside of protected areas, where such success is being achieved in conservation. The exciting thing is, we could do even better – with more devolution, less bureaucracy and fewer international restrictions on certain species. And there would be no additional costs involved. We need to address these issues, at both national and international levels. Indigenous biodiversity is one of Namibia’s greatest comparative and competitive advantages. We can achieve both our conservation and development goals by boldly extending the policy environment yet further. Exciting times lie ahead.

This article appeared in the 2004/5 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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