A black rhinoceros in Palmwag, a conservancy on communal land in northern Namibia.

A black rhinoceros in Palmwag, a conservancy on communal land in northern Namibia. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In Namibia, a Lauded Community Conservation Model Is at Risk

Namibia has long been praised for its locally-based conservancies that have benefited both wildlife and rural communities. But the government is now allowing oil and gas and other companies onto previously protected lands, putting the nation’s conservation gains in jeopardy.

In the starkly beautiful desert landscape of Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa, I have followed behind as Khoisan trackers conducted a second-by-second forensic reconstruction of a murder scene. (The victim was a young giraffe pounced on by a leopard half its weight.) I have climbed mountainous red sand dunes to watch beetles doing handstands, so fog off the Atlantic could run down their backs to their mouths. And I have listened as a Namibian wildlife guide snapped off the pipe-like branch of a Euphorbia bush and explained how the nearby rhinos had evolved, in the absence of finer foods, to thrive on its milky, poisonous flesh.

Namibia has always seemed to me to be a wondrous country, and not just for its paradoxical richness of life in a sparse, arid habitat. Its Khoisan people have long regarded themselves as Earth’s oldest humans. (Recent genetic evidence indicates that they may be right.) And the desert is so deeply rooted in the culture that the national rugby team calls itself the “Welwitschias,” after a straggling desert plant that supposedly cannot die, though it looks as though it already has.

What has always seemed particularly wonderful to me is that, after an armed independence movement won Namibia’s freedom from South Africa in 1990, the new nation embraced an extraordinarily humane constitution protecting both the environment and the right of the people to support themselves by sustainable use of the land on which they lived.

The government has stood by as foreign companies have targeted Namibia’s flagship community conservancies.

The dominant SWAPO political party, formed from the armed independence movement, seemed, when I have visited over the years, to be following through on these commitments. With an area roughly equal to Texas and Louisiana combined, Namibia put more than 20 percent of its land under the control of community conservancies — clusters of subsistence farmers — who began to develop local economies based on wildlife tourism. Another 17 percent of the land area went into national parks. Wildlife populations soared as a result — tripling the elephant population, for instance, and almost doubling the number of mountain zebra, even as wildlife sharply declined elsewhere in Africa.

In a 2014 New York Times article, at the height of the rhino poaching crisis, I described Namibia as “just about the only place on earth to have gotten conservation right for rhinos and, incidentally, a lot of other wildlife.” For its people, too. Conservancy partnerships with tourism lodges and trophy hunting outfitters were already bringing new income to some of Namibia’s poorest and most remote communities. (In a rudimentary office somewhere between Palmwag and Kamanjab, the business manager for the local conservancy once proudly showed me how she totted up that year’s income on an Excel spreadsheet.)

Left: Tourist cottages overlooking the Khoadi-Hôas Conservancy in northwestern Namibia. Right: Desert Rhino Camp guide Makumbi Swenyeho.

Left: Tourist cottages overlooking the Khoadi-Hôas Conservancy in northwestern Namibia. Right: Desert Rhino Camp guide Makumbi Swenyeho. Richard Conniff

But something has changed in Namibia. Resource exploitation of a sort that imperils both wildlife and the wellbeing of rural people has become commonplace, with the government, still dominated by SWAPO, looking the other way, or worse. In one recent case, a Chinese company used a government agricultural development program to justify opening thousands of acres of state forest in northeastern Namibia. They cut down ancient rosewood, teak, and other precious trees and exported the timber, in violation of national and international law on trade in threatened species. Then they left the country without bothering about the farm development that was the pretext for the deforestation.

The government has also stood by as foreign companies have targeted Namibia’s flagship community conservancies. In one conservancy formerly celebrated for its stewardship of endangered black rhinos, heavy machinery under Chinese management recently rolled in, unannounced, to excavate a uranium mine. The rhinos there abruptly abandoned their habitat, according to the Huab Conservancy Management Committee. As a result, the conservancy’s tourism joint partnership closed its lodge, depriving the community of its sole source of income. The committee announced in February that it will sue the ministry of environment for violating due process in the case. But that strategy has backfired for other conservancies.

When activists visited villages to discuss the gas and oil drilling, Namibian police arrested them and held them for nine hours.

In the most troubling of these incidents, ReconAfrica, a Canadian gas and oil company, began drilling exploratory wells on conservancy land in January 2021. ReconAfrica’s website states that it has engaged in extensive outreach to local conservancies, and pays close attention to environmental issues. But Max Muyemburuko, chairman of Muduva Nyangana Conservancy, said the first contact came when the company showed up and began drilling there. A meeting only materialized after a group of conservancies repeatedly petitioned regional and national authorities. At that meeting, said Muyemburuko, conservancy members got just 15 minutes to express their concerns, and ReconAfrica provided no response.

