Feature Story

National parks and the new economy

May 1, 2016

For the GEF and its partners, the Namib and the Cape Floral Kingdom to the south represent examples of a vast challenge — to find ways to conserve huge landscapes while also crafting a unifying vision of a country’s protected areas as both priceless biological assets and as engines of a new economy.

Thousands of years ago, the Nama people of what is now southern Namibia described the enormous desert that stretches for 1,500 kilometers along the Atlantic coast with a stark but telling word; they called it simply Namib, or “vast place.”

For the GEF and its partners, the Namib and the Cape Floral Kingdom to the south represent examples of a vast challenge — to find ways to conserve huge landscapes while also crafting a unifying vision of a country’s protected areas as both priceless biological assets and as engines of a new economy. Addressing this issue head-on, the Government of Namibia, the GEF, and UNDP joined forces to craft a project called Strengthening the Protected Area Network (SPAN).

The Namib has been dry for some 56 million years, longer than any other desert on Earth. The arid millennia have weathered the soils of the Namib, creating spectacular seas of sand dunes that can tower 300 meters over the desert floor. With just a few millimeters of rain each year, the barren landscape appears devoid of life. Yet a startling array of species have evolved to survive here, many by finding ways to capture moisture from the dense fog that frequently moves inland from the cold Benguela current in the south Atlantic. Some of these creatures are small, like the so-called fog beetles that spread their hardened outer wings into the damp breeze and drink the tiny drops of water that condense on the bumpy surface and roll down into their mouths. Other animals in the Namib are quite large, including oryxes, springboks, ostriches, even desert elephants and lions. All have evolved unique and often extraordinary techniques to survive in the harsh Namib environment.

While creatures of the Namib can subsist on fog and endure scorching temperatures, species living in northeastern Namibia face the opposite challenge, as the climate there produces nearly 600 millimeters of rain per year. This diversity of climate, topography, and plant and animal species makes Namibia a priority for biodiversity conservation. Scientists recognize 28 different vegetation types in Namibia, many that occur only here or in adjacent areas. Approximately 75 percent of the mammal species richness of southern Africa exists in Namibia, with 14 endemic species. Namibia has also been an evolutionary hub for certain groups of organisms including melons, succulent plants, solifuges (also called false spiders), geckos, and tortoises.

Long ago, well before the colonial era, Namibia recognized the importance of this rich natural heritage and began CHAPTER 11 National Parks and the New Economy National Parks and the New Economy 103 efforts to protect it. In 1907, during German colonial rule, Etosha became the country’s first National Park and was at the time the largest game reserve in the world. Those efforts accelerated following independence in 1990. The Government went so far as to address habitat conservation and protection of natural resources explicitly in the new constitution. As a result, the Government’s conservation efforts have made the country a stronghold for populations of large animals such as the black rhinoceros, with almost a third of the world’s population, and the cheetah.

The system of state-managed protected areas forms the cornerstone of Namibia’s conservation program. The protected area network encompasses 20 sites, including Namib-Naukluft National Park, which is larger than Switzerland and protects most of the desert and the adjoining Naukluft Mountains. All told, Namibia’s protected areas cover 17 percent of the country’s land area — by comparison neighboring South Africa protects about 7 percent; the United States, which invented the concept of the national park, has set aside about 12 percent.

Until the SPAN project began in 2006, the protected area system, despite its large size, was not wholly representative of the country’s diverse ecosystems and habitats. For instance, the succulent karoo, the northern savannas and the miombo woodlands remained largely outside the protected area system. The system also lacked internal cohesiveness and connectivity, with too many small and isolated protected areas. This can lead to the fragmentation of wildlife populations, excess damage from tourism activity, costly management and enforcement of poaching laws, higher vulnerability to alien species invasion, more bush fires, and over use of water and biological resources.

The sites within the protected area network faced the further challenge of insufficient financial resources. The shortfall limited the management effectiveness of the parks, thereby threatening the ecosystem services and biodiversity that they seek to protect. Before SPAN began, the annual budget of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for park management was approximately US$7 million, a fraction of the funds necessary to adequately manage the system. The Government in fact did not know the actual cost of managing parks, making effective planning impossible.

The SPAN project helped the Government to address these threats and fill gaps in the system. The project assisted the Government’s formal launch of activities in three new protected areas. The largest is the two million hectare Sperrgebiet National Park, which extends southward from Namib-Naukuft and covers more than 1.5 million hectares of the succulent karoo biome. That single addition to the protected area system increased the representation of succulent karoo from just over 10 percent to more than 90 percent. In north-eastern Namibia, the project also helped to formalize the creation of Bwabwata National Park in 2007. With support from the project, the Government addressed the problem of the small protected areas by consolidating two small reserves, Mahango and Caprivi Game Parks, and adding a strip of biodiversity-rich land on the Kwado River, a major wildlife corridor between Botswana and Angola.

