Conservation lands under threat

Nothing gets Namibians more excited than land. A second Land Conference is planned, following on from the first shortly after independence. In the past, agriculture has framed the debate about land: should it be large scale and commercial, or more subsistence oriented? Can resettled farmers grow into commercial farmers? But land is also a huge emotional issue, touching on traditional rights and an attachment to a piece of land a family can call home. But what about land as a conservation issue? That is what NACSO came to grips with in a workshop on 29 June.

John Hazam of the Legal Assistance Centre set out the issues relating to land and conservation to a small specialist group, with the intention of clarifying NACSO’s position on land issues, which conservancy and community forest members are increasingly concerned about.

Although community forests and the 82 communal conservancies have fixed and protected boundaries, land issues refuse to go away and are increasingly volatile. Land ‘invasions’ have taken place, notably in Nyae Nyae and N≠a-Jaqna, where farmers have moved cattle into conservancy and community forest land and erected fencing, and in Omatendeka where herders from the north suffering from drought have moved into exclusive wildlife areas where there is still pasturage.

Although conservancies zone their areas for different uses: agriculture, hunting, tourism and wildlife protection, problems arise when traditional authorities, ministries, mining companies and others are not sufficiently aware of these zonations – or even disregard them.

For community forests this is also an acute problem, with grazing taking place in areas where strict control is needed to ensure the sustainability of grasses, bushes and trees.

John Hazam’s legal analysis of the issues brought these problems to the fore, and then set out in detail who has powers over land allocation and its use. For conservancies and community forests, it is vital to know who has that power – and how much power they have themselves, and also to know how to influence decisions about land allocation and use.

Two key areas emerged from the analysis and discussion: how can conservancies and community forests know what is planned by other agencies, such as traditional authorities, ministries and mining companies, and how to influence decisions before a land conflict arises? And second, once there is a conflict, what powers do conservancies and forests have to make a stand for conservation land rights?

One issue that emerged from the discussion was that the commonage, land used for grazing and wildlife, is increasingly under threat from other land uses: from privately fenced off farming, which is often illegal, from mining, and from industry and urban expansion.

NACSO’s Director Maxi Louis summed up the discussion by identifying two key areas of action for NACSO, its members and for the conservancies and community forests NACSO supports. First, she said: we must explain the issues to partner NGOs and conservancy members on the ground. There must be an information campaign to explain the challenges to conservation in land allocation and use – and to explain the rights of conservancies and forests. Second, NACSO must identify clearly the means to challenge threats to conservation, especially illegal ones, and make a firm stand, including legal test cases, in order to set a conservation agenda regarding land use.

A coming land conference will deal with many issues: of land ownership, traditional rights, and productivity. NACSO’s agenda is conservation, for which access to common land for wildlife is critical. NACSO supports the rights of farmers to access common land for grazing, but also recognizes that over-grazing is destructive to the environment, and threatens the future livelihood of farmers, as well as livelihoods based upon wildlife.

Conservancies and community forests need to be much more aware of their rights, and supported in their ability to protect and conserve land. That was the vision of the meeting, which will lead to an action plan.

Steve Felton
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