When Muyemburuko and other activists then began visiting villages to discuss the drilling, Namibian police arrested them and held them for nine hours without charge. He described it as “an intimidation tactic” to “scare us … so that we cannot inform people” of their rights under the constitution. The Namibian High Court then rejected a petition from the conservancies seeking a review of ReconAfrica’s permits, and the government has threatened the conservancies with crippling penalties to recover its legal costs in opposing the petition.

“What we are seeing is a direct intimidation by government, of course, and ReconAfrica to silence communities,” said Reinhold Mangundu, chairperson of the Namibian Environment and Wildlife Society. Worse, said Maxi Louis, director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management, it’s happening in rural areas “where people are vulnerable, where people don’t have voices, where people don’t have access to technology, or social media to express themselves … I never believed it when I used to hear these stories from outside, how these oil companies work. But now,” she laughed nervously, “I’m experiencing it.”

A ReconAfrica oil exploration site in northern Namibia in 2021.

A ReconAfrica oil exploration site in northern Namibia in 2021. Nicole Macheroux-Denault / Picture-Alliance/ DPA / AP Images

So what changed in Namibia? Many people I interviewed suggested that the government became more corrupt, or more obvious about its corruption, following President Hage Geingob’s 2014 election. His former attorney general and the minister of marine resources now sit in jail on charges that they took kickbacks to divert lucrative seafood quotas from the state fishing company, Fishcor, to an Icelandic company. Some of the money from the aptly named “Fishrot” scandal reportedly ended up in SWAPO’s own election coffers, rather than the national treasury. (“Fishrot” only rose to the level of criminal prosecution as a result of lavishly detailed investigative reporting by Al Jazeera and WikiLeaks.)

Graham Hopwood, executive director of Namibia’s Institute for Public Policy Research, attributed the increased corruption to the ruling party’s enormous popularity passed down from the fight for independence. “SWAPO has won every election since independence in 1990,” he said, typically by a “whopping” majority. That has resulted in a sense “of entrenchment and complacency, and the feeling amongst the comrades that they must start to utilize the system to get something out of it for themselves.” Increased international interest in Namibian deposits of critical minerals, including uranium, lithium, and copper, has also created new opportunities for corruption. Mining and other extractive industries have helped put a dozen other African countries at the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Why not Namibia, too?

Tourism accounts for about 15 percent of jobs in Namibia, and it’s the driving force behind the growth of wildlife there.

Targeting resource extraction on conservancy land may seem tempting now because the COVID pandemic and the push in some countries to ban imports of hunting trophies have made the tourism economy seems less dependable. Namibia is also still “a very divided society,” said one environmentalist, who asked not to be named. “A lot of people perceive that tourism only benefits white people. And it’s said very point-blank here.” Industries like mining and oil-and-gas extraction, on the other hand, promise “Black empowerment.” So far, however, that has meant empowerment of Black urban elites at the expense of Black rural poor living on the affected land.

Income from resource extraction can of course also prove elusive: The conservancies themselves are not included in the negotiation of mining and drilling deals on their land. Income-sharing, beyond handouts to traditional leaders, is unknown. It’s not even public knowledge how much — if anything — Namibia’s national treasury earns from them. (But ReconAfrica’s CEO Craig A. Steinke, who is not Namibian, recently held 4.5 million shares of the company, worth roughly $4.5 million — though that’s down from a 2021 peak of $45 million.)

Namibian President Hage Geingob speaks with reporters after voting, November 27, 2019.

Namibian President Hage Geingob speaks with reporters after voting, November 27, 2019. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP via Getty Images

Writing about Namibia in the past, I’ve often urged readers to visit, for the beauty of the land and its wildlife, and for the opportunity to support a pioneering experiment in community conservation. The environmentalists and conservancy managers I interviewed urged people to continue to visit, despite the threatened future of that experiment. Tourism still accounts for about 15 percent of jobs in Namibia. It’s also the driving force behind the growth of wildlife there, and the best hope for the rural poor to build a better future on their land.

“You should have heard these women and men from the villages, how articulate they were about what the vision is, how committed they are to make it work,” said one environmentalist, after a meeting at which rural people were proposing an even more wildlife-and-tourism friendly approach on their land in northwestern Namibia. “What Namibia has achieved in terms of having local communities committed to conservation …. You don’t find that in most places around the world.”

The people of Namibia, the environmentalist suggested, have taken to heart the vision delivered to them in their constitution by the heroes of Namibia’s independence movement. She holds out hope: Namibia faces a new presidential election and a change of administration in 2024. There is still time for the political heirs to that founding vision — including the leading SWAPO candidate, who has stressed integrity — to wake up to what a good thing still lies within Namibia’s reach.