Frequently we can learn a lot from seeing what other nations are doing to improve the lives of their citizens. I did, on a recent visit to Namibia.
Namibia has pioneered significant innovations in community engagement designed to protect its spectacular natural resources -- particularly its wildlife -- and provide a new source of income for its people. Its practices also give its people an opportunity to became more engaged in the decisions that affect their lives and their communities.
During my visit to Namibia, I met with the leaders of the King Nehale Conservancy, bordering on the magnificent Etosha National Park, to learn how Namibia's system of conservancies is benefiting local community members and encouraging those same members to play a greater role in both the management of wildlife and the development of sustainable tourism enterprises. These local leaders outlined a comprehensive system of wildlife management, conservation practices, and tourism enterprise development. This system is supported by the Government of Namibia, which empowers local communities by giving them -- the resident "on-the-ground experts" -- greater control over managing and benefiting from their natural resources.
In 1996 the Namibian Parliament passed legislation that formalized the rights of local citizens to manage their wildlife and benefit from tourism by authorizing the establishment of community-managed conservation areas. Today, there are more than 75 conservancies in Namibia, representing over 10 percent of Namibia's population. Through this practice, the country has enlisted the efforts of its citizens to protect many wildlife species, and that has led to the recovery of the populations of these species, whose numbers had been dwindling. Additionally, in 2010, these conservancies earned over US$ 7 million in income, mainly from their involvement in tourism enterprises. This gives community members direct financial benefits from their wildlife conservation efforts, which can be used for schools, medical facilities, water treatment and other development essentials.
The most important aspect of these conservancies is the empowerment local community members feel as they work together to manage sustainably their shared resources. In 31 conservancies throughout Namibia, the U.S. government, through our Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), is working alongside the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to reinforce the mechanisms that allow for local leadership of conservation efforts and local involvement in the tourism trade. For example, MCC is supporting programs by conservancies to enter into partnerships with private sector tourism businesses to jointly manage lodges; these lodges create jobs and bring benefits into these communities. MCC is also providing conservancies with training, materials and equipment to mitigate potential human-wildlife conflict, so livestock, crops and wildlife can coexist.
Putting the principles of strong governmental support, sustainable management of natural resources and community empowerment together has made Namibia a model throughout the region and the world on wildlife management and conservation. The government, and by proxy the conservancies themselves, have won countless awards, including the 2012 Markhor Award for Outstanding Conservation Performance, awarded by the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation. More important than awards is the fact that Namibians, as exemplified by those with whom I met, have a great sense of pride in protecting their natural resources. The pride and commitment they display is a key indicator of continued success.
As the United States continues to support global conservation efforts, we are going to strive to put Namibia's best practices front and center. If other countries can learn from Namibia's success, we will see a decline in poaching -- a growing scourge in many parts of the region made profitable by high demand, and lack of proper law enforcement -- and other harmful environmental practices. It will also mean an increase in community involvement in the tourism sector, which can provide vitally needed revenue for local economic development.
My short time in Namibia made me a strong believer in its model; those who want to see the true spirit of community engagement, good conservation practices and supportive national policies also should pay a visit to Namibia. (It addition, the landscape and wildlife are spectacular and worth the visit.) A trip there will be an enlightening experience. Visitors also will see how Namibia can provide a good model for countries interested in advancing community involvement to achieve a multitude of other goals as well.