Most people are surprised and alarmed when they are told that the Okavango Delta is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is about to change with nomination scheduled for February next year and declaration in 2014. The word, “Okavango”, like “Amazon” and “Congo”, evokes the powerful sense of place in the “wilderness” and imagines an untamed place characterized “by bewildering vastness, perilousness or unchecked profusion”. This video by Scott Ressler explains what is at stake and introduces the Okavango Delta, “a place on earth… that could have been saved?” Also, watch the “Trailer” by Neil Gelinas for the Okavango Film Project: http://www.okavangofilm.com/ to learn more about our ongoing work in the Okavango Delta, the beating heart of the Kalahari visible from space that supports the largest-remaining elephant population on earth. This important refuge for biodiversity has over 530 bird species, 155 reptile species, 160 mammal species, 35 amphibian species, and thousands of plants, insects, algae, snails, and much else. Africa’s unique inland delta is actually an alluvial fan set between two three parallel fault lines that represent the southern-most extension of the Great Rift Valley system. Africa is breaking apart into two pieces from Ethiopia to the Namibia coast, establishing the ever-widening Lake Victoria, Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, Zambezi Valley, Victoria Falls, Chobe flats, Linyanti Swamps, and Okavango Delta. These faults are continuously moving and shaking, shifting the course of rivers over thousands and even hundreds of years. The inhospitable, dry Kalahari wilderness that surrounds the Okavango Delta (“Ngamiland”) remains sparsely populated and protects one of the world’s last-remaining true wilderness areas…
The fate of the Okavango Delta depends on decisions made in Angola and Namibia
Very little of the Cuito and Cubango sub-catchments in Angola is formally protected and international cooperations like the Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) and the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) need additional local and international investment into ecotourism development, conservation, research, and sustainable alternative livelihoods to achieve long-lasting protection of this important wild landscape. The Okavango River rises on the Bié Plateau near Haumbo in remote central Angola. Most of the Angolan catchment is uninhabited due to 30-odd years of border conflict and civil war. Land mines are now being removed and people, cattle and wildlife are moving back into this remote region. Profits from sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer are driving infrastructural development (e.g. roads, bridges, dams, etc.) in much of Angola. Development in the catchments of the Okavango River will, however, be much later due to distance from possible markets and political insignificance. The waters of the Okavango River have already travelled over 1,000 miles from the source before they cross into the Caprivi Strip, where the Namibian government sees this mighty river as a natural resource that needs to be used to generate power and support food security. Here in lie the most immediate threats to the Okavango River with water pump and hydro-electric schemes put forward by Namibia fundamentally threatening the functioning of the Okavango Delta. We need three countries, Angola, Namibia and Botswana, to agree to protect the entire Kavango Basin for future generations, preserving unimpeded, natural flow and flooding for the Okavango River in perpetuity. Ecotourism must be supported as the primary economic driver in the region, and tri-national World Heritage Status for the Okavango Delta, the river and the Angolan catchment would provide the necessary stimulus for the establishment of one of the world’s largest protected landscapes – a vast, self-sustaining wilderness with no fences, over 100,000 elephant, and abundant wildlife. We need to support conservation entrepreneurs that find new, innovative ways that allow people to live alongside wild animals. Funds and grant programs must be established to develop local capacity to design and management complex conservation landcapes that accommodate local communities and their needs as residents. Natural heritage is important and its preservation (e.g. ending the trade in rhino horns) has become a priority around the world. Can Botswana lead the way after the Okavango Delta gets World Heritage Status in 2014?
How will World Heritage Status help the Okavango Delta?
Dr Karen Ross (Okavango World Heritage Project) explains: “What a wonderful designation for the Okavango Delta if it is recognized as a Natural World Heritage site. There can be no better branding and marketing tool for communities and businesses involved in tourism – a sector which provides about 70 % of livelihoods in the region.”
Recognition as a site of global importance that needs to be saved for future generations is a powerful statement. With commercial hunting being phased out and more lodges and concessions being established it would appear that the Okavango Delta is doing fine. The facts are that poaching is on the rise in the areas to the north and est of the Okavango Delta, cattle are encroaching, and signs of pollution are beginning to appear in the main channels due to excessive boat traffic. This complex wetland ecosystem is, in many ways, an anachronisms in this day and age, preserved up until recently by border and civil wars in the Angolan highlands, all the way up to the source of the Okavango River near Huambo. Today, the Okavango Delta is faced by threats of new dam developments to support irrigation schemes and agricultural development in the catchment. Land mines are being removed and wildlife like elephants and general game are moving back into the catchment. People are, however, also migrating into these areas and signs of development are becoming more apparent. Namibia have repeatedly proposed a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River at Popa Falls that would seriously hamper the functioning of the delta. There is no doubt that the future of this proposed World Heritage Site hinges on developments up in the catchment, which could have minimal impacts if the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site is considered in any development upstream – agriculture, mining, power generation or otherwise.
Dr Ross continues: “Such a listing is also an important extra-layer of protection for the Delta, which lies at the end point of the Okavango River Basin, and thus could be impacted by upstream developments from Angola and Namibia. Further, within Botswana there is also greater protection, for instance mining is not permitted in any World Heritage sites. Finally, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while retaining its sovereign status, has 189 State Parties monitoring the property through the Convention. the World Heritage Convention has more member States than any other UN Convention, and it is party to international law.”
