Ecotourism and Career Training Ease Poverty for Southern African Tribes

A story about ecotourism in southern Africa.

Namibia, in southwestern Africa, is sparsely populated, and most of the people who live there are crushingly poor. The Damaraland region, which lies in northwest Namibia, is a scorching, rugged landscape of buttes and rocky mountains, all dry and barren. Only two to six inches of rain falls each year and the temperature often soars above 100 degrees. I was drawn by the exotic storybook animals that somehow live in this arid countryside: oryx with their long, lethal horns, as well as hyenas, gorillas, delicate springboks and the desert-adapted elephants. Damaraland Camp, an oasis of luxury and privilege, that seemed out of place in this stark and desolate, yet beautiful, countryside was my temporary home.

I also wanted to see how the natives lived, so late one afternoon, we visited Fonteine village. About a dozen shabby, ramshackle one-story houses were clustered together, many with rocks on the roof in case of a strong wind. Puffs of dust rose from the ground when donkeys cantered or children ran. There was neither pavement nor grass to be seen. With dusk approaching, women and children were rounding up goats and herding them into kraals (pens), for protection during the night against spotted hyenas. Seven families lived here, much as people must have lived a thousand years ago, eking out a subsistence from this harsh land. They had numerous dogs to ward off cheetahs, about 300 goats for food and milk and about 40 donkeys and several horses they used with carts to travel. I saw a few cars, but they looked derelict.

A small garden surrounded a water hole and water tank, which were filled by a pipeline that ran from a distant borehole. Pam, the village spokesperson, dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, a straw hat and flip-flops, pointed to a broken electric fence. In pidgin English, Pam said, “We installed the fence to keep elephants out of the garden. But the elephants were smart and threw large tree branches on the fence and then came in.”

We saw a broken windmill, lying on its side. Pam said it had been knocked over by a windstorm. A line of poles and a single thin wire receding into the distance were the only indications that electricity had arrived in the village three years ago.

The villagers belong to the Riemvasmaak tribe, which was forcibly displaced to this desolate place from South Africa in 1973 when the repressive apartheid policy was in force and Namibia, then called South-West Africa, was ruled by South Africa. The Damaraland region is home to two main tribes, the Riemvasmaak, who speak Afrikaans, which sounds similar to German, and the Damara, who speak the strangely melodic Damara click language, Khoekhoe. Near the Damaraland Camp, most of the people are Riemvasmaak, who have long been seminomadic pastoralists, grazing goats and cattle.

Hidden in this sad scene, however, is a small but heartwarming success story, for the local people have begun to make connections with the modern world and are starting to earn extra income. They are easing their poverty and starting to earn extra income, which is helping to ease their poverty.

During the early 1980s there was a major drought throughout northwest Namibia and an always-difficult situation became even more desperate. Farming was next to impossible because soil is scarce in the rocky terrain, which will only support grazing by goats and some sheep and cattle. Furthermore, the region lacked industry and commerce, so there were virtually no jobs. With an abundance of weak or dead livestock, predation by lions increased. At the same time, poaching for ivory, rhino horn and meat became rampant. The game population declined drastically, and the drought continued. Displaced Riemvasmaak must have thought they had been transported to hell.

left to right: Howie Miller, Marc Yaffee, and Vaughn Eaglebear

The lodge hosts hikers and hunters.

Local leaders and conservation groups became concerned about the huge loss of game and other species. Finally, action was taken and wardens were hired to monitor game and combat poaching. The program succeeded. Another blessing was the return of rain. By the early 1990s the drought had broken and game was recovering.

In the mid-1990s, a local nongovernmental organization studied the situation and concluded that local communities would benefit from a luxury lodge that would draw tourists to marvel at the spectacular scenery and exotic wildlife. In 1995, a residents association was formed to represent the community in negotiating with investors. The association visited every household to explain the plan and goals, and to ensure broad support. The process was time-consuming but it succeeded, and a southern African tourism company, Wilderness Safaris, was chosen to develop the lodge, called Damaraland Camp. This was Namibia’s first joint-venture agreement between a community and a private tourism company, a ground-breaking achievement.

Because Wilderness Safaris has the goals of conserving nature and helping local communities, the contract was generous and progressive. It required that Wilderness Safaris pay the community a rental fee for use of the land and 10 percent of the net daily rate on each bed-night sold. Most significantly, the contract stipulated that local people be employed in the lodge and trained to managerial-level jobs, giving the young people there a huge opportunity. Furthermore, laundry services were to be subcontracted locally. Provision was also made for the community to gradually acquire ownership of the lodge.