Beyond establishing protected areas, Namibia has taken a further important step, one that may yet prove to be a model for the rest of the world for land and resource protection. Namibia is showing how protected areas contribute to a nation’s broader economy. In part, this approach is a child of necessity. Although the human population density of Namibia is amongst the lowest in Africa, the lack of water makes agriculture — the mainstay of most African economies — difficult, if not impossible, in much of the country. Under these circumstances, natural resource-based activities, including wildlife production and management made possible by the areas under protection, represent sound economic as well as ecological use of land.

The old habit of placing little or no value on the economic benefits of protected areas dies hard. Prior to the SPAN project, even a government as conservation-conscious as Namibia did not fully realize the economic importance of its protected areas, and thus tended to rate investing in those areas a low priority. To change that outlook, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism used the SPAN project as a catalyst, and undertook a comprehensive economic analysis of the protected area system in 2004 (when SPAN was in its development phase). The results were striking: looking only at park-based tourism and leaving aside other ecosystem services provided by the system, the study determined that the protected area system contributed up to six percent of Namibia’s GDP. The study also found that the economic rate of return on the government investment over 20 years was as much as 23 percent, and that further investment in protected areas could lead those areas to contribute up to 15 percent of GDP over the next two decades.

Although not typically considered a “sector” of the economy on the list of national accounts, purchases of services by foreign tourists make up nearly a quarter of the total value of Namibia’s exports of goods and services. Tourism is thus one of Namibia’s most important industries, and it largely depends on wildlife, as nearly 70 percent of the tourism dollars are spent on nature-based tourism, according to the study. The total economic impact of protected area tourism increased from approximately US$240 million in 2003 to some US$317 million in 2008. An important corollary of this analysis was that if protected areas can deliver solid economic returns without a deliberate national policy to do so, a concerted national effort could yield even more impressive results.

The Ministry used these study results to negotiate an increase in the state budget for park management and development by 300 percent over the last four years. The government also earmarked 25 percent of park entrance revenue for reinvestment in the protected area system through a trust fund, providing up to US$2 million additional financing per year.

The economic analysis of the protected area system also led to successful negotiation of a large amount of additional donor funding for those areas, including US$15 million from Germany and a US$67 million grant from the U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) to build protected area infrastructure and strengthen community-based nature tourism. This investment is expected to create 6,000 new jobs. A large part of the MCA grant — US$40.5 million — was a direct investment in the management infrastructure of Etosha National Park, marking the first time that an MCA poverty alleviation grant was awarded to a biodiversitybased tourism project as an investment in parks. Clearly the US Government has recognized, as Namibia Government did before it, that a well-managed protected area network can, and must play, a significant role in poverty alleviation.

The importance of demonstrating the value of protected areas to local communities has long been clear in Namibia. The country has a strong community-based natural resource management conservancy program that gives user rights to the communities that live in the conservancies. Wildlife conservancies, which particularly benefit the rural population, have become one of the fastest growing areas of economic development in the country. Most conservancies and private reserves cater simultaneously to conservation and productive uses of land, such as livestock husbandry and farming. They act as buffers to the protected area system, providing a transition zone from more intensive to less intensive land uses.

The conservancies and protected areas on private and communal lands form crucial parts of the conservation effort in Namibia, as 80 percent of country’s population of large game animals occur outside of the state protected areas. The populations of game animals on private and communal lands have increased dramatically since the creation of new property rights systems.

People like Johnson Tjirikombanda Vejorerako have seen the changes. One of the longest serving park rangers in Etosha National Park, Vejorerako grew up on the park’s western edge, helping his family graze cattle alongside wildlife. He believes the Government’s conservancy program has improved conservation efforts.

“Now the animals are like people’s cattle and they have a reason to look after them as they receive benefits from them,” Vejorerako says. “Conservation is in our hands, the animals are in our hands. We must try to protect them, as this will eradicate poverty in communities, and we should protect animals so that future generations will also be able to see species such as rhino.”

The GEF-funded and UNDP-supported SPAN project has helped pay the salaries of dedicated field staff like Vejorerako, people who form the foundation of lasting conservation and who understand the role that local communities must play. The project has fostered innovative thinking and built trust about the role of protected areas in Namibia and beyond. The project has helped demonstrate the role that protected areas can play in both conservation and economic development, and what steps are required to turn that potential into reality.