John Kasaona is a social entrepreneur, an agent for change. As a young kid he saw his father put food on the table by killing a springbok or oryx (he never thought of it as “poaching”). Then his relatives started going off to prison for shooting wild animals, even if it was a leopard or hyena that had destroyed livestock. Like the rest of his village he learned to resent and despise government conservationists and even the animals themselves. Now John is asking his Himba and Herrero neighbors to welcome wild animals back onto their lands. But old habits die hard.

As a new country in 1990, Namibia had an advantage—the opportunity to start fresh with a new model of conservation instead of cycling through the failed policies of other African nations. Previously administered as a de facto province by South Africa (under the name South-West Africa), Namibia had been subjected to the doctrine of Apartheid and to a traditional conservation system: white landowners could shoot wildlife or host safaris on their land; black occupants of communal lands enjoyed no such rights, and often needed to “poach” just to survive.

With independence and the enfranchising of blacks, came a chance for Namibia to re-think the relationship between poor, rural people and the communal lands they occupy. This led to the formation of “Communal Conservancies,” self-defined land units, recognized by Government, where residents possess the same rights as private landowners to utilize the natural resources within their borders. This means killing wildlife (in numbers negotiated with government) for community game-meat; selling quotas to trophy-hunting safari operators; building community-run campsites; entering into joint ventures with luxury lodge owners; and otherwise profiting from the natural wealth of the region.

John Kasaona is a leader in this reinvention of Namibian conservation. He is assistant director of an NGO called Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), which provides technical support to nascent conservancies. John is engaged in the delicate task of shepherding the people of Namibia’s Kunene region into the potential that conservation offers, while at the same time respecting their traditions and autonomy. It is not easy. Efforts to replenish the habitat are hampered by poor grazing decisions. A rash of thefts is threatening tourism. Relations between a luxury lodge and its neighbors are tense. And lions have reentered the area, worrying herdsmen. John’s investment in solving the myriad problems is total: “I’m from this area. I will have to live next to these people. And they would ask me questions. ‘Why didn’t you do this or that? You were at the right position, you could have helped us more!’ How would I answer them?”

Namibia is now a recognized leader in community-based conservation, with a program that has been in place for over a dozen years. While there has been much progress, the challenge of implementing long-term solutions is ongoing. John Kasaona’s organization, IRDNC, has been a key player in the evolution of Namibian conservation. Since the early 1980s, the organization has provided on-the-ground technical support for communities attempting to achieve economic development in tandem with sound, sustainable conservation.

To find out more about IRDNC, visit their website.

UPDATE: April 2009

Marienfluss Conservancy received good rains last year. Many of the people who had flocked to the new waterhole have returned to outlying pasture. A lion came to Marienfluss Valley in 2008. Locals were monitoring it and kept their cool, but when it wandered outside the conservancy it was shot by a farmer near Etanda. The community has upgraded its campground. Between private lodge fees, the campground and a license sold to a professional trophy hunter, the Conservancy made more than $80,000 U.S. in 2008.

The Himba women at Otapi village are still welcoming visitors from Serra Cafema tourist camp. The women are displaying their wares for sale at the beginning of each tourist visit. Grandma is doing well.