Just in time for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, President Obama announced the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. The initiative aims to get Americans more excited about the outdoors, spur private sector conservation efforts, and to encourage local communities to get more directly involved in environmental protection.
Shifting conservation efforts out of the hands of the government and into the hands of local people is a great idea. Local communities, working together with the private sector, can and do accomplish excellent protection outcomes. When local communities are empowered to protect their resources their incentives shift in ways that are predictable but powerful, they do more to protect what is around them.
One of the most powerful examples of community-based environmental resource protection comes from one of the least likely places: poor, rural southern Africa. In Namibia, local communities are actively at work with the private sector (with for-profit and non-profit organizations) to rebuild a shattered ecosystem. How did rural Namibians with limited educational opportunities and even fewer economic opportunities achieve some of the world’s most successful environmental change? Two words: legal empowerment
In 1996 the Namibian government passed legislation that allowed local people to create self-organized conservation communities. Today, if locals want to create a conservancy, they must draft a constitution to govern their actions. They develop plans to manage the wildlife, determine its best use, and distribute any profits they generate. Conservancies work to increase the number and diversity of game on the lands, because more animals attract more tourists.
Some conservancies contract with experienced companies to build and operate eco-tourism lodges, while others build campsites, sell animals, or allow professional hunters to bring clients and hunt game for a fee. When conservancies contract with for-profit companies they include provisions that ensure local people receive training in the hospitality business. This creates jobs in rural areas that otherwise would not be there.
Conservancies also hold annual meetings to promote transparency and accountability. Conservancy officers report to members and are voted out when members are dissatisfied with their decisions. Women, in particular, are finding new ways to participate in communities where traditionally they have had little public role and less public voice. People who were disenfranchised and discriminated against are building and strengthening local democracy, one conservancy at a time.
Building local democracies and developing commercial skills that strengthen the rural economy is wonderful, but rural Namibians are literally rebuilding shattered ecosystems. As a result of civil war, drought, and poaching, Namibian wildlife was devastated in the 1980s. Today, poaching has all but disappeared on conservancy lands: conservancy members have strong incentives to patrol their borders and keep poachers out. This community game guard system provides other jobs for local people and also provides a relatively low-cost method for tracking wildlife numbers and movement.
Legal empowerment encouraged and enabled rural Namibians to transform their environment, and today the wildlife is back. Aerial surveys from the early 1980s put zebra numbers at 1,000 or fewer. Today there are over 15,000. Oryx and springbok numbers have rebounded as well, and endangered desert-adapted elephant and lion are reappearing. In the eastern Caprivi region buffalo herds are 10 times larger today than they were in 2000. Impala and wildebeest are thriving, and even crocodiles are doing better.
Far from being the environmental basket-case it was in 1980, Namibia is now a world leader in community conservation.
What can the US learn from Namibia? Would community conservancies work here also? The answer is yes IF local communities are empowered like those in rural Namibia, and receive meaningful rights to protect and benefit from the use of their wild resources. If the goal of the Great Outdoors Initiative is to get more Americans directly involved in protecting the resources around them, providing them with strong incentives to do so is a proven strategy for success.
This year, as millions celebrate Earth Day, we should also raise a chorus of celebration for those rural Namibians who have done so much to protect their extraordinary environment. And, as the Great Outdoors Initiative kicks off we can also reflect on the lesson of Namibia’s impressive conservancy movement: structured properly, legal empowerment of local communities is one of the best ways to promote diversity and protect our wild world.
Karol Boudreaux is senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and was a member of the Working Group on Property Rights of the United Nation’s Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor.