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Is community-based tourism the right vehicle to link conservation and development?

From the soil: Batswana are eager for greater participation in tourism PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Given the increased consciousness of the significance of host communities and environmental responsibility in tourism, Community-based Tourism (CBT) has gained recognition in the tourism literature as a strategy for environmental conservation and community development.

Contemporary CBT programmes are conducted in different countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia. Community-based tourism has been supported to enable linkages between biodiversity conservation and to improve community livelihoods.

Extant literature on biodiversity conservation and community livelihoods are reflective of the merits, demerits and the importance of including communities in the conservation and development agenda.

The concept and practice of CBT is just as confusing as that of community participation. Thus, various models for, or associated with CBT have been developed over time.

Community-based tourism in Botswana is traced to the genesis of the Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) concept that strives to promote tenets of natural resources conservation and rural community development.

CBNRM has created many benefits and motivated and raised high expectations amongst local communities. However, CBNRM costs have also intensified local land use and livelihood conflicts.

In the context of Botswana reports indicate that the CBNRM model has made substantial strides in strengthening local institutions, empowering local communities, and improving the livelihoods of rural communities in wildlife management areas of the Okavango Delta. There is a general perception that CBNRM has resulted in changes in attitudes of communities towards wildlife resources.

Described as a participatory and community-based approach to natural resource management, the CBNRM paradigm is built upon common property theory, which argues that common pool resources can be sustainably utilised provided certain principles are applied.

These principles include the autonomy and recognition of a community as an institution, proprietorship and tenure rights, rights to make rules and viable mechanisms to enforce them and providing on-going incentives in the form of benefits that exceed costs.

The CBNRM paradigm involves the move from “protectionist conservation philosophy” and “top-down” approaches to development, to “bottom-up” approaches that involve local communities.

CBNRM is implemented through community-based organisations (CBOs), local community entities which provide a forum to negotiate community aspirations, goals, problems and interests in a democratic and participatory manner.

CBNRM assumes that with local resource management there will be more interest in resource conservation, increased local participation and a stimulation of the rural community due to increased local benefits from wildlife use and the decentralisation of resources. It is viewed as an opportunity to promote community participation, capacitation, ownership, partnership and sovereignty. CBNRM in Botswana paved the way for greater community participation in the tourism sector.

Since its inception in Botswana, CBNRM has experienced several successes and challenges. Successes include employment opportunities for locals in the CBOs and private tourism operators.

CBNRM through CBOs provides a great source of both formal and informal employment; it is also very important in rural development, with 20% of the country’s population and 46% of the rural population participating in the programme.

Through the programme, communities get community benefits from the selling of their hunting quotas to private professional hunters and rental income from leasing their concession areas.

Although many studies have highlighted the importance of community-based tourism development, the practical challenges that thwart its promotion have seldom been articulated comprehensibly and framed in grounded framework underpinnings. The authors therefore carried out a study that focused on the use of the sustainable tourism framework to assess challenges that communities participating in CBT face. Being a literature review-based study, a Google Scholar search was used to search for research articles dealing with “CBNRM in Botswana”.

Results indicate that some of the problems associated with the implementation of CBT manifest from the involvement of multiple stakeholders. The involvement of an array of government agencies as CBT stakeholders indicates the power to make decisions for communities, mistrusting the communities’ ability to manage wildlife resources.

The participation of multiple stakeholders is often associated with collaborations and partnerships. The findings show that the stakeholders’ conceptual differences of what constitutes CBT as a ‘vehicle’ for community development and conservation are downplayed in favour of reaching a common goal, not necessarily representing what the community aspires to achieve.

Consequently, due to the diverse structural nature of CBT, what is to be developed and conserved, the inclusiveness of stakeholders’ opinions, and the collection of goals become very wide-ranging and difficult to accomplish equitably and representatively.

For instance, in the village of Khwai in the Okavango Delta, the San (also known as Basarwa in Botswana) tribe drew up a community-based organisation (CBO) constitution that recognised community in terms of ethnicity, but the government perceived it as being against the state’s prescribed spirit of a CBO constitution and it was rejected until a revised version that suits ethnic neutrality was drawn up.

CBT seems like a noble idea that reconciles the conservation and development nexus, however, others view it as an example of a community development imposter driven by economic imperatives and a neo-liberal agenda purported to further exploit local communities.

In the Okavango Delta the lack of understanding of tourism businesses by rural communities is shown by their failure to come up with tourism projects that showcase their skills and knowledge. In an endeavour to reinvest money generated from land rentals or wildlife quota sales, some communities propose or engage in complicated businesses such as bottle stores, kiosks and guesthouses; these projects often fail due to lack of management and investment.

Another complexity that engulfs CBT is who should benefit from income generated from CBT undertakings. Some CBT participating villages distribute benefits to the community, others allot to households, others to village development committees (VDCs), while some allocate to selected individuals in a community.

Due to these variations, the fair distribution of CBT benefits is a contentious issue in many CBT projects. A fair distribution of income is critical to the success of CBT.

There are arguments that the poor distribution of benefits from CBT projects is a result of factors such as ethnic differences, internal conflicts between members and the poor coordination between village technical committees/board of trustees and the general membership.

The poor distribution of CBT financial benefits threatens critical issues affecting the sustainability of CBT. While some CBT projects tried to come up with income distribution plans, some lack a mechanism for fair distribution.

The lack of entrepreneurial and management skills can be attributed to the narrow CBT programme design and approach as its intention has never been to give communities full ownership over land or other resources, but to provide them with an incentive to manage the land and natural resources.

One of the core principles of sustainable tourism is to emancipate local communities, however, with CBNRM failing to provide communities with capacity building and skills transfer, the sustainability of the programme is compromised as results indicate that CBOs cannot fully run tourism enterprises on their own.

