PhD candidate Jessica Lavelle gives and update on her research, which is nearing completion.

In Africa, many rural households depend on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) as their primary source of income. Benefits, however, go beyond those that are only financial and also encapsulate social, cultural and spiritual significance. Yet, access to and benefits from NTFPs for harvesters are challenged by numerous barriers. These products are situated in complex and dynamic social-ecological systems that are shaped by multiple factors. The governance of NTFPs can take many forms and different arrangements yield different results that are context specific. My research, based in the rural Zambezi region of Namibia, used devil’s claw, a medicinal plant, as a lens to illuminate different governance arrangements and their outcomes for harvesters and the resource.

In recent decades governments have sought to decentralise management of natural resources through co-management arrangements between the State and communities. Co-management of NTFPs addresses the need for local institutions to be included in governance processes and offers opportunities for local communities to broaden their networks. This improved access to a range of resources such as NGO assistance and capital improves benefits from natural resources for local communities. However, it was found that these institutions also came into conflict with traditional identities, did not adequately consider local conditions and customary practices and in some cases, created new conflicts over land and desirable resources. Power can challenge these introduced institutions and human agency is used by local actors to craft livelihood strategies and resist undesirable rules in adverse conditions.

Another aspect of the research revealed that it is imperative to interrogate the broader political forces that are setting the policy objectives that shape these governance arrangements. Policy and legislation that seeks to ‘decentralise’ natural resource management still inadvertently constrained people’s choices regarding land and natural resource use. This can be viewed as persistent coercive conservation as true economic freedom cannot be exercised by the communities living there. Similarly, NGO interventions were selective and while benefits to harvesters in target communities were improved, there was no shift in power; harvesters thus still lacked autonomy with regard to the market.

However, with further decentralisation and new economic thinking around wellbeing, opportunities exist for local communities to contest and reshape their access to and benefits from natural resources. In this regard, NTFPs could be used to stimulate markets within localities drawing on existing cultural practices and preferences, thus shaping landscapes in more equitable ways and challenging perceptions of NTFPs merely as safety nets. Here market integration seeks to embrace customary practices of natural resource use and management, and the cultural and spiritual value of forests and customary rights become central to NTFP governance frameworks, in addition to livelihoods and conservation.