Grass roots democracy in Torra

Grass roots democracy in Torra
Grass roots democracy in Torra

There is a flip chart flapping in a welcome breeze under the fierce sun in Torra Conservancy, in Namibia’s arid north-west. A block meeting is taking place in Middleputz under one of the few trees offering a little shade. Halfway down the agenda after prayers, welcome, and conservancy study grants, stand three stark initials, HWC: Human Wildlife Conflict. Three kilometers away as the snake eagle might fly, or eight by tortuous stony paths, lies a kraal where 86 goats and sheep were killed by lions the night before.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has issued a statement about the kills stating that human-wildlife conflict has been exacerbated by drought conditions, and that although translocation of lions out of the conflict area will be the preferred choice to deal with this specific problem, destroying the lions would be a second necessary option.

Just beyond the tree where a dozen Torra residents are sitting is a kraal supplemented by shade netting. The goats have just been let out and are bleating happily nearby. Are they safe? The kraal where 86 goats and sheep were killed was in good order, although the wire was not very high. But high wire and shade netting, and even lights, are no guarantee that lions and leopards will not find a way in to make a kill.

What do you do if you have done your best to protect your livestock, but they have nevertheless been lost? Conservancies try to offset stock losses by payments to farmers, using funds provided by the MET Self Reliance scheme, supplemented by their own income. A new development is the Wildlife Credits scheme, developed by WWF in association with NACSO, whereby money from tourist sightings of iconic species on game drives is channelled to conservancies to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and to provide offsets for losses.

Under the tree it was a heated discussion. Some farmers want all the lions in the area removed or eradicated. Others see lions as potential income from tourists. Torra earns good money from three joint-venture lodges which offer lions as an attraction for tourists, who see Namibia as one of the great conservation success stories in Africa. Money from tourism helps to offset stock losses, and provides benefits such as study grants to rural students.

The debate under the tree turned to “ons rhenoster” – our rhinos. Torra, in common with several other conservancies in the north-west of Namibia, has a free-ranging population of black rhinos, and the conservancy employs several rhino rangers to protect them.

Far away from the block meeting, on a mountainside with a breath-taking view, two rhino rangers sat planning their patrols. Forget high-tech. The rangers are dropped off by vehicle with a tank of water, some basic food rations, and boots. They have tents, but no binoculars and no radios to call for assistance. Cell phone communication is sporadic. The rangers’ task is to make daily foot patrols and to report on unusual activity by people in cars or on foot. If the people are poachers and armed, the rangers have no defence.

Namibia is engaged in south-and east-Africa’s newest conflict: combatting wildlife crime and trafficking. The rhino rangers are some of its foot soldiers. Recognizing the problem, USAID and the United States Department of State have given grant aid to a consortium of Namibian government and conservation NGO partners led by WWF in Namibia to combat commercial poaching. As evidence of the new level of collaboration, the rhino rangers on the mountain top were not alone. There were two officers form the Namibian Police sharing the same basic tents and simple rations. They patrol together, and the police are armed, offering vital defence to the rangers.

Protection of wildlife, and protection from wildlife, are the issues that bind communities like the few huts on the stony ground that make up Middleputz. Torra Conservancy Manager Emil Roman sees the block meetings as an essential element in Torra’s democratic decision making. At the AGM, he explains, some people are shy to talk. Having block meetings enables everybody to have a say, whether in Damara-Nama or Afrikaans. Torra holds two block meetings a year. With five blocks, that makes ten meetings, each taking a week to cover all of the homesteads.

It’s a huge commitment, but Emil Roman says it pays off. Everybody has a say, and can understand the benefits of the conservancy. One of these is the game is harvested according to MET quotas, so that everybody gets a fair share. At the block meeting zebra was stewing in a pot, and everybody who attended also had a piece of meat to take home for the family. There is a balance here, between predators, prey, and people. Now other predators are loose: human predators dealing in rhino horn and ivory. Maintaining the balance is a tricky task on the rocky terrain of Torra. 

Steve Felton
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Rhino rangers
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