Basarwa trusts under threat

Staff Writer
MAUN: After years of alleged financial misuse, Basarwa-owned community trusts in the Okavango Delta face a gloomy future and a possible government takeover.

This follows the National Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) forum's call for the adoption of a radical approach to revolutionise the programme even if this will mean taking over businesses owned by the community trusts.

Instead of serving its intended purpose of "conservation and rural development", CBNRM has become an agent of discord between the communities  and the government. According to the government, millions of Pula derived from the resources have been siphoned off by unscrupulous board members leaving the communities impoverished. The trusts leaders on the other hand claim that the mismanagement claim is just government propaganda aimed at taking control of the trusts to serve powerful political and commercial interests.

The relationship between the communities and the government has been  characterised by mistrust over the past decade with the communities suspecting the government of harbouring plans to relocate them to give way for wildlife.

Recently the government announced plans to stop commercial trophy hunting, which is the mainstay of community trusts funds. Communities are granted wildlife quotas which they sell lucratively to safari companies trading in commercial hunting. Government's intention to stop commercial trophy hunting will affect communities like Sankoyo, Phuduhudu and Xaxa, which are located in the dry areas.

Speaking on behalf of community trusts in Ngamiland, 23-year-old Tinah Tameti, chairperson of the Khwai Development Trust (KDT) slammed powerful political interests for meddling in the CBNRM project.

He said they suspect that the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) and the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) are serving the interests of powerful politicians, citing the moratorium on the further development of the Tsaro Lodge owned by the KDT.

He said despite the TAC's ruling that KDT should develop Tsaro as a self-catering facility, the BTO overruled the decision. He said that this raised suspicions over the honesty of the BTO in its dealings with the communities.

"There are clear power asymmetries within organisations that make up the TAC leading to lack of transparency, lack of consultation, veiled threats and directives that originate outside of the formal policy framework. This angers communities and reverses gains made in community ownership of CBNRM," added Tameti

The BTO is a public institution tasked with the promotion and marketing of Botswana tourism products. The organisation has been mandated to find partners for the various community trusts in Botswana for photographic tourism ventures after the stoppage of commercial trophy hunting.

Already multi-million Pula deals, similar to the one concluded at the Chobe Enclave Trust in the Chobe District which has seen the development of the state-of-the-art Ngoma Lodge, are on the cards. The introduction of CBNRM as a new natural resource regulator has seemingly replaced the previous Basarwa traditional institutions.

The programme apparently substituted a way of life lost during the Basarwa displacement from their ancestral lands in Moremi and the Chobe and by the consequent hunting restrictions imposed by the government.  At the detriment of their wild-based survival ways, the Basarwa's former gathering and hunting grounds were incorporated into protected areas.

 In these rural areas, the community trusts or village trust committees that run CBNRM have become more powerful than the traditional (bogosi) and political leadership.  This is because trusts are seen as directly generating income and jobs by and for community members. Hence the board of trustees has earned so much prestige that nomination to its positions is a fiercely contested affair laced with devilish back-stabbings.

In Khwai the community has been divided into two opposing camps. A group of youthful people in the village have taken the governance of the community trusts.  This clique is always at loggerheads with the village headman, Merafhe Amos and councillor, Kereeditse Ntshogotho. 

According to the trusts' constitution, the councilor and headman are ex-officio members of the board. However, voting for board membership is done along factional lines.  Similarly, in Mababe another scuffle ensued last year which almost ended before the courts of law. A new board was voted in a board meeting of the Mababe Zokotsama Community Development Trust (MZCDT) after the dissolution of the previous board on a motion of no confidence. 

The TAC intervened and reinstated the board that had been voted out. This did not go down well with the new board which averred that its actions

were constitutional. Consequently, they threatened litigation against the government citing the violation of their rights by the TAC.

In Xaxaba residents are doubtful whether anything of value from CBNRM will ever touch their lives. This is because their community trust which is known as the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust cannot engage in community developments like construction of houses and toilets as this will be against the National Settlement Policy which criminalises developments in ungazetted settlements.

At one point the residents threatened to return to Moremi if developments cannot be brought to them outside the reserve. Their settlement is an island, which is accessible only by either boat or air. According to Felix Monggae of the National CBNRM forum, the major problems affecting CBNRM in Botswana relate to capacity and governance, policy and legislation, institutional framework as well as generating and managing benefits. 

Members of the community trusts have limited capacity to manage and this has resulted in perennial misuse of funds and poor governance of natural resources entrusted to the communities.

Almost all the areas benefitting from CBRNM in Ngamiland have no basic social amenities like schools and clinics.

The villages are under the poverty scheme known as the Rural Areas Dwellers Programme (RADP) under the North West District Council. Children are sent away from their parents to various schools, staying in RADP hostels.

According to official documents, it is common for rural area dwellers to drop out of school. Despite trips taken by mobile clinics into these areas, it is a challenge for residents of Xaxaba to access medical care such as ARV medication.  Recently President Ian Khama and various business people donated 25 one-roomed houses to residents of Xaixai who live in abject poverty despite the abundance of potential in community tourism in the area that can be harnessed though their Xaixai Tshwaragano Community Trust.

The Ministry of Environment Wildlife and Tourism has rendered the trust unoperational due to the hunting stoppage. The donation was part of Khama's President's Housing Appeal For the Needy.

Speaking during the SAREP sponsored Ngamiland CBNRM Forum in Maun Lodge last week, Monggae stated that problems besetting CBNRM in Ngamiland are decades old.  "The problem is all ours; the NGOs, communities and the government," he declared. He said that the government and NGOs have failed to adequately capacitate the communities on the management of the trusts' businesses.

He further noted that some members of the communities who received training on management left for greener pastures. He added that the same applied to civil servants who started the programme but got promoted or left the civil service.

He said the trusts have to be capacitated on business management and planning principles. He announced at the forum that a new CBNRM Act will provide legislation for the government to enforce compliance with operating standards.  The forum called for the formation of a CBNRM Support Association for Botswana (CSABO).

According to Monggae, CSABO will take over, on an incubation basis, all malfunctioning community trusts until the time the boards have capacity to resume control of the trusts. To date a number of trusts do not have access to their finances which are kept in holding accounts by district commissioners (DC).

Among these trusts is the KDT, which is considered one of the richest in the district with its businesses generating an annual turnover running into millions of Pula.  The trust is complaining that it is unable to take services to its communities due to delays when it applies to claim money from DC offices. 

The operations of the trusts in the delta fill the void left by the North West District Council's inability to take services to the cut-off communities.  Through the CBNRM programme, the Basarwa living in the Okavango Delta, Tsodilo Hills and Gcwihaba Hills benefit from the natural resources they helped to preserve. Some of the Basarwa were relocated from their lands around the tourism sites by the government to give way for the establishment of Moremi Game Reserve and the Chobe National Park.

Following the 1960s and lately the 1990s relocations, Khwai residents were settled on the northern border of the protected Moremi Game Reserve along the Khwai River, 140 kilometres from Maun.



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