President's Letter: Community-fueled conservation

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF-US

One of my favorite trips is to the heart of southern Africa to see the spectacular wildlife of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, combined with a week of exploring the desert in Namibia, where an inspiring, community-led conservation story continues to play out. That story is one of renewal—of wildlife populations and communities both.

Namibia is located along the southwest coast of Africa and gained independence from South Africa in 1990. It was the first African country to incorporate protection of the environment into its constitution, specifically stating that the government will pursue laws aimed at “the utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.”

In 1993, the new Namibian government received funding from the US Agency for International Development and worked with many partners, including WWF, to form a community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) support structure. Its goal was to promote sustainable natural resource management by giving local communities rights to wildlife management and tourism—a new concept at the time. Just a few years later, in 1996, legislation was passed that enabled Namibian communities to form communal conservancies, formalizing the country’s CBNRM program.

The first four communal conservancies were registered in 1998. Benefits began flowing to these early pioneers, and by the end of 2021, there were 86 registered conservancies in Namibia. Communal conservancies now cover more than 20% of Namibia’s land. Over 238,000 citizens—or one in five rural Namibians—live within a conservancy.

“I love following the lead of local communities... and I love the results.”

Carter Roberts

Each conservancy is structured in a way that makes the most sense for its location and the surrounding community. Many have formed partnerships with lodge owners to bring in tourists, deriving economic benefits along the way—a key to the success of the conservancy movement. Income generated by conservancies for communities grew from less than $150,000 in 1998 to more than $5 million in 2019.

The conservancy model has also produced impressive gains for wildlife. Namibia’s elephant population has more than tripled; black rhinos, once near extinction, have rebounded and the country now holds the continent’s largest black rhino population; and free-roaming desert lions—reduced to fewer than 25 by the mid-1990s—now number around 120.

I love following the lead of local communities and building a model in which they are the main beneficiaries—and I love the results. But more than anything, I love the fact that Namibia has found a way to translate conservation of species into the strengthening of communities and has done so in a way that is completely its own.

On my last trip to Namibia, I explored a remote valley with Chris Weaver, who led our program there for many years. One morning we crawled across a schist ledge covered in lichen and watched the sun rise above the shifting sands and wandering streambeds. Fever trees dotted the streams, and desert elephants, oryx, and kudu walked steadily across the valley. As we gazed upon the scene, I asked Chris, “Where are the people?” Breaking into a smile, he pointed widely to the left and said, “They live over there, but this”—and here he pointed directly in front of us—“this is their wealth.”

WWF has worked in Namibia for more than two decades, supporting the country’s establishment of a national system of conservancies that puts local communities firmly in charge of their own natural resources. We are proud of all that’s been achieved, and we will be there as long as we are needed. But this conservation success story belongs to the Namibian people.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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