In 1990, Namibia became the first African nation to incorporate environmental protections into its constitution.
Before Namibia’s 1990 independence, tourism was controlled by a private minority group. Locals received little benefit from tourism, and few had incentives to conserve. Namibia’s wildlife populations plummeted as poaching and droughts increased.
Then Namibia’s government made another bold move. With the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), it shifted the rights and responsibilities of managing wildlife and land onto local communities.
Known as Living in a Finite Environment, or LIFE, this project brought together the Namibian government, USAID, the World Wildlife Fund and several local partners. Together, they provided conservancies with technical support, training, grants and regional coordination.
To become a conservancy, communities had to define their borders and membership, establish a governing committee, develop a benefit distribution plan and adopt a legal constitution. In return, they earned the rights to hunt animals for their own use, manage protected game and permit trophy hunting within a quota.
Today, nearly one in four rural Namibians belongs to a registered conservancy. Wildlife is a valued asset. Poaching is no longer acceptable, and many native species have thrived.
LIFE has become a model. In 2004, USAID helped launched a similar project in Kenya called the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), an organization that includes pastoralists, landowners and the Kenyan government. Both projects illustrate the benefits of community-based conservation.
Conservancy members know the more wildlife they have, the more tourists they can attract. Elephant sightings in Kenya’s Sera Conservancy, for example, increased 366 percent after NRT’s establishment.
What’s more, less than a third of elephant deaths on NRT’s conservancy lands are caused by poaching — a stark contrast to the 87 percent caused by poaching outside the conservancies. That’s partly because poaching is seen as taking away from the community, and locals are more likely to report poachers.
Many conservancies have instituted new land management practices. One such practice, cattle bunching, lumps herds of cattle in one place for grazing instead of allowing them to spread out. This helps break up the hard soil while giving the unused land time to heal. Once the cattle have eaten through one patch, herders move them onto another, allowing the first patch time to recover.
These improved grazing practices have resulted in fatter cattle and higher incomes. By 2012, conservancy pastoralists had sold $1.17 million of cattle.
Conservancies can partner with private companies to open safari lodges, sell trophy hunting licenses to professional hunters and make handicrafts such as jewelry.
In Namibia, LIFE has created 547 full-time and 3,250 part-time jobs. In Kenya, women from NRT conservancies sold $85,000 worth of jewelry in 2011 alone. In fact, NRT conservancies earn more than $1 million every year from tourism, livestock and jewelry.
Any money the conservancies make is shared among the members. Many conservancies use this money to compensate pastoralists who’ve lost livestock, to subsidize education for its members and to start new projects like growing cash crops.
In most conservancies, about 60 percent of gross income is put toward development projects such as increasing access to water or improving road infrastructure.
For USAID, the process matters as much as the product. It’s not just about conserving wildlife or creating jobs. By encouraging inclusive decisionmaking, LIFE and NRT are cultivating good governance.
Through community-based conservancies, locals are learning how to hold their representatives accountable — and how to replace them when necessary. Meanwhile, representatives are learning how to manage resources and funds on behalf of their members.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.