Leading Women in Conservation – Hilga ≠Gawises

Hilga Gowises outside the ≠Khoadi-//Hôas office
Hilga Gowises outside the ≠Khoadi-//Hôas office

During the time that I have worked in the southern Kunene, I have come across women who have become leaders within their conservancies. In this series of interviews, I asked them for some insights into how conservancies are managed and how they see the future for the conservancy programme in Namibia. Here, I spoke to Hilga ≠Gawises, the manager of ≠Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy.

Q: How long have you been involved with conservancies?

A: I have been involved with the conservancy from the very beginning. I was part of the team that helped to establish the conservancy soon after the Ministry of Environment and Tourism amended the law in 1996. The conservancy was gazetted in 1998.

Q: How did you become involved with the conservancy programme?

A: In those days I was just a farm girl, but I always attended the meetings held in the area when they were talking about conservancies. In one of the first meetings, the people elected me as the Vice-Treasurer of the conservancy. Two Fullbright scholars came to help the Grootberg Farmers’ Union to establish the conservancy. I was part of a team of people who, with assistance from the scholars, mapped the conservancy and created awareness among the community about the conservancy. They also gave four of us basic computer training. I learned how to use the computer very quickly, so after the scholars left I was chosen as a voluntary information liaison officer. In this role, I provided a link between the committee and the members of the new conservancy. The other staff members were the coordinator and environmental shepherds.

Q: What do you think are the most important roles for conservancies in Namibia?

A: The most important thing conservancies must do is to create awareness among the communities about the importance of conservation. The people must realise that they can benefit from the conservation of their natural resources. Only when they know this will they conserve wildlife.

The other important role for the conservancy is to make sure that the next generation knows the history of the conservancy programme. The youth must understand how conservancies have made positive changes to their communities. It is important to remember that the members are the most important people in the conservancies, and without their active involvement the conservancies can do nothing.

Q: What are some of your best memories from your work in your conservancy?

A: For me, the best memory was working for something I believed in with my heart, rather than working for money. We started with nothing, and I worked for a year and a half with no salary. Yet I had a passion for what I was doing, so it was a wonderful time. Later, I enjoyed the responsibility of being a manager, as this is a very important position in the conservancy. I learned the importance of transparency, of being patient, and of working hard to achieve something. I believe that I have done my job to the best of my ability, and it gives me great satisfaction to see that the conservancy has succeeded.

Q: What do you rate as your greatest achievements during your work?

A: We have so many success stories, it is difficult to choose only a few! The first achievement was registering the members in order to gazette the conservancy. We had to work to create awareness among the people about the conservancy programme and get them all on board with the conservancy programme.

The next achievement was to have successful negotiations with the trophy hunter, as this was the conservancy’s first form of income. Another achievement was helping with successful grants that allowed the conservancy to pay staff salaries, renovate the office, and build the Grootberg lodge. I was also involved when Hoada campsite was first opened, and with the current renovation of Hobatere lodge. Lastly, we successfully requested game for the conservancy from MET in order to increase our wildlife population.

Q: Do you have any advice for others working in conservancies?

A: As a manager, you must be creative. You must think about what you can do yourself, and not just wait for the committee to tell you what to do. A manager must respect the staff who work under you, and you must listen to them. If possible, you must try and solve staff issues by yourself, before taking the issues to the committee. Your staff are very important, so you must look after them and try to ensure that they are happy.

A manager must be able to negotiate with other stakeholders and provide advice on proposed plans or policies during meetings. The manager should know if some suggestions in the plan can be implemented on the ground, so your input is important. This is especially important when it comes to implementing the benefit distribution plan. Once decisions are taken in the AGM you must take steps to implement these decisions, thus showing that you can really manage the conservancy’s affairs.

One of the most important functions of the manager is to provide feedback to the committee. This must be done at regular meetings, whenever you complete an important task, and when you receive training you must share your knowledge with them. Another critical function for the manager is to keep good financial records. You must know how much is in the budget and how much has been spent. I make mini-budgets for each month to ensure that we do not overspend the yearly budget.

On a day-to-day basis, the manager must keep to the office hours and give full attention to the work – you should not be playing games on the computer during work hours! You must also remember that the manager should not do everything, but rather delegate tasks to the other staff.

Q: What direction do you think the conservancy programme should take in future?

A: The conservancy programme is part of Vision 2030, as it will help alleviate poverty in rural areas, as people benefit from their natural resources. I think that the people must get more benefits from wildlife in the future to help them understand the importance of conservation. In particular, if they get jobs and other benefits, and if conservancies start projects that benefit them, then they will conserve. They must be able to say positive things about the conservancy and to feel proud of their conservancy. If these things do not happen, then they will start poaching.

The conservancy programme is already a success story, but we need to work on the challenges that we face, and turn them into opportunities. Ultimately, we want to have fewer challenges and more opportunities. We must always keep the balance between the needs of the people and the needs of the wildlife. This is particularly true for human-wildlife conflict, which is a big challenge at the moment.

To reach these goals, the conservancies must have well-trained, happy staff who are essential to help the conservancies progress. The conservancies should not be hiring and firing staff all the time, because then they lose the knowledge of the staff members who have been trained to do their jobs.

Q: What are your personal hopes and dreams for conservancies?

A: I would like to see more women taking leadership roles in conservancies. I think that conservancies do well when women are in leadership positions. I would also like to see more transparency in the way conservancies are managed. The members should know everything about the conservancies, and should be allowed to ask questions about how the conservancy is run. There should be no secrets in the conservancy management.

If there are things that are wrong in the conservancy, and the members point these things out, then people must not take the criticism personally. The committee must abide by the constitution of the conservancy, and the rules established in the constitution must be made by the members. If we make policies, then we must ensure that those policies are implemented.

Finally, I hope that the conservancy staff get more training so they can do their jobs properly. If they know what they are doing, then they will be happier as they will have more job satisfaction. The committee and staff must also fully understand their roles and responsibilities.

Q: Would you like to add anything else?

A: The conservancy office must be attractive and neat, so when people come in they can see that work is being done there. The staff must wear proper conservancy uniforms, to show everyone that they are working for the conservancy. The office must always be open during office hours, so anyone can come in – the committee and the community must be able to come and see what is going on. In my office, I put up pictures and certificates so that guests can learn more about the conservancy.

Gail Potgieter
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