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A conversation with a Namibian conservation leader

Carter talk

In October 2016, Asser Ndjitezeua traveled from his home in Namibia to Washington, DC, to participate in a panel on community conservation as part of the annual meeting of WWF’s Board of Directors and National Council. Afterward, he and Carter Roberts talked about community conservancies, tough love, and the importance of finding your passion.


CARTER ROBERTS You are a central part of the community conservancy story in Namibia, and I’d love for you to share that story with us. How did community conservancies get started in Namibia?

ASSER NDJITEZEUA The whole Community-Based Natural Resource Management program, or CBNRM, started after the independence of Namibia in 1990. The government realized that before independence only private landowners had benefited from the country’s natural resources. They changed that legislation so that rural communities and people farming on community land could also benefit from the natural resources, including wildlife, effectively creating incentives to look after the wildlife. So our community decided we wanted to establish a communal conservancy. Our conservancy was established under the auspices of the Farmers Association [Grootberg Farmers Union] and I have been the secretary of the Farmers Association for many years. So I was part of the team driving the process.

But apart from that, I was born in a rural area and I grew up as a rural boy. So I had tremendous love for nature already, and when this legislation was passed, it just suited me. I love nature very much and it was just in my scope of life.

“Only when you love something will you bring all your best to it. If you don’t have passion for what you are doing, like I do for teaching and for conservation, at some point along the way you will drop out.”

ASSER NDJITEZEUA
chairman of Namibia’s Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy

CR And you’re also a teacher.

AN And I am a teacher. For more than 30 years.

CR What subject do you teach? And what are the secrets to being a good teacher?

AN I teach basic mathematics—in Namibia, basic mathematics means from the first grade to the seventh grade. And I think the secret to being a good teacher is commitment, and passion for the profession. Only when you love something will you bring all your best to it. If you don’t have passion for what you are doing, like I do for teaching and for conservation, at some point along the way you will drop out.

CR I’ve had people ask me, “Why do you do what you do?” And I tell them, “I don’t think it’s a logical decision. I do this in part because it’s a calling.”

AN Yes. It should be a calling.

CR Namibia is such a gorgeous country. When you wake up in the morning, what do you see? When you go to sleep at night, what do you experience? Bring your place alive for us, if you can.

AN Namibia is a place of contrasts. You have the highest dunes in the world and the second largest canyon. You have three different ecosystems: the sea ecosystem, the desert ecosystem, and the savanna ecosystem. That’s what makes Namibia a country of contrasts. Ninety percent of the days in a year there are clear skies with sunlight. So against that background, if one embarks upon solar electricity in Namibia, you will never go wrong.

In northwestern Namibia where I live, it’s semi-arid. Rainfall, if things go well, only averages 12 inches a year. But for the last four years we have been stricken by drought, so we haven’t seen even that much.

CR Why is the drought so prolonged?

AN Part of it is our natural aridity—it’s a semi-desert.

CR Is that all?

AN Yes, but I believe climate change is also playing a role. The whole rain pattern has changed. When I was a boy, there was a lot of rain. But I think the ozone layer has been damaged in one way or another, and climate change is now today contributing negatively to the rainfall pattern. That’s what I think. But to come back to your question, where I live some evenings are chilly and some are hot, all in the same season. And in the early hours of the morning, especially in the winter, you will experience sizzling winds that cut across the roofs.

And don’t forget about mosquitoes that can sometimes welcome you, but that is part of life. [Laughs]

CR The driving ethos of community conservancies is that by incentivizing people to care for nature, they are invested in protecting it. How does your conservancy do this?

AN We give them diesel fuel to pump water, and then elephants come and share water with the farmers. And then tourists come to see the elephants, and the farmers can see that the money that comes from the elephants—through ecotourism—is bringing them these benefits. We set up soup kitchens for our older people and other vulnerable groups. We provide financial assistance to schools, youth organizations, women’s organizations, traditional authorities, and farmer’s leagues. People especially appreciate employment and scholarships.

CR And where do the income and resources to do that come from?

AN From ecotourism and photo safaris and so on. We are one of the conservancies that doesn’t receive donor funds for operating costs. We never have. WWF gave us this advice. And after five years you told us straightforward, “Your conservancy has been built. You know how to go about generating money. We will give you technical support, but financially we will not assist you anymore. You can stand on your feet and start to generate your own income.” And that is a good thing that happened to us.

CR That’s tough love.

AN It made us mature when we thought that we weren’t. It was a good thing that WWF did for us.

CR And the story has been that over time the wildlife numbers have come back in a big way, and that community income has come back as well.

AN That’s right. And although we are livestock farmers traditionally and culturally, one can now imagine that within the foreseeable future, let’s say 10 years from now, the income and benefits from conservation activities will supersede income from livestock, taking into consideration the drought.

CR Last question. Are you optimistic about the future?

AN I am very much optimistic about the future.

CR Tell me why.

AN Because the poaching is controllable, so wildlife will always be there. The conservancy complies with government requirements, so it can’t be degazetted. We are grooming young people to do what we are doing, and they will do it even better, because they are smarter than us. So why wouldn’t I be optimistic that the future of the conservancy and the community can be brighter than it looks today?

CR You and I have talked about the importance of making conservation relevant in the context of all the many other worries of people’s lives. You’ve listed services to the poor, and donations to schools in your area. You’ve listed all kinds of benefits, an accumulation of benefits that are tied to keeping nature intact, which is remarkable. It’s probably the best connection I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

AN Thank you. We are very proud of our conservancy.

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