By Juliane Zeidler and Sharon Montgomery
Namibia is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, abundance of wildlife and cultural diversity. Travellers from far and wide marvel at the natural treasures this African desert country holds.
The most arid country south of the Saharan Desert, Namibia’s climate is described as arid to dry sub-humid, with ecosystems that range from deserts and extensive savannahs to dry forests. The lucky visitor who has the privilege of unlimited time and means will experience a cornucopia of scenery associated with many different groups of plants, animals and people, indeed a rich diversity with many faces!
Biodiversity is the variety and variability of life on earth. It encompasses the differences within and between all levels of biological organisation – genetics, species and ecosystems – and from the largest mammals and trees down to microscopic plants, animals, bacteria and viruses. Biodiversity includes humankind – various cultures and peoples – often linked to their very specific environments of origin in terms of physical features, cultural beliefs and practices.
As an arid country, and with one of the largest coastal foggy desert areas in the world, Namibia houses a bounty of biodiversity that is unique to this country. Adaptations to the harsh desert climate and environmental forces have taken place over millennia, equipping fauna and flora with mechanisms to survive and prosper under challenging conditions and making them unique.
Namibia has a long history of exemplary conservation action and, compared to other countries worldwide, has set aside a good percentage of land for the formal conservation of biodiversity. There are a total of 20 proclaimed nature reserves or national parks, which together make up 14.1% of Namibia’s land area. A relatively large network of protected areas exists and the formation of conservancies, management associations for wildlife and natural resources formed in freehold and communally owned farming areas, has created a lower-tier level of conservation action. Today Namibia has more than 44 registered conservancies, which puts an additional 13% of Namibia’s land area under some form of conservation. Modern wildlife and natural resources legislation has led to the devolution of management rights and responsibilities to the people who actually manage and interact directly with natural resources on the land they occupy.
Often the terms ‘natural resources’ or ‘wildlife’ are seen as synonymous with ‘biodiversity’. Strictly speaking, this is not the case. ‘Natural resources’ refers to all naturally occurring materials that mankind finds useful, whether dead or alive. Biodiversity, on the other hand, refers to all living things, useful or not. Both natural resources and wildlife are characterised by biodiversity. Biodiversity encompasses domesticated and wild organisms and is responsible for carrying out specific functions in our ecosystems. Various organisms ensure that the air we breathe is clean, that our soils remain fertile through a continuous turn-over of nutrients and that we have healthy and secure food production.
Biodiversity is important to humankind far beyond the value of beautiful landscapes and impressive wildlife and nature experiences. Biodiversity is humankind’s intricate life-support system!
In a country like Namibia, where a great majority of people – a solid 70% of the population – depend on subsistence agriculture and natural resources for their daily living, the protection of biodiversity and the wise management of this precious resource becomes a question of daily survival – and entails development opportunities.
The Namibian Government has recognised the importance of biodiversity and the environment for maintaining sustainability. Namibia is signatory to a great number of international agreements on the protection of the environment and is actively involved in the implementation of such treaties and conventions. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is one of the global UN-based instruments in which Namibia is particularly active. Government and non-government actors in Namibia established a National Biodiversity Programme in 1996 for a ten-year period and formulated important national policy tools for priority action. The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) is a systematic approach to the conservation and management of biodiversity in Namibia.
The emphasis is on management because we cannot and do not aim to maintain a ‘pristine’ environment in the country. We recognise that we all depend on biodiversity elements as resources and products and thus need to manage what we have in a responsible way so that these elements do not become extinct. We aim to come up with the best practices possible to capitalise on the potential while not destroying it.
The use and partial commercialisation of some traditional herbal medicines can be used as an example. For many years certain cultures have utilised the African devils claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) for its medicinal properties. Industry has discovered the high potential for commercialisation of the plant. Several steps have to be taken to ensure that:
• the people who hold the traditional knowledge of the plant will be adequately protected and remain the owners of the indigenous property rights, and consequently benefit from the commercialisation of the product;
• naturally occurring populations of devil’s claw will be protected from exploitation and unsustainable harvesting;
• products will be developed that are marketable, and can preferably be refined/produced at community-level to ensure that local people can earn a living from the commercialisation of biodiversity products; and
• methods will be developed that allow the large-scale propagation of the plant and its sustainable harvesting.
Guided by the national strategy, the Government of Namibia, primarily through its Ministry of Environment and Tourism collaborating with non-governmental and private-sector organisations, is undertaking a great variety of activities to support biodiversity conservation. These projects are often conducted in collaboration with international organisations, development co-operation partners and private investors. Some of the larger programmes supported by the global community through the Global Environment Facility, a UN-related funding mechanism, and bilateral donors are:
• The National Biodiversity Programme established with bi-lateral support through the German Agency of Technical Co-operation (GTZ);
• The Strengthening of Namibia’s Protected Areas Network (SPAN) Programme focusing on the expansion of protected areas in Namibia and the improvement of their management;
• The Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem Management Programme, specifically targeting the conservation of marine biodiversity;
• Namibia’s Country Pilot Partnership for Integrated Sustainable Land Management, with distinct biodiversity benefits through a reduction of land degradation, which is a major threat to biodiversity conservation;
• The national Community-Based Natural Resources Management programme, supported by a diversity of multi-lateral and bilateral donors, empowering rural people to manage their environment better and to derive higher benefits from it, including through the development of biodiversity products and tourism.
Namibia has taken exemplary action in the conservation of biodiversity. It is clear, though, that an increased effort is required to ensure the long-term conservation of natural treasures. Creating an awareness of the importance of biodiversity in production systems such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism, and support systems and resources such as health, water and air, is only just reaching its peripheral target groups. It is essential that we understand that biodiversity, utilisation and conservation need to be a balance of give and take.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.