By Ginger Mauney
In the Namib Desert, a place of dramatic environmental extremes, finding a balance is never easy. In the stretch of coastline that runs between the Ugab River in the north and the southern end of the Sandwich Harbour mudflats, the search for balance is even more difficult.
Here the often-conflicting demands of miners, fishermen, holidaymakers and conservationists have a history of uneasy coexistence, and this is what makes the proposed Central Coastal Area of the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park so extraordinary.
In proclaiming this area as part of Namibia’s newest national park, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, along with residents, business owners and other stakeholders, have put hope over negativity and self-interest.
It is an inspired move, and one that provides the connective tissue linking the northern Namib to the southern expanse of desert. It is essential to the vision of a protected area that runs from the Kunene to the Orange River, and it will succeed only through dialogue, zoning, compromise and a collective sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Skirting the municipalities of Henties Bay, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, plus several other areas of development along the beach and the Swakop River, the proposed Central Coast Area of the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park recognises the needs of all its stakeholders through the development of zones with respective activities and applications that work within the overall context of the Central Area.
Despite covering a relatively small area within the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park, the Central Area is home to several important conservation areas. These areas of high sensitivity and high conservation status include two Ramsar sites, internationally recognised as the most important sites for wetland birds on the Southern African coast, namely the Walvis Bay lagoon, including Pelican Point, and Sandwich Harbour; the endemic Damara tern breeding grounds where nearly 70% of the world’s population of this near-threatened bird breeds; and lichen fields including the Lagunenberg mountains just south of Cape Cross; and the mouth of the Swakop River.
While the entire Central Area, excluding demarcated municipal areas, will be managed for conservation and controlled tourism, the parameters vary greatly according to land-use zones within the protected national park. These are aligned with recognised IUCN categories and, along with strict nature reserves, include habitat/ species management areas, protected landscapes/seascapes and managed resource-protected areas.
Protected conservation areas that are designed to deliver benefits to Namibians within the scope of sustainable practices include the salt works at the head of the Walvis Bay lagoon, proclaimed as a private nature reserve and an integral part of the Ramsar site, and the salt works at Mile 4. Cape Cross, home to the world’s largest breeding colonies of Cape fur seals, and the Messum Crater area, which is important in terms of archaeological sites, geological formations and botanical biodiversity, are also protected management areas.
Recognising that the Central Area is also a vital place for industry and recreation, there are protected landscapes and seascapes that have been designated for much more open access and less strict regulation.
In terms of recreation, the Central Area of the national park is integral to the ‘people and park’ landscape. There are areas in the southern and northern part of the park that are zoned so that residents and visitors can have easy access for beach and desert recreation, including quad-biking, 4×4 trails, canoeing, windsurfing and fishing. Enhancing and expanding eco-tourism opportunities will also be part of the mandate for the Central Area of this national park. Along with development and enjoyment, an emphasis on responsible recreation in a fragile environment will be stressed.
With a resurgence in the uranium market, uranium mining and the opening of more and different types of mines in the Central Area are a fact of life, yet the long-term national benefits from the use of the land for mining must clearly outweigh benefits from other appropriate forms of land use, such as recreation and sustainable tourism. In principle, areas of key biodiversity will be off-limits to prospecting and mining activities. In all other areas, prospecting and mining operations must be well planned, managed and, once mining operations are completed, removed from the landscape using the best available practices.
In terms of conservation, the Central Area of the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park is an environmental gem. It extends three kilometres into the sea, encompasses a spectacular coastal dune belt, vast gravel plains, Namibia’s richest coastal area for birds, a world-famous breeding ground for seals, rich botanical diversity, three major ephemeral river systems and their river mouths and deltas.
Designed around towns, but inclusive of mining, recreational activities and the prospects of additional ecotourism development, the inclusion of the Central Area in a national park is ambitious, even audacious. The road to proclamation has been long and arduous. The future of the park may be fraught with difficulties and compromises, making it a park to believe in. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the coastal Regional Councils and the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources should be congratulated for being so bold and forward thinking. With the Central Area of the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park, they are creating sections within an enormous park that all Namibians can be proud of.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.