Over the last five years there have been several stories of mining companies prospecting for shale gas, coal, diamonds and much else in the Okavango Delta. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site means no mining and establishes the Convention as the watchdog that ensures that the management of the property maintains the highest standards possible. World Heritage Status will be a shot in the arm for the Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) that facilitates talks between Botswana, Namibia and Angola about development in the Kavango Basin, as it will kickstart discussions towards guarantees that development upstream will not impact on the natural flow of the Okavango River. It re-affirms the notion that if the Okavango Delta were to collapse due to changes upstream it would herald the beginning of the end for the Kavango region. The management authority for the World Heritage Site, the discussions with stakeholders, and the development of a management plan will continue for years, diverting more and more grant funding and investment into the region. Bottomline is we need to get World Heritage Status declared as soon as possible and then move onto advancing discussions with Namibia and Angola about the future management of the Kavango Basin for the benefit of its people, wildlife, and fragile ecosystems…
A new vision for the future…?
Untouched, remote wilderness areas provide our only remaining glimpses into prehistory, a past that took millions of years to evolve, and is now threatened by human development. Climate change and over-population are going to rip apart Africa and the world, and we will need untouched refugia to shelter global biodiversity through the hard times ahead. The next 15 years are going to be very important, as the developing countries where the majority of our remaining wilderness areas are found begin their process of rapid, unchecked development to put right age-old global economic imbalances. The world is changing and within the next 15 years, we will more than likely see a more developed, more educated planet make a “green future” a possibility. It is the job of our generation to protect the wilderness areas and species that remain, ensuring we have something left to protect when we are all ready.
The “sense of place” in the “wilderness” is eery and overwhelming, but makes clear a new vision for our future. A vision that delivers on the ideals of the Convention on Biological Diversity and UNESCO World Heritage Status by protecting our last-remaining marine and terrestrial wilderness areas through local, national and international legislation that supports community-based custodianship and sustainable livelihoods (e.g. indigenous forestry). We need to act for the good of each other and break the cycle of mistrust that fuels the current destruction of our planet. Think more about other people, about climate change, about endangered species, about dying coral reefs, about animal welfare… If we do not actively identify and protect our remaining wilderness areas, we will lose them all forever, and one-by-one find ourselves managing essential ecosystem services like water purification, thinning forests, seed dispersal, pollination, and various nutrient cycles. As an ecologist and scientist, I know that we cannot manage ecosystems for diversity and balance, and foresee a future of less diversity, more productivity, and invasive species. “Boom and bust” with little balance possible without intensive management that falls apart without adequate support. Remote, untouched places, like the Okavango Delta and its catchment, are essential to our existence, and, in this day-and-age, their option value alone should be justification enough for their protection. Places like this simply do not exist anymore. It is special places like the Kavango Basin that guarantee we will always have untouched wilderness to be inspired by and live better lives in order to protect. We need to uplift local communities with heritage rights to these conservation landscapes, investing them as the long-term custodians and stewards of these protected wilderness areas for generations to come. We must find young, energetic leaders that embody the spirit of their forefathers that lived in harmony with Africa’s “Great Work”, the vast wilderness areas and abundant wildlife that persisted before the first colonialism and slave traders. The world has much to learn from Africa, the birthplace of our human existence, and the wildest continent on earth after Antartica.
Why protect “wilderness” that you will never see?
“Wilderness” is a place and state-of-mind where we do not have control over anything around us, no support network, no assurance of safety or security, and no easy way to do anything. We fear the dangerous animals (and people) hidden in the darkness and shadow. Before arriving we prepare for the worst before even thinking about the best. When hiking or surfing or sailing or skiing all-day, everyday in a wild place, very little seems essential beyond the basic necessities of life like water, warmth, cool, sustenance, shade and shelter. We are happier, stronger and more in touch with ourselves. As so wonderfully stated in Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” It was not by coincidence that all religions were born in the vast wildernesses that pre-date modern society. Our television was the stars and our soundtrack was the overpowering sounds and startles of those wild nights. We used to follow the seasons, listen to the wildlife, and learn from natural cycles, moving with the ebb and flow of the wilderness. Our modern society needs to meditate, take time, and slow down. We must begin to care more about each other and then share this feeling of global kinship with all extant species. Our human experience in the wilderness is fundamental to our future on this blue planet. These experiences are not a luxury or a privilege, even though they may seem to be with most pristine wilderness areas so remote that only a handful of local people and wealthy ecotourists are able to visit them. Television brings is a glimpse, but we will never get to have our breath taken away by a hour after dark in the Peruvian jungle (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/01/31/jaguars-battling-in-the-darkness-sense-of-place-in-the-peruvian-amazon/). We can, however, go swim in the deep, blue ocean, wash in a wild, flowing river, jump in a lake and swim deep to the bottom, hike a day or two into the mountains, or simply go to the local park and be very quiet… You WILL feel the “wildness” that is everywhere. Just think, 1,000 years ago most of the planet was untamed “wilderness”, and now all we have is rock and ice, deserts, protected areas, remote islands and reefs, currently inaccessible tropical forests, and forgotten areas like the catchment of the Okavango River that have remained sparsely populated and undeveloped due to civil war and unrest. Ice ages, severe climate change, and meteor strikes have reduced the earth to small refuges that protect biodiversity before, and now we are just about to do the same. The time is now! Human populations are booming. Africa is rising and our last-remaining intact