At the same time, the Namibian government was developing methods for local communities to gain some degree of responsibility over their areas, a complicated issue since all rural land is government-owned. Legislation was passed that gave villages rights over wildlife and tourism on their land if they formed a management body called a conservancy. A part of the Damaraland region consisting of 3,520 square kilometers, 20 villages and a population of 1,200, formed and received registration with the Ministry of Environment & Tourism as the Torra Conservancy in 1998. Torra was one of the first communities in the country to establish a conservancy because the process was relatively easy, thanks to the existing residents association.

The combination of a luxury lodge and big-game safaris turned out to be remarkably successful, suggesting that “conservancy tourism” may be the best way to mingle with elephants or lions, and is a step above wildlife reserves such as Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia. Parks and reserves have no human populations, whereas conservancies have wild animals and people living together in the same place, a situation that can often get complicated, but offers excellent viewing.

Bennie Roman, the chairman of the Torra Conservancy, who has been a leader of the indigenous people since the inception of the process, says with pride, “Since we have had our own wardens to stop poaching, wildlife has more than doubled.” He explains that the conservancy also educates the locals to help them minimize the impact of human-animal interactions, including the killing of cattle by predators such as lions, and elephants damaging gardens and water tanks. To further

Paul Platero

Florry’s now district manager.

discourage the shooting of “pest” animals, the conservancy pays compensation for any damage done by the wild animals.

“The bottom line,” Roman says, “is that the villagers have become partners in this conservancy and ecotourism venture and, as a result, have begun to value and protect their habitat and its animals.” The initiative has been successful both here and at other conservancies, with tourism in Namibia growing from 250,000 visitors in 1993 to more than 900,000 in 2008.

And for those seeking excitement in the Hemingway style, the conservancy acquired a quota for hunting of the so-called “trophy species” from the Ministry of Environment & Tourism, after which it entered into a contract with a professional hunter in 1999. For example, a tourist must pay $3,500 for a license to shoot a leopard or cheetah. The quotas set by the ministry ensure that hunting is done on a sustainable basis. Although a small operation, the hunting option brings in tourist dollars and supplies meat to the local community.

The most rewarding aspect of the project has been the Damaraland Camp, which is a luxury lodge employing about 32 people, of whom roughly 26 are from local communities. The Torra Conservancy ensures that every family in Torra has the opportunity to send a family-member to work at the lodge. Wilderness Safaris provides training and also offers work to many locals at other lodges throughout Namibia and neighboring countries.

The Torra Conservancy has created nine jobs as administrative staff and game guards. The conservancy also organizes soccer games, needle classes, workshops and little markets. Currently, the Torra Conservancy owns 40 percent of the Damaraland Lodge and Wilderness Safaris owns the remaining 60 percent. Over the next 20 years, the conservancy share will grow to 100 percent—complete ownership. Wilderness Safaris has taken a generous approach. It gifted the first 40 percent lodge ownership to the conservancy, and will not receive payment for the transfer of the remainder of its ownership.

Perhaps the biggest supporter of Damaraland Camp and the partnership between the Torra Conservancy and Wilderness Safaris is Pascolena Florry. A bubbly, smiling woman of Riemvasmaak heritage, she says, “I grew up in Driefontein village and was a goat herder, but I always dreamed of having a nice job. I so badly wanted to learn to speak and read English that I would stop tourists and ask for newspapers, brochures, anything.” When the conservancy offered her family a job at the lodge, however, she stood aside so her younger brother could get it. Fortunately, a few years later she also won a position.

Florry received training at another Wilderness Safaris lodge, returned to Damaraland Camp and slowly worked her way up from a junior staff member to assistant manager and then manager. She also spent a year in the United States on an exchange program learning hotel management.

Today, at the age of 38, she is Damaraland area manager for Wilderness Safaris and a national success story, a shining example of how opportunities can be brought to rural areas. She was the first black woman to manage a camp in Namibia and one of the first black managers in the country. Not bad, considering she never interacted with whites until the Damaraland Camp was established in 1995. “Before, I only stared at white people and admired their clothes,” she says. Then she paused, adjusted her glasses, and adds, “But you need to work very hard for success.”

“The joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and the community really makes a difference in our lives,” Florry says. “Wilderness is my second family, and to work at our joint-venture lodge brings excitement, happiness, love and care for the environment and wildlife.”

There is no denying that the joint venture has been successful. In 1998, Damaraland Camp won an international tourism award, the Silver Otter. In 2001, Torra became the first conservancy in Namibia to become financially sustainable, meeting all its management costs and making a profit for its members. In 2004, Torra won the United Nations Development Programme Equator award, a prestigious prize that includes $30,000, which goes to community projects that effectively reduce poverty through conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. And in 2005, Damaraland Camp received the World Travel & Tourism Council Tourism for Tomorrow Award for sustainable tourism.

Working together, Wilderness Safaris and the Torra Conservancy have developed a new way of controlling and profiting from tourism, and their model is spreading to other areas of Africa.