It’s VE day – that remembers heroes from the second World War 75 years ago, so it seems fitting to also honour a great African conservation visionary and globally recognised pioneer in community conservation whose impact was enormous accross the world.
“Garth Owen-Smith’s vision of community-driven conservation, which he began to put into practice in Namibia’s arid northwest during the 1980s, laid the foundations for the country’s internationally acclaimed communal conservancy movement which now covers roughly 20% of the country and has influenced grassroots conservation efforts as far away as Mongolia, Romania and Montana.
Today there is growing consensus that the people who live in the last remaining wild places on earth are key stewards of the biodiversity found on their lands.
Over 50 years ago, when Garth Owen-Smith arrived from South Africa to work as an agricultural extension officer in then South West Africa’s rugged and remote Kaokoland, such notions were revolutionary.
At that time, wildlife was the property of the state and nature conservation was the domain of white government officials whose job was to keep unruly locals from poaching state-owned animals. Widespread illegal commercial poaching, much of it by South African officials, combined with the worst drought in living memory, had decimated once rich wildlife numbers.
With bare-bones funding from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Garth understood that safeguarding wildlife required putting local people in the lead and working in partnership with them. Operating against the South African apartheid system, and at great personal risk to himself, Garth worked with traditional authorities and rural communities to appoint community rangers accountable to their own communities, whose aim was to stop poaching and not merely to catch poachers. These men went on to help solve more over 22 serious poaching cases. Within a couple of years, the massive decline of wildlife was halted, and a local vision of wildlife being more valuable alive than in a cooking pot had been nurtured.
In the late 1980s, Garth and partner Margie Jacobsohn built on their pioneering work in the northwest, to establish the Namibian NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), creating what is today Namibia’s leading community conservation NGO.
IRDNC was instrumental in implementing the empowering communal conservancy legislation and now supports close to 50 of Namibia’s 86 registered communal conservancies, with some of the conservancies in northwest Namibia hosting the last free-roaming populations of black rhino outside of national parks and state protected areas.
In addition to the conservation successes, including desert lions expanding back to their historical range and an almost three-fold increase in the number of elephants in Namibia, the conservancy programme has had a massive socio-economic impact generating GBP 6.5 million returns to local communities.
Over the course of several decades, Garth overturned the traditional conservation establishment with his unwavering conviction that conservation would only succeed if the people who lived alongside wildlife took on the rights – and responsibilities – to manage natural resources.
His conservation contributions have been internationally recognised, with Garth and Margie being recipients of numerous distinguished awards, including the 1993 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa, the 1994 United Nations Global Environmental 500 Award, the 1997 Netherlands Knights of the Order of the Golden Ark Award, and the 2015 Prince Willian Lifetime Conservation Award from Tusk Trust.
An Arid Eden documents the history of conservation in Namibia’s north-west, and concludes with this passage:
‘My last words are to the younger readers, who can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the problems the world is facing today.
If you believe in a cause and are prepared to stand up for it with passion and perseverance, you can make a difference.
Conserving our natural environment will not make you materially rich, but there is no greater satisfaction than having made our planet a better place to live on, even if it is just in a very small way.’
Rest in peace courageous man, and may your legacy thrive.
Acknowledgement: Willie Boonzaaier, Programme Director, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation; Home page image: alvarezphotography.com; Endangered Wildlife Trust – EWT