The 18th Conference of Parties (CoP18) for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was held in 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland. Namibia’s government delegation was accompanied by NACSO, members of the Namibian media, and community representatives from five conservancies. Despite the conservation success stories from Namibia and other southern African countries, their policies regarding conservation hunting come under immense pressure on this international platform.
Two of the community representatives – Christopher Mbangu and Eric Xaweb – reflected on their experience at CITES CoP18, which was a first time for both of them. As chairperson of Sikunga conservancy, Christopher understood that he was part of something much bigger when participating at CITES, “We had a huge task ahead to take part in the discussions as [community] representatives from southern Africa and defend our countries,” he recalls, “especially on the argument about why we use trophy hunting as a conservation tool.” Similarly Eric, manager of Tsiseb conservancy, attended wanting “to learn more about this and see how I can contribute to the debate on behalf of my people and future generations to come.”
CoP18 was a huge event, with delegates from countries all over the world and numerous observers from non- governmental organisations. Christopher and Eric soon realised that Namibia had few allies and were up against a far more powerful opposition. Eric’s first impression was one of David vs. Goliath: “I noticed that a lot of people that attended were not from Africa,” he goes further, “I felt so small because my presence will not be valued anymore because of the colour of my skin.” Christopher was further surprised to find opponents even in Africa, “In Africa it was only the SADC [Southern Africa Development Community] countries that were on one side, it was sad to see that our African counterparts such as central, east and west African countries were on the other side. We felt so little. It was as if our voices and experiences didn’t matter anymore.”
This experience nonetheless gave both representatives a new perspective on the Namibian government and the CBNRM programme. Christopher explains, “I was impressed when the Minister of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism gave a very good speech in the general meeting,” his favourite part of the Minister’s speech emphasised that “each country has the right to make their own laws and rules.... we cannot be forced to ban elephant hunting while we, the people that live side by side with them knows that they can be very destructive.” Eric also gained new insight: “I was surprised to learn that there were so many global politics around conservation. I went there with little information but now I understand. I need to applaud our government for the effort they put in to support us.”
During the CoP there are smaller sessions where specific issues are discussed that provide a platform for community voices. Christopher gave a presentation on behalf of Namibian communities regarding their support of elephant hunting to help reduce human-wildlife conflict and pay for protecting elephants and other wildlife. Meanwhile Eric got involved in the general discussions around this topic and others relating to communities.
They both returned with important messages for their home communities. Eric wants to create awareness in Namibia about how the CBNRM system compares with others: “I learned that it is only in Namibia where communities are really involved in decision making about our natural resources.” Therefore, “We need to support the government and try to bring the best out of this programme because people are looking at us and they will use any single mistake to discard our methods.” Similarly, Christopher says that Namibian communities – “Need to show them [opponents] that our method is still working by working hard to minimise poaching. This way we can prove to them that we are doing our best for the animals.”