by Amy Schoeman, Venture Publications
While Louw Schoeman’s 30-year involvement in the Skeleton Coast has become his lasting legacy in Namibia’s conservation history, it is not widely known that he was the original founder of the Namibia Nature Foundation, an organisation initially established to act as a conduit for funds donated to the official conservation authority for specific conservation purposes. Since being formally constituted in 1987, the foundation has evolved steadily to become the leading conservation NGO in Namibia.
Louw’s belief that such a foundation was fast becoming a necessity, was initially prompted by a lecture given by Professor Clifford S Crawford of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, USA, on the over-utilisation of travel destinations such as the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Death Valley. Professor Clifford argued that “… unless tourism in dry climates is kept within the bounds of ecological tolerance, the future of the industry, as well as the resource it exploits, will soon be irreversibly damaged.”
By the late 1970s, Louw had been closely associated with the Skeleton Coast Park for nearly twenty years. Practising as a lawyer in Windhoek, he initially came to know the terrain through clients applying for prospecting rights in the area. During these visits he became increasingly captivated by the extraordinary beauty and diversity of the landscape. He also became progressively more aware that the remoteness and untouched nature of the terrain could easily be destroyed by over-utilisation, and that entry to the area by tourists and four-wheel drivers needed to be controlled because of the sensitivity of the desert surface to vehicle tracks, the removal of historical artefacts, the disfigurement of rock paintings, the indiscriminate removal of plants and the dwindling numbers of game.
To set the wheels in motion, he went to Stellenbosch for a meeting with Hymie Bluhm, Director of the SA Nature Foundation, to discuss the feasibility of an equivalent foundation for Namibia. Mr Bluhm gave the idea his full support, pledging the backing of the SA Nature Foundation, provided the project was officially sanctioned by the Namibian Division of Nature Conservation and Tourism, at the time under directorship of its founder, Bernabé de la Bat. But Mr De la Bat felt that in view of the political climate of the late seventies, the time was not right.
However, the pressing need for conservation efforts above and beyond those handled by the official authorities was becoming increasingly apparent. Examples of conservation concerns prevalent at the time are the steady decline of free-roaming cheetah populations in central and northern Namibia where they were being shot by commercial farmers because they preyed on livestock and game; the alarming decimation of the critically endangered black rhino in the arid north-western regions of Kaokoland and Damaraland due to severe poaching; the disappearance of breeding colonies of the Cape vulture in the Waterberg environs; and ongoing issues such as desertification and deforestation in the north-eastern regions. The dilemma was that funds from private donors given to the official conservation authorities for specific conservation concerns often disappeared into the general state coffers and ended up being used for other purposes.
In the mid-eighties Polla Swart, Director of the then Directorate of Nature Conservation and Resorts, urged Louw to continue with his efforts to establish such a foundation. The first step was to formalise the constitution, and then to “sell” the concept of the foundation to conservation-minded companies and individuals, initiate fundraising and appoint trustees. On 29 July 1987, with the support and patronage of Mr KWR List of the Ohlthaver and List Group and the appointment of Douglas Reissner as its first director, the NNF was launched as a non-governmental, non-profit organisation governed by an independent Board of Trustees.
The primary aims of the NNF were to promote sustainable development, conserve biological diversity and natural ecosystems, and utilise natural resources wisely and ethically for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future. The NNF was tasked to:
Initiate, support and promote activities that conserve Namibia’s environment, protect biological diversity and foster the sustainable and ethical use of natural resources; support and promote initiatives that strengthen Namibian institutions to understand and manage natural resources better; raise and administer funds for conservation and Namibia’s environment; plan, develop, implement and administer projects to support the mission of the Foundation; provide small grants to worthy institutions; promote and support community-based natural-resource management initiatives; promote and support initiatives aimed at public awareness and education on the environment and sustainable use of natural resources; and establish and maintain good, open channels of communication with partners and potential partners.
To achieve these goals, the NNF has been working in close collaboration with the Namibian Government, NGOs, international bilateral and multilateral donors and the private sector.
This article appeared in the 2012 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.