COVID-19 threatens the legacy of long-term investment and success in the community-based conservation programme of Namibia
For the past thirty years, Namibia’s communal conservancy movement has worked with government to transform wildlife conservation into a viable land-use option for rural communities. Conservancies today cover more than 166,179 km2 (20% of Namibia), encompass approximately 222,000 community members (9% of Namibia’s population) and have seen widespread recoveries of wildlife. Underpinning the success of the communal conservancy programme is the simple but revolutionary idea of turning communities into wildlife protectors, thus creating a proud legacy of community game guards in Namibia and building a conservation-economy that has changed landscapes and lives – both of which are now under threat.
The COVID-19 pandemic is crippling the world’s economy. Tourism, which is the principal economic force in conservancies and pays for the conservation protection costs, is particularly hard hit. Namibia’s tourism industry estimates there will be zero tourist arrivals in the country for the next 3-4 months, and that this situation is likely to persist for the entire year. The predictions for lost income and massive job losses in this sector are particularly painful in rural areas, where the majority of the population ekes out a subsistence living, which has been seriously weakened by the recent 6-year drought. At the same time, there are significant job losses in urban areas and large numbers of the unemployed are already migrating back to their extended families in the rural areas.
What is at stake: Conservancy income from tourism operations is approximately N$ 60 million per year (Euro 3.1 million), with an additional N$ 65 million (Euro 3.4 million) paid in salaries to tourism staff living in conservancies. The jobs of 700 community game guards and rhino rangers, 300 conservancy support staff, and 1175 locally hired tourism staff are in jeopardy, and the 30-year effort to build Namibia’s communal conservancy programme is under severe threat. There is now a perfect storm of increased numbers of people in conservancies, increased human suffering and increased pressure on wildlife. With few alternatives, communities face a precipitous slide into abject poverty; and the return of poaching, as a means of survival, looms in these once amazingly successful communal conservancies.
To prevent the breakdown of hard-earned conservation and social gains and to allow time for the tourism industry to rebuild after the pandemic, WWF Namibia and the Community Conservation Fund of Namibia (CCFN) are establishing a crisis fund of N$ 20 million (Euro 1 million) to secure for one year the ongoing deployment of the game guards and rhino rangers who will ensure the safeguarding of the wildlife. With this financial support, the jobs of community game guards will be secured and collectively support more than 6,000 family members. Furthermore, it will help to ensure that the Euro 7 million per annum wildlife economy and associated jobs, which is critical to poverty eradication, food security and the future of rural communities that are living with the wildlife, remains in place long after the coronavirus has disappeared.