Friday, April 10, 2015

Week Six: Coastal Cities

Matt Higgins and Greta Carlson

Last week we went our first travel seminar within Namibia, visiting the coastal cities of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. On Thursday morning, we embarked on a four-hour drive from Windhoek to Namibia’s central coast, where we began our trip on a guided tour of Swakopmund. On this brief but busy tour we visited Mondesa township and the Democratic Resettlement Community, where we were introduced to local artists and musicians, toured the Community Skills Development Centre (a practical education and job skills training program), and met with a local matriarch, Oma Lina, among other visits. 

The tour balanced entertainment and information, but still catered strongly to our presence as tourists. We felt uncomfortable being honoured as exceptional guests, when our presence in Swakopmund is a direct product of our community’s financial privilege. Thus, the tour served as an opportunity to critique and question institutions of tourism, especially considering recent histories of forcibly applied inequality.  How does tourism perpetuate singular images of Namibia or Namibian people? Swakopmund serves as a tourist hub of Namibia, attracting many visitors from around the world—primarily white Europeans. This pattern creates severe economic and racial contrast between the residents of the town of Swakopmund and the residents of Mondesa township. As travelling students in Namibia, we sometimes struggle to balance our academic study and our experience as visitors. While the staff coordinating the Center for Global Education and Experience work hard to be conscious when choosing local speakers with varied backgrounds to present for our program, it still feels at times as though our foreign, visiting presence does not fully address the economic discrepancy between our group and those that we visit, contributing to troubling power dynamics between CGEE students and our Namibian hosts.

After returning from our tour, many of us took a short walk from our guesthouse to the beach, which represents Swakopmund as tourist destination, environmental preserve and economic hub.
The beautiful beach in Swakopmund!
The prominence of these themes continued with our visit to Walvis Bay on Friday. We began the morning in Swakopmund with a visit to the office for Namibian Coast Conservation and Management (NACOMA). The mission of NACOMA is to pave the way for the Integrated Coastal Zone Management System for the Namibian Coast (ICZMC), a bill that should serve as the policy for the environmental management of the Namibian coastline. The Namibian coastline serves as a habitat for unique populations of plants and animal species, not found in such concentrations elsewhere. NACOMA’s presentation served as an informative introduction to the challenges of human/environment interaction, and how we, as visitors, should remain aware of the problem of landscape degradation caused by tourist activity. 

Despite lofty goals of ecological preservation, NACOMA is a temporary organization that will end its current term in December 2015—so its future is unknown. The habitat of the Namibian coastline is unique and vulnerable, home to plant and animal populations threatened by mining, coastal development and heavy tourism. The high dunes and low plains of the Namib Desert meet the ocean near Swakopmund—one of the only places in the world where such a convergence can be found. The entire Namibian coastline is protected parkland, but the rules and regulations governing the parkland, and what activities may be undertaken in it, vary widely. It is also hard to effectively monitor the regulations  as the programs are understaffed and diverse.         
Flamingos at the Walvis Bay Lagoon

From Swakopmund, we left for the nearby city of Walvis Bay, stopping by the Port of Walvis Bay to meet with Cliff, assistant to the Chief Executive Officer of the Namibian Port Authority. Cliff presented on both the domestic role and the competitive international position of the Namibian Port Authority in maintaining the most accessible deepwater port in Southwestern Africa for large cargo ships. Our visit occurred at an opportune moment, as the Port Authority is currently working to significantly expand the current Port of Walvis Bay through land reclamation while also developing a new, even larger port nearby. 

Expansions on the current port have sparked controversy through their use of dredging in land reclamation. Cliff assured our group that the opportunities gained through the development of a larger port—such as job creation, access to resources and international trading capacity—would significantly outweigh its cost. He also stated that experts in environmental conservation closely monitor the project. Still, residents of Walvis Bay, who claim visible changes in the marine landscape since dredging began, hotly contest the effects of the port development projects. This debate reflects broader challenges within the Namibian political landscape. Should economic growth be favored despite potentially harmful social and environmental impacts? Should projects attracting foreign investment be favored over domestically-initiated and operated projects?
NamPort land reclamation site.

Like the port development projects, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay’s tourist industries prioritize the exchange of international capital, and have clear impacts on local people and environments. Destruction or corruption of habitats through training of animals, construction of recreational facilities like ATV parks, and pollution of dunes poses a serious threat to local environments. On boat tours, for example, pelicans are trained to fly next to and land on boats in exchange for fish.
Pelicans seen on a boat tour. Photo credit: Katie Wilson
Well-meaning changes like this to the “natural environment” benefit tour companies, but come at uncertain costs to wildlife.  Our group participated in a range of tourist activities while in Swakopmund, and many of us came back with mixed feelings about our role and impact in issues like environmental preservation and social division upon economic lines. Conscious discomfort regarding our impacts did not prevent us from still participating, even if we remained critical of those impacts. It is our opinion that, in these situations, the responsibility is on both the tourist and the tour company to insure neutral or positive social and ecological impacts during travel.

Upon departure from the Port, our group headed toward Swakopmund, stopping at Dune 7—a large sand dune easily accessible by car for public climbing, which keeps other dunes protected. While a bit of a physical challenge, the heights offered stunning views of the desert and a rewarding photo opportunity. We had a blast.

The NamFam after conquering Dune 7!
Our trip to the coast made us consider our impacts, both positive and negative, on the people and environments with whom we interact as students and as tourists. These questions will continue to impact our conversation and work here in the CGEE Southern Africa program, particularly during future travel around Namibia.

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