by Patricia Skyer, COPASSA Project Team Leader, and Helge Denker, NACSO/WWF in Namibia
The traditional image of women in rural Africa shows them tending the fields, gathering wood and water, doing the cooking and looking after children. The Namibian CBNRM programme has already turned the traditional conservation approach – keeping wildlife in and people out – on its head by empowering rural communities to manage wildlife. Conservancies are now also empowering women in many other ways.
Women have always been important user-managers of natural resources in rural Namibia. Yet, they have generally been excluded from formal decision-making about those resources. Traditional authorities in Namibia tend to be male dominated. Conservancies, on the other hand, have democratically elected representative management committees and engage all members at annual general meetings. They also collaborate closely with traditional authorities and Government, thereby striking a new balance in the local management of natural resources.
Currently, around 40% of conservancy committee members are women. In 2007, for the first time, women were elected to chair two conservancies in north-western Namibia. And, interestingly, recent trends seem to indicate that there is less mismanagement of finances if these are handled by women. Over 60% of the financial management in conservancies is now done by women.
Women are becoming involved in most aspects of conservancy management and day-to-day conservancy activities. While only 25% of conservancy employees are currently women, this number is increasing. Women are employed as overall conservancy managers, finance managers, community activators and game guards, among others.
Conservancy governance functions in two ways: as a representative democracy, where the committee is mandated to make decisions on behalf of members, and as a participatory democracy, where members are involved in making decisions at general meetings. While committees tend to decide on day-to-day matters, key decisions on issues such as budgets, sharing of benefits, wildlife use and land zoning involve the members. Here, on average, over 60% of members attending general meetings are women. And these women are actively involved in discussions and the decision-making process. By devolving decision-making to sub-units within the conservancy, committees are further expanding community participation, including increasing involvement by women.
At a national level, the communal conservancy tourism sector generates over 50% of the annual income going to conservancies. This sector is providing many new opportunities for women, both as guides and as camp or lodge staff. And women have quickly proven their worth and worked their way up through the ranks. Lena Florry, for example, who grew up herding goats in the Torra Conservancy, was employed as a junior camp staff member when Damaraland Camp opened in 1996 as the first Namibian joint-venture lodge. Today she is Area Manager for several Wilderness Safaris Camps in the north-west.
Natural plant-product harvesting has become another important source of income for women. Harvesting devil’s claw tubers, which are sold to pharmaceutical companies to be used as a health supplement, has given women a vital source of cash income in remote areas where very few other income opportunities exist. In 2008, devil’s claw harvests generated about N$2.7 million for harvesters and conservancies. The harvesting of resin from commiphora trees has become an important source of cash income for Himba women in north-western Namibia. The resin has been used by Himba women as a perfume for generations and is now marketed to international cosmetic companies, with the income for communities exceeding N$300 000 in 2008.
Craft production has become another important livelihood activity, obviously linked to tourism development. Mashi Crafts in the Caprivi serves as a good example of the reach of a single craft outlet. Income of close to N$230 000- in 2009 was distributed amongst some 225 craft producers in villages in the area, almost all of whom are women. The income also paid the salaries of female sales staff at the outlet. Mashi Crafts is completely self-financing, with a mark-up in the sales price paying for running costs. Interestingly, the membership fee for belonging to the producers’ group is reduced by 75% if producers are already members of the conservancy.
While conservancies are generally not directly involved in either craft production and sales or the harvesting of natural plant products, they represent an organisational structure that can facilitate better management of these resources, as well as being a contact point for networking and the distribution of materials and information.
At yet another level, there are numerous women in key positions in the environment and tourism sector. The current Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) is a woman, as is the Chief Control Warden of the CBNRM Sub-Division within the MET. The Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Namibian Tourism Associations (FENATA) is a woman. Four member organisations of the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (NACSO) and the NACSO Secretariat are led by women. Their track records speak for themselves. Women are steering us in the right direction – and the more women who are meaningfully involved, the greater our success in conservation and rural development initiatives will be.
This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.