By Mary Seely
Fifty continuous years of research and training – a record of which the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre is indeed proud – is a record that is unusual for a self-funded research and training institution.
Throughout the lifetime of Gobabeb, the organisational structure and variable support has changed dramatically.
For the past 14 years, it has existed as a joint venture between the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia – the only known government/non-governmental organisation joint venture of its kind in Africa, possibly on the globe.
From the first expedition that identified the incredible biodiversity of the Namib Desert in 1948, it took another 14 years for Gobabeb to become established. And then it took off, assisted by the Nature Conservation authorities of the time and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It has never looked back since.
In the first decade of its existence the first live golden moles were discovered and described, new beetle species were brought to light, contributions towards the interpretation of early hominid-bearing fossil assemblages were made and at least 25 papers were published in the Scientific Papers of the Namib Desert Research Station.
What started off as a small, isolated research and training station has blossomed into an international centre attracting researchers and students from Namibia and many countries abroad. Throughout its fiftieth year – 2012 – the Gobabeb Centre has celebrated its rich history.
As a fully-fledged conference venue, in 2012 Gobabeb attracted the Habitable Planet experience involving more than forty tertiary students from Southern Africa.
Next the Royal Society of Southern African held its Colloquium at Gobabeb with participants from as far afield as NASA research laboratories in California (this while the Curiosity Rover was making its way to Mars).
Soon after, the Southern African Association of Geomorphologists and the Southern African Quaternary Association held their symposia at Gobabeb. For these meetings, over 120 participants came from at least 12 countries worldwide. The cherry on the top of a year-long celebration was Open Day with 300 guests enjoying the atmosphere of a dynamic research and training centre.
Training over the 50th anniversary year included 800 learners from 30 Namibian primary and secondary schools for research-based, syllabus-related environmental education courses.
Furthermore, 350 tertiary students and researchers spent from several weeks to half a year on research projects of various lengths and topics. As a highlight, 29 learners from six Erongo Region schools participated in the first annual Environmental Leadership Summit under the theme: The impacts of mining in the Namib Desert.
Appropriate Technology in Arid Lands continued to be a focus at Gobabeb with improvements on the first off-grid, mini-grid hybrid energy system in Namibia, the prototype for the newly launched Tsumkwe development.
Measuring background atmospheric conditions to track climate change at Gobabeb has been boosted by four international atmospheric research centres with established programmes at Gobabeb: the Max Planck Institute, Jena; the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; the University of Basel; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The research of these centres encompasses the Baseline Surface Radiation Network (BSRN) – one of two stations in Africa – and the Max Planck Institute’s tall tower measuring the variability of important atmospheric biogeochemical trace gases. This is high-level international science at its best – all the while supporting Namibia’s presence on the international science agenda.
Gobabeb’s fiftieth year witnessed the formation of the Gobabeb Research Consortium comprised of ten Theme Coordinators supporting training and research at Gobabeb. What better way to reach out further to enhance the dynamic programme of this no-longer isolated research and training centre?
Gobabeb’s fiftieth year also witnessed the coming to life of the Namibian Ecological Research and Monitoring Unit supporting the ministries of Environment and Tourism, and Mining and Energy, as well as the Uranium Institute to implement the Strategic Environmental Management Plan for mining in the Erongo Region.
Restoration of disturbed areas was a focus of both research and training involving Namibian researchers and students, as well as international colleagues.
Meanwhile, Open Day gave Gobabeb a chance to highlight its contribution to the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture’s nomination of the Namib Sand Sea as a World Heritage Site.
With Cabinet backing, the nomination dossier was submitted to UNESCO in February this year. Namibia, and Gobabeb now await the outcome of a long process of evaluation, which will culminate in mid-2013.
Gobabeb’s long-term research and monitoring programme, dating back to the mid-1970s, is making and will continue to make a major contribution to understanding and promoting the Namib Sand Sea, including Sossusvlei, as one of Namibia’s premier conservation and tourism destinations.
While still in the thrall of our fifty-year celebration, and looking forward to the final holiday programmes with students from four Namibian and international tertiary institutions, Gobabeb is now preparing for its next 50 years, which promise to be ever-progressive and impressive!
This article appeared originally in the Flamingo December 2012 edition.