Memory Shakoi grew up on the shores of the Kwando river in Zambia. She says growing up the Imusho district, in a village across the border from Namibia’s Kwando conservancy, poaching was rife. A lack of employment and skills also permeated the Imusho area. Conservation was at the bottom of everyone’s to do list and wildlife was primarily seen as a pest.
Friendship and family ties extended across the border into Namibia, but these relationships were personal. They contributed little to improving the socio-economic conditions of people and the protection of natural resources such as wildlife.
But over the past two decades, attitudes have changed.
The five countries which meet at the borders of the Caprivi region – Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia itself, have gradually begun to hand over management of natural resources to local communities who are then able to benefit directly from their conservation efforts.
This, in turn, has led to communities realizing that they need to formalize their cross border conversations in order to coordinate a road map for the future.
“It took a long time for the people to realize the benefits of preserving wildlife”, Shakoi admits. When communities heard that their governments were creating conservancies, there was a perception that “everything would be taken away”. But the opposite was happening. “Now they are beginning to understand the benefits”, she added.
Since 2006, the Caprivi region in Namibia has seen the establishment of five transboundary forums. These forums act as a platform for communities to share experience and knowledge on how to manage shared resources.
And this, according the forum members, is what the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area (KAZA TFCA) is all about. In essence, the transboundary natural resource management forums are a blueprint for the KAZA TFCA. “We are the building blocks of KAZA”, they agree.
Kelly Ndana, a member of the Impalila and Sekute Namibia and Zamibia cross-border forum, said that the forums arose when “we found we needed to work together, because the resources we look after are the same”. The realization was that in order for conservation efforts to have a real impact, engagement with neighbouring countries was critical.
Albius Kamwi, the vice-chairperson of the Sikunga Conservancy and Inyambo Community Trust cross-border partnership, explains that exchange of information has pushed communities to “learn from each other”. Information sharing covers topics such as improved wildlife management, agriculture, and protecting shared resources. Moreover, neighbouring communities encourage and learn from each other’s tourism activities.
One of the driving forces for tourism, Kamwi said, is the quality and quantity of wildlife in an area. And for this to be sustained, cross-border communication is crucial.
Bennety Busiho, the Chairperson of Kwando conservancy, explained that if one community manages their environment and their neighbours do not, “then we can be so smart, but nothing happens”. He emphasized that any conservation work cannot be done in isolation, “on country level alone”.
As Thomas Simvula, the Chairperson of the Botswana Chobe enclave noted, animals don’t heed man-made borders and protecting them is the responsibility of all who live within the areas wildlife transverse.
“An elephant is here this morning in Botswana. In the afternoon it is in Namibia”. He pointed out that the animals do not belong to any village or community individually. “They’re not our animals. It’s for us to share”. He said the reasons for the cross-border forums are primarily for the communities to put in place “control measures”. The benefits, he says, derive from the “common grounds of conservation”.
Patrick Chali, a member of the Kwando conservancy transboundary forum with the Imusho community in Zambia, said, “wildlife is constantly in transit. So to maintain them, we need to meet and talk with our neighbours”. He said that while one community might be geared towards protecting its wildlife, this effort is invalidated if the neighbouring community does nothing to protect animals on their side.
“We usually point the fingers at each other”, Chali said. But by making the decision to come together, communities now manage to iron out their differences and address common challenges.
Over the years, several action plans have been put into place by these talks. Issues such as stock theft, improved agricultural practices, human/wildlife conflict, cross-border fire control measures, have been addressed through these joint forums. And the benefits are tangible.
But such initiatives need the buy-in from governments, who are able to supply support in the form of aligning policies, providing manpower and other government led assistance. With the launch of KAZA it is felt that the first of many steps towards bringing together the communities in the five-country region has been taken.
“We hope the five governments will join us. We have made the first step. Now they must join us to take more steps”, Chali said. He said governments should gear themselves towards jointly steering projects within the KAZA region. “The more projects, the more employment, the more benefits”.
KAZA will also provide an improved platform where communities will raise whatever challenges they face and which can then be jointly addressed by the communities on the ground together with the KAZA country partners.
Moreover, according to Thomas Simvula, KAZA will act as an ideal marketing agent for the region.
Goals and challenges remain. This is only the beginning.