Saturday, November 16, 2013

Week 12: By the community, for the community?

By Amanda Maisel & Cynthia Njuguna

We got back on the road again this week, but this time we headed south.

Having read about community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) in our Development class, we traveled with the intention of witnessing first-hand the different forms that this approach can take. We also encountered privately owned eco-tourism enterprises, which we were able to compare to CBNRM. CBNRM is an approach in which monetary value is reassigned to natural resources in order to incentivize communities to protect and promote their existence. This approach empowers local community members to employ mutually agreed upon practices to manage the resources they have in an allocated space. The long-term sustainable living of all is one of the ultimate goals of CBNRM. Privately owned enterprises do the same but with more of a focus on the financial bottom line.

Employee trainee learning to make cheese at the Gondwana Self-Sufficiency Centre
We first visited the Ganigobes Hot-Spring & Campsite by the Youth Training Center, situated between Mariental and Keetmanshoop. After the discovery of a hot spring nearby, the campsite was created as a local initiative for community income-generation in hopes that the site would attract tourists en route to Keetmanshoop. The second night, we stayed at the Brukkaros campsite situated by the Brukkaros Mountain. Community members envisioned the site as a destination for tourists interested in climbing the mountain and enjoying the breathtaking landscape. During our stay, the dilapidated condition of the site haunted us — for only remnants of structures that once were, stood; they served as a stark reminder of the community’s grand vision that never quite came into fruition. To end our trip, we camped at the Kalahari Anib Lodge, a part of the Godwana Collection of lodges. The lodge was a prosperous and burgeoning organization. We were able to compare the challenges and frustrations of the first two CBNRM projects to those of the third privately owned eco-enterprise.

Taking this trip to the south allowed us to see a different face of development. The CBNRM projects preserve agricultural livelihoods for the future, increase human capital through skill generation, create a reliable income source and enable self-acquired revenue to fund other community endeavors. These grassroots efforts, while made by community members for community members, have more than local benefits for the environment. However, some of these goals are compromised by external funders that overtake initiatives and deny community members meaningful participation in their own projects [1].

Although Namibia is seen as the poster child for CBNRM, we were surprised to discover the concept, given our experience in politics and development at our home universities.  In our personal experience, the approach is seldom discussed in mainstream development discourse. CBNRM may be seen as an outlier, from traditional top-down development, because it theoretically comes about organically with minimal national or international involvement. In reality, national and international funds often do serve as the momentum for CBNRM projects. This bottom up method is innately suited to accommodate a community’s wants and needs as it is of their own initiative and on their own terms. It signifies the reclamation of a development discourse that too often denies agency to its intended beneficiaries. The overemphasis of top down efforts often limit our ability to see the potential and validity of grassroots endeavors that evade external power structures. We are aware that in practice funders often micromanage projects, neglecting community voices. However, it was refreshing to see something that has the potential to go beyond the “savior-complex” occupied methods that we as international relations students are so accustom to hearing.
While it was particularly inspiring for us to conceptualize the self-empowering potential of CBNRM, it was also particularly disheartening to see firsthand where community projects failed.

After the first night at Ganigobes we heard, from our host Bernardus van Rensburg, about the barriers that his community’s campsite still faced in reaching economic viability [2]. Lack of revenue from the project means that there is no overhead to put in pipes from the water supply at the nearby Youth Center to connect to the campsite. However, capital is not the only inhibitor of success. Even more frustratingly, in order to market the site—or to even place a simple sign indicating its presence within 100 meters of the road—the site must be registered with the Ministry of Tourism. The community, despite continued attempts, has not yet succeeded in obtaining this registration. This bureaucratic red tape has huge consequences for the campsite; it has only had a handful of visitors besides the Center for Global Education in the past year, since it is essentially invisible to tourists in the region.

The beautiful but empty campsite overlooking the Brukkaros mountain.
While the Ganigobes site community maintained hope in the face of many frustrations, the campsite we visited near Brukkaros Mountain seemed to have almost completely lost hope. The project began optimistically with the community adamant that the project be entirely on their own terms, even to the point of refusing offers from private lodges to partner with them on the project. The plans for the campsite gained momentum when the project received European Union funding, however since then, the funding has been withdrawn. There have been issues with gatekeepers embezzling revenue that they collected and community members who were not on board have even vandalized the site [3]. It was difficult for us to make sense of how a project initiated by such an inspired and involved community could have failed so badly.

The greenhouse at the Gondwana Self-Sufficiency Centre provides fresh produce to guests upon request.
The next day, in stark contrast to the struggling community campsites we had seen before, we visited the thriving privately-owned, Self-Sufficiency Center and Kalahari Anib Lodge, both part of the larger Gondwana Lodges network. At the lodge, we heard from Hanro Laabscher, the park manager, about the Gondwana Collection’s commitment to environmental and social issues and not just the financial bottom line [4]. They have been successful in generating revenue, providing employment, and at protecting the species and seed banks on their land through copious monitoring and environmentally sustainable practices. The Lodges not only employ locally—starting community members at junior levels—they also provide opportunities for continuous skill generation by training them until they can reach managerial positions1. Furthermore, the company has been buying out foreign investors and screening new shareholders in order to maintain their commitment to local development.

We all had a positive reaction to the work of the Gondwana lodges, but their success as a private company in relation to the CBNRM projects begged the question, why are community-based projects not as successful as privately owned initiatives? While we are aware that other privately owned companies elsewhere have failed and other community-based ones have thrived, there seemed to be some distinct institutional barriers to CBNRMs’ success. It is hard to miss the fact that the structures in place for establishing oneself as an ecotourism site still favor more conventional top down approaches or external investors, like those in the Gondwana Lodges, above communities that choose to invest in themselves by forming campsites or applying for conservancy permits. At the same time, a lot of CBNRM projects adopt this top-down, donor controlled method out of necessity. Thus while real locally fueled initiatives have been proliferating throughout the country, they will continue to face hardships if the bureaucratic system does not restructure and reorient to help accommodate and empower their projects and not just privately owned institution.

[1] Hoole, Arthur. Place-power-prognosis: Community-based conservation, partnerships, and ecotourism enterprises in Namibia. International Journal of the Commons, North America, 4, Aug. 2009.

[2] Bernardus van Rensburg, the director of the Ganigobes campsite, spoke to our class on 8 November, 2013.

[3] Linda Raven, our development professor, gave us a brief background of the Brukkaros campsite during our stay.

[4] Hanro Laabscher, the park manager of the Kalahari Anib Lodge, spoke to our class on 10 November, 2013

No comments: