At 39, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism permanent secretary, Dr Oduetse Koboto shoulders the responsibility of, amongst others, preserving the country’s undisputed title as a safe haven for wildlife. At the same time he will be ensuring locals have a significant slice in a sector where they have largely remained spectators. He spoke to Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE in this first part of a wide-ranging interview
Botswana is widely regarded as a conservation hub, with an abundance of a variety of wildlife. The southern African country is home to the world’s largest elephant population at more than 130,000. This has meant the world’s eyes have kept a constant gaze on the country.
The lure of the vast, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta has attracted thousands of tourists, where a variety of animal species roam freely.
The significance of the country’s wildlife has meant the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism is a constant subject in the international community.
With eyes on how the country preserves its growing wildlife numbers, the ministry’s ‘new’ permanent secretary (PS), Dr Oduetse Koboto appreciates the size of the task that lies ahead. Koboto has served in an acting capacity since last year.
It has not been an all red carpet welcome for him to a ministry where he previously served as a director.
Even before he could be confirmed as the substantive PS, Koboto had to fend off criticism from the West of how Botswana handled the recent deaths of 281 elephants in the Okavango Delta panhandle.
The animals died mysteriously between April and June and the puzzle remains unresolved. Samples from the dead elephants were sent to several countries abroad, with the last batch of results expected from the US.
But Koboto, who has worked as a climate change specialist at the United Nations Development Programme argues there was little Botswana, could do to expedite the investigations, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Koboto’s ascendancy to the top post comes at a time when the country has to deal with a surge in rhinoceros poaching, after the country lost more than 50 animals in the last two years.
The lifting of the hunting ban, irked the international community, but locals saw it as one of the ways they could benefit from wildlife resources.
Koboto said Batswana should brace for exciting times ahead as he pushes through a transformational agenda.
This, he said would result in locals getting a significant stake in the tourism sector.
He has had a spectacular rise since his days as a labourer at Tswana Bus Builders.
“From Tswana Bus Builders, I joined the Botswana Police [Service] where I spent three years or so. Then I left for my law degree at the University of the Western Cape. I was one of the top performers and I got an opportunity to go for an exchange programme at the Harvard Law School in Washington DC. That’s where I did international business transactions. After that I completed my law degree and became a prosecutor with the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for approximately two years,” he said.
While with the DPP, Koboto who was born in Borotsi, pursued and completed his Masters Degree in Environmental Law in 2009.
“As soon as I finished I was seconded to the ministry of environment as the legal advisor.
I served as the legal advisor between 2009 and 2011. During this
Koboto also had stints in India doing environmental audits. He then developed a desire to pursue a doctoral degree in climate change law, and was in negotiations with the University of Cape Town. He proceeded to China where he completed his Doctoral Degree in just two years.
“While waiting to defend my thesis, I returned home. I had left my job and took a knock financially. When I got here, I met the [then] minister of environment (Tshekedi Khama) and we spoke. I was offered the position of director-wildlife in 2012.”
But due to difference of opinion on policy matters with the then PS, Neil Fitt, Koboto was forced to cut short his employment, quitting at the end of a two-year stay at the ministry.
“We had a difference of opinion with the PS at the time. I opted for a two- instead of three-year contract,” he said.
Koboto was back at the ministry within months, but as a consultant on climate change policy.
“I shaped the climate change policy, which will be passed in Parliament soon,” he said.
In 2015, he moved on to join the UNDP as an environment and climate change specialist, shortly before he returned in 2018.
“I returned largely due to a new government, which is committed to the rule of law; a government willing to change,” he said.
Koboto said the immediate priorities would be to ensure that there is employment creation for Batswana and improvement of their livelihood.
“There are genuine public concerns that there is a need to create employment, improve people’s livelihoods and empower Batswana. These are the cornerstones of the transformation agenda. In my ministry I have to find space for these. My ministry is closer to the four, it is one of the key determinants.”
He said most of the issues within his ministry were pertinent to the lives of Batswana. Some of the new initiatives meant to empower locals include reserving certain tourist spots for locals. Farmers would be allowed to keep wildlife and conditions would be eased to boost agro-tourism.
“We have a lot of heritage sites and we have set out an aggressive agenda to develop them.
As we develop them, we don’t want to run them ourselves, but give to the youth and the communities to run. We only monitor,” he said of another way to ensure more community involvement in tourism.