In Namibia's two most remote corners Margaret Jacobsohn and Garth Owen-Smith have been striving to assist rural communities to link social and economic development to the conservation of the region's spectacular wildlife and other natural resources. The program started in 1983 as an attempt to control rampant illegal hunting which had decimated all wildlife species including black rhinos and desert-adapted elephant. It also focused on facilitating social and economic benefits to rural people from the wildlife they live side by side with.
Fifteen years later there is cause for hope and optimism in rural Namibia: most wildlife species have increased in the northwest Kunene region and in Caprivi, in the northeast of Namibia, poaching is being brought under control with major input from community appointed community game guards. Other natural resources - from palm trees, thatching grass, plant dyes to water lilies - are being monitored by locally appointed women.
The community-based natural resource management pioneered by the NGO set up by Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn received official support in 1996 when the Namibian government passed what is known as the communal area conservancy legislation. This innovative amendment empowers rural communities who live on state-owned communal lands to manage and benefit from their own wildlife in the same way as farmers on privately owned farms. A conservancy can be described as a business owned by a number of resident members or share-holders. It is a multiple use zone where a group of rural farmers have decided to formalize and institute a common property management system in terms of wildlife and related economic activities.
Smith and Jacobsohn's focus today is providing support to communities wishing to form conservancies as the areas designated for wildlife use in Namibia are expanding considerably. In addition, communities are earning income and rural jobs are being created via the establishment of natural resource related enterprises. These enterprises include lucrative joint ventures between commercial tourism companies and communities, community owned and managed rest camps and camp-sites, cultural villages for tourists and a host of related small businesses.
Perhaps the most significant development of all is that one of the first Namibian communal area conservancies, Torra, has started taking over its own natural resource management costs, using its own income. With Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn's unwavering support, a viable communally owned business based on wildlife and generating jobs and income has started to operate in what was once a remote, marginalized rural area.