Sustainable tourism development calls for the pro-active involvement of local communities as custodians of resources that attract tourists. However, while community participation in CBT is highly required, there appears to be daunting operational, structural and cultural limitations. There is considerable concern about the

mismatch between local capacity and the demands of CBT, thereby limiting community participation and delegating the community to passive participants.

The absence of a comprehensive system accompanied by low literacy levels in rural Botswana complicates community participation in CBT. Technical capacity building requires a strong literacy foundation; furthermore, building that foundation is reliant on strong government commitment to rural education.

The limited performance of CBT and conservation efforts may be explained by the lack of consideration and incorporation of such requirements in CBT initiatives. Indications of passive community participation in CBT manifest due to lack of coherent collaborative partnership arrangements.

This scenario is also precipitated by perceptions of community members participating in CBT that decision-making powers lie with government-controlled departments such as the Department of Tourism (DoT), Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO). Though CBT in Botswana purports to give local communities power over their resources, the central government still has more dominance in the management and ownership of natural resources, local community organisations have only been given usufruct rights.

One of the tenets of CBNRM is to promote “bottom-up” development in order to give communities a voice in issues regarding their welfare. However, results indicate that the government still applies a “top-down” approach where it has the ultimate say in all natural resources in the country.

The CBNRM situation is such that government agencies such as the DWNP have and continue to cement their superiority position in decision-making processes while communities are regarded as subordinates who will forever look at the department for answers regarding their projects and livelihoods.

This may have implications on the conservation of natural resources, especially when issues like human–wildlife conflicts intensify.

Results indicate that the grouping of villages in the implementation of CBT fails to realise community diversity and historical and contextual settings.

We are cognisant that Botswana communities are multi-ethnic in nature. Further, the country’s communities historically intermarry and participate in ethnic conquests, assimilations, breakaways as well as subjugations. This means that settlements inevitably consist of a diversity of ethnicities with different levels of political statuses.

Our argument is that these communities may be bound together by their geographical location, which may not translate into shared interests that can warrant the adoption of CBT without resistance or complications.

Therefore, in this situation, CBT may not always promote democracy and tranquillity. Therefore, the design and implementation of CBT should also consider targeting communities of interest rather than those determined by geographical location only.

This is in line with Durkheim’s (1964) observation that modern society develops community around interests and skills more than around locality. Although we recognise the important role of identifying communities based on territorial/ geographical location, we however suggest that communities of interest and relations should form subsets of geographical allocation.

That is, having identified communities geographically, a further identification of communities of shared interests and relations should be carried out; it is this community that should participate in CBT.

In concluding, CBT in Botswana does not link active community participation in conservation efforts to benefits from wildlife resources strongly enough to fully realise its potential to improve conservation.

As a result, communities have not become active participants as proposed by proponents of sustainable tourism development. This is because the government still has the power on natural resource management issues on behalf of communities, thereby casting doubt on communities’ abilities to manage wildlife resources. Advocates for sustainable tourism development argue that governments alone cannot successfully protect natural resources and that community inclusion in resources management is a better development and conservation strategy as it fosters natural resources stewardship.

The passive participation of the community or its exclusion indicates the weakness in the devolution of power to communities as espoused by CBT and sustainable tourism development. To craft a way forward with the concept of CBT, we ought to learn to draw our attention to the fact that, at its core, CBT is premised on the notion that a sophisticated service sector like tourism might be best managed by a group of community members.

Deficiencies in community business acumen, income distribution plans, and reinvestment priorities illustrate serious deficits that thwart many communities’ efforts, contributing to community disempowerment.

Community empowerment as a process should be characterised by the gradual increase in local actors’ capabilities to control elements of their local environment. The lack of business acumen, income distribution plans and reinvestment priorities by the community therefore means that communities lack proper governance, control over community projects as well as community-based sovereignty, hence defeating the goal of sustainable tourism development. Business skills are necessary traits for community-led tourism businesses and conservation development.

CBT can easily misrepresent communities’ interests because it is undertaken by a diverse set of stakeholders representing wide- ranging intents. Some of the stakeholders working with CBT groups in Botswana are donors, international organisations, NGOs and regulatory agencies representing different endowments.

As a result of the multiple stakeholders’ participation, diversity and heterogeneity dilemmas, stakeholders’ theoretical variance of what constitutes CBT as an instrument of conservation and community development is toned down in favour of attaining a common end that does not necessarily represent stakeholders’ interests.

It is important to note, however, that we need to be cautious of the fact that arguments that favour CBT or community participatory tourism development may not be found equally valid, some may apply in some localities while others may not.

To avoid a “one-size-fits-all” CBT implementation model, local specific contexts may provide very important information that can reconcile CBT and local context differences. Nevertheless, removing cultural, administrative, political, social barriers and differences, and providing resources that trigger the smooth implementation of CBT is not an easy job as communities and their environments are dynamic.

It takes a lengthy educational process and flexibility since participatory capacity cannot be built like a road or dam; it must be developed. Lastly, the CBNRM programme has been accepted by most communities due to perceptions that it will improve local communities’ social and economic wellbeing and ensure support for wildlife conservation initiatives by government.

Thus it is important that challenges are addressed to promote sustainable tourism development and to avoid defeating the intentions for which CBT was presented to local communities.

The results indicate that CBT dependent on natural resources guided by sustainable tourism objectives is likely to face major obstacles due to varied participants’ interests and priorities, therefore participation in community-based tourism should be defined by considering community interests and relations.


*Dr. Moren Tibabo Stone is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Botswana, Department of Environmental Science while Dr. Lesego S. Stone is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Botswana, Okavango Research Institute

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