The Okavango Delta Problem (Part 2)

The Okavango Delta is one of the world's most famous wetlands, officially having been declared a Ramsar site in 1996. Despite its esteemed status, communities residing around the delta have seen their livelihoods deteriorate as a result of the delta's growth.

In this blog series, I will be exploring the reasons for this paradox and what can be done to ensure that communities around the delta benefit from its international acclamation. 

The International Union for Conservation Of Nature (IUCN) defines natural resource ownership in terms of the level of dependence on the resource i.e. those who directly depend on the said resource are the primary stakeholders, then the next level of beneficiaries are secondary stakeholders and so on. Using this definition, seeing that the communities who have historically resided around the delta have been depending on it for sustenance over the ages, they should be regarded as the primary stakeholders in its ownership. Unfortunately, in reality, that is not the case with the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, the Tribal Land Act, defines ownership and access to natural resources. In Ngamiland, the district which houses the delta, 84% of the land is communal, meaning it falls under the jurisdiction of land boards. Only 16% of the land is state land with none being freehold. On the surface, this creates a facade that the people of Ngamiland, through the land board, have control of their own land. The catch however is that land boards are answerable to the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services i.e. the government. Simply put, this means that in reality and practice, the government owns and controls not 16% of the land in Ngamiland but actually, 100% of it.

 After independence, the Okavango Delta land was annexed from the Batawana Reserve. Further exercising their control of the delta, in 1978 and then again in 1992, the government expanded Moremi Game Reserve which pushed adjacent communities further away from the delta. Furthermore, the grazing land policy introduced in the late 1970s and early 1990s parcelled out communal land into ranches which were allocated for exclusive use by rich cattle barons. Coupled with the building of the buffalo fence which basically rendered the delta a cattle free zone, the ability of delta communities to partake in livestock rearing was dwarfed.

For management purposes, the Tawana Land Board has demarcated Ngamiland into what is known as "Controlled Hunting Areas" (CHA) which are tourism spots. To acquire a lease which is normally for a 15-year duration, a lessee has to get into agreements with the Tawana Landboard, Department of Wildlife and the Department of Tourism. 34% of these CHAs are under community concessions, 43% under private concession holders and 23% under government-held concessions. But again, these numbers are not a true representation of the situation on the ground.

For CHAs in community concessions, decisions for use are taken in conjunction with the private sector because they have the "expertise" to make the best use of the CHAs. The same holds for CHAs which are under concessions held by the government. However, for CHAs held under privately held concessions, only the private holders make decisions regarding the use of the CHAs. This means that the private sector has interests in community, government and their own CHAs. A jackpot.

Initiatives like the Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBRM) have been roped in to try to help communities benefit from the delta's booming tourism industry but although some good has come out of them over the years like the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust which has come up with initiatives like a funeral assistance scheme and biannual living allowance for unemployed villagers, the fact is that compared to the benefits enjoyed by the concession holders within the delta at the expense of the livelihoods of the communities, so much more still has to be done.

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