PhD graduate Jessica-Jane Lavelle reflects on her Doctoral research in Namibia, which gave insight into the advancement of equitable rural development through bottom-up democratisation of the commons.

Following independence in 1990, Namibia blazed a path in structural reforms in natural resource management to address historical injustices, incentivise conservation and stimulate economic development. Through enabling policy and legislation, utilisation rights have been devolved to communities living in communal areas, who make up two-thirds of the population, to derive economic benefits from the commercialisation of natural resources. Registration as a conservancy enables benefits from trophy hunting and tourism while community forests can benefit from the commercialisation of non-timber forest products.

Over the last two decades the programme has been generously funded by international donors and today there are 86 registered conservancies and 32 community forests, covering 20% of Namibia. It is internationally lauded as a conservation success, reflected in decreased poaching, increasing wildlife numbers and financial benefits to communities. But 22 years on, community-based natural resource management is not at the forefront of equitable rural development. And with its premise of advancing neoliberalism in the broader political economy, it never could be. Its conservation success is marred by a failure in governance that has resulted in few financial benefits at the household level and limited to no economic development. An emerging problem is while conservancies continue to uphold conservation in return for economic benefits, their dependence on external trophy hunting outfitters does not always result in equitable returns. For example, in the Zambezi Region the sustainability of conservancies is challenged by unpaid hunting contracts amounting to N$9 million. In addition, trophy hunting is increasingly under pressure from global environmental movements threatening the viability of the main source of revenue for conservancies. Lastly, the failure of the programme to facilitate the development of home-grown solutions for more sustainable local economies has left a void in capacity and ongoing dependence on NGO support.

That is not to say all is lost. The strength of the programme lies in the institutional framework that has been created, enabling communities to become legal entities that can enter into agreements. The weakness of the programme is that it seeks to enable communities to trade in the free market but with severe limitations on the freedom to do so; enterprises are limited to trophy hunting, tourism and non-timber forest products. Also, communities have been afforded the responsibility to manage their commons but lack the authority to exercise decision making over those resources. Authority remains vested with the state and the market. In their book “Free, Fair and Alive”, Bollier and Helfrich (2019) define the commons as, “a social form that enables people to enjoy freedom without repressing others, enact fairness without bureaucratic control … and assert sovereignty without nationalism”. With this view, natural resources should be used to harness social power to creatively and equitably solve shared problems, rather than being used to exercise the sovereignty of the state and capital ownership.

In Namibia, the current programme remains a top-down bureaucratic exercise that has the benefit of the state and market at its core rather than community capability. Capability refers here to what people may choose, and that choice being respected and executed (Sen 1985). When freedom is identified as a major principle of development, a space is created for communities to imagine, practice and choose real opportunities and valuable functions that would otherwise have been prohibited. This creates a platform for the bottom-up building of democracy scalable to the national level.

In the context of devil’s claw harvesting in Namibia as an example, rights to determine the rules of use would be devolved to harvesters through the conservancy/community forest with accompanying spatial boundaries for exclusive use by that community. Rules of use, including the determination and allocation of harvesting quotas to individuals or households and responsibility for monitoring and enforcement, would be negotiated by the harvesters themselves, facilitated by the management committee of the conservancy/community forest. Given the much broader ecological distribution of devil’s claw, harvesters would delegate from amongst themselves representatives to inform devil’s claw decision-making at the regional level. This would enable capacity development and knowledge exchange between communities from the bottom up. At the national level, the current state and market decision-making power could be democratised by the inclusion of delegated community members for participatory rule-making by the resource users in a truly collaborative forum.

Currently, the sustainability of devil’s claw harvesting is challenged by the limited capacity of state agencies to monitor and enforce good harvesting practices. Accountability by the communities themselves is hindered by devil’s claw being regulated by the state, and thus its monitoring and enforcement deemed a responsibility of the state. In addition, harvesters are excluded from decision-making processes and therefore lack agency in determining their opportunities and functions. This powerlessness prevents community capability and progress towards the equitable solving of rural development problems. In moving forward, the adoption of a rights-based social accountability approach that forges governance from the bottom up could strengthen agency, counteract low accountability and restructure power relations.

Bollier, D. and Helfrich, S. 2019. Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Sen, A. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Photo: The leaves of the makalani palm (Hyphaene petersiana) are harvested by San communities in Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, for basket weaving. (Credit: Jessica Lavelle)