by John Kasaona, current Chairman of NACSO and Assistant Director of IRDNC in the Kunene Region. This article has been adapted from a speech John gave at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) 2010 in the USA (www.ted.com).
In Africa we say, “God gave the white man a watch and the black man time.” The story of community conservation in Namibia is a long one, not easily told in a few minutes or one or two pages of a magazine. But let me try to tell you at least part of my story.
Many African stories today are about famine, HIV-AIDS, poverty and war. My story is one of success. I come from the Kunene Region in the remote north-western part of the country. In the centre of Kunene is the village of Sesfontein, where I was born.
I am Namibian and also a Himba, one of 29 ethnic groups in Namibia. We are herders and live a very traditional lifestyle. I grew up looking after goats, sheep and cattle. When I was a boy, my father took me into the bush to teach me how to be a herder. “The cheetah,” he said, “is nervous. If you find him eating a goat, just walk up to him and smack him on the backside and he will let go of the goat and push off. Don’t run if you come across a lion – he’ll chase and kill you. Stand your ground, stare him in the eyes and he won’t fight you. But John, if you ever come across a leopard, run like hell – faster than the goat you’re looking after.” This was how I learned about nature.
In addition to being Namibian and Himba, I am also a trained conservationist. And knowing who to run from and who to confront is important for both conservationists and herders.
Wildlife is our gold
When I was born in 1971, we lived under an apartheid regime. White farmers could graze their animals and hunt on their land as they wished. Blacks were not regarded as responsible enough to uilise wildlife. If we tried to hunt or protect our herds from predators, we were called poachers and were fined or jailed. Between 1966 and 1990, war was waged there. Armies hunted for ivory and rhino horn, which they sold for lots of money. In wartime it was easy to get hold of British .303 rifles, and Namibians had the means to kill.
Then the drought came in the early 1980s. Wildlife and livestock were dying and predators became skinny from hunger. One night, a starving leopard came into my neighbour’s home and took a sleeping child right out of its bed. Everyone knows this exact spot to this day. No one will live there. We hunted that leopard and killed it, even though we knew the animal was just doing what it could to survive.
We were hungry. We were angry. White Africans had taken away our right to hunt. My angry father did what he thought was his right. He hunted. No government could stop him. By 1981, all my family’s livestock had died in the drought and I was no longer needed as a herder. I was sent off to school.
The year I went to school, my father got a new job. He began working for an NGO, which grew into the IRDNC – Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation. The people working for the IRDNC spent years in the bush and were trusted by the headmen of our village, Joshua Kangombe and Goliat Kasaona. Both Joshua and Goliat were watching the wildlife disappear. The situation seemed hopeless. Death and despair surrounded our entire village. But the headmen, the community and even the poachers wanted the wildlife to return. The IRDNC proposed, “We will pay people who you trust to become game guards. Who in the community knows the bush and the animals of the bush best?”
“Our poachers,” Goliat responded. “Like Sageus Kasaona.” That was my father.
Instead of shooting and killing poachers like elsewhere in Africa, the IRDNC was helping headmen reclaim their ability to manage people and their right to own and manage wildlife. My father, who had been a poacher, now became part of the creation of a new order for my people. He helped monitor wildlife and poaching. He knew the country. He knew wildlife. He was paid in bags of maize flour and salt. And he was trusted to be a game guard by his own headmen. He was proud.
Over time, my people once again understood that wildlife was our gold, worth more alive than in a cooking pot. As we renewed our connection to nature, wildlife prospered. This prosperity was contagious throughout the country and poaching stopped. By independence in 1990, we had a new foundation for conservation.
Soon after independence, Government secured that foundation by passing legislation which gave us, the people living in communal areas, legal rights to manage and use wildlife. We have strengthened the foundation by building lasting partnerships between communities and Government, and between communities and NGOs like the WWF, which support us with funding and technical expertise. We are also creating strong partnerships with the private sector. Together, we are developing tourism and trophy-hunting products, as well as other ways to use natural resources that provide communities with more and more benefits.
We have managed to keep our traditional values, while at the same time embracing new technology. We use computers, we use modern technology to translocate rhino, but we still have our sacred fires. We have learnt that it is much more effective to stop poaching, rather than trying to catch poachers. We are focusing on solutions rather than problems.
Thirty years have passed since my father became a game guard. He has passed away since and cannot enjoy the success as I see it and as my own children see it today. We have seen the large-scale return of wildlife – including mountain zebra, springbok, gemsbok, giraffe, black rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and cheetah.
What started as a small project of community rangers has grown into a national conservancy programme. Today there are 59 conservancies that manage more than 13 million hectares across Namibia.
In 2008, conservancies made almost N$42 million in benefits from tourism and sustainable wildlife use. This has become an important part of our economy. The funds allow us to invest in employment, food, infrastructure and HIV/AIDS education. We are helping to reshape values around the country.
This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
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