If you want to see why natural resources matter for local-level democracy, look no further than Namibia.
Across this breathtakingly beautiful country, a remarkable social and economic experiment has been going on for nearly two decades: devolving rights to manage and benefit from the use of natural resources from the national government to rural black communities.
Empowering communities with a bundle of secure rights over natural resources has not only produced notable conservation and economic returns. It has helped build stronger, more representative governance institutions in a country that suffered under decades of oppressive colonial and South African rule.
The growth of a conservancy movement
Namibia is one of Africa’s youngest countries. After gaining its independence from South Africa in 1990 following a long civil war, the new government looked for ways to rebuild, promote economic development, and support the empowerment of its black citizens.
Drawing on local experiences with game ranches, a community game guard system and on regional experiences like Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources in Zimbabwe or the Administrative Management Design for Game Management in Zambia which devolved resource rights, the government created in the mid-1990s a particularly robust Community-based Natural Resource Management program that gave rural black Namibian rights to manage and benefit from the use of wildlife. The program had three interrelated goals:
1. Improve rural livelihoods.
2. Protect and conserve important natural resources.
3. Enhance local governance.
With support from local and international nongovernmental organizations and the government, locals help achieve these goals by creating community conservancies. Conservancies are governing institutions that manage wildlife, create economic activities tied to it and distribute any benefits these economic activities generated.
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Creating a conservancy is, however, no easy matter. First, communities have to identify who wants to be a member. Then, they need to work with neighboring communities to identify boundaries and draft a constitution; create management committees, develop plans to manage the game and distribute benefits; and establish procedures to communicate with conservancy members who could be scattered across tens of thousands of hectares.
It’s important to point out that once a conservancy is recognized by the Namibian government, it is supposed to hold annual general meetings where members discuss conservancy management and finance, talk about strategic goals and elect leaders. This would be a tall order for any group anywhere — but Namibians are rising to the challenge, creating and managing dozens of conservancies.
Benefits of conservancies
Namibia’s first conservancy was set up in 1997, and just 17 years later today there are 82 registered conservancies in the country. They cover nearly 20 percent of Namibia’s land and over 10 percent of the population are conservancy members. In 2013 alone, community conservation generated more than 68 million Namibian dollars ($5.9 million) in cash income and in-kind benefits.
Most cash income are from joint venture tourism and trophy hunting but conservancies also earn income or receive in-kind benefits from using the game on their lands and from developing indigenous plant product Today, 81 percent of conservancies generate an economic return though many still struggle to become financially independent. Wildlife numbers have improved dramatically. Elephants, black rhinos, lions and many others are all returning to conservancy lands.
Conservancies provide hundreds of jobs for local people in areas with little other formal sector employment and these jobs go to women and men. In this very traditional country, women hold 26 percent of conservancy jobs and have become an important presence on conservancy management committees. By the end of 2013, 30 percent of committee members were women, 12 percent of conservancy heads were women and 49 percent of conservancy treasurers or financial managers were women.
Now, after years of hard work, rural Namibians are managing more than wildlife: The CBNRM program has been expanded to cover forests and rangelands, and local groups also manage concessions inside Namibia’s national parks.
What this means is that across the numerous conservancies local people are making decisions about how to manage and use the valuable natural resources they live with. They are creating rules to guide their actions and holding their leaders accountable for following these rules and achieving good outcomes. They are expressing their opinions about who is and who is not an effective leader in annual meetings and in other gatherings. They are deciding how to use the revenue they generate and how to distribute benefits to members. Women as well as men are participating — helping to shape the future of their communities.
Conservancies are empowering an increasingly representative set of local people with real opportunities for voice and participation.
Namibia’s community conservancy movement demonstrates, in vivid terms, that secure rights to natural resource not only promote good economic and conservation outcomes, secure rights can do even more: they increase autonomy and, under the right conditions, directly help to build democratic institutions and a rule of law.
#DemocracyMatters is a three-week series exploring the intersection of democracy, development and natural resources management in partnership with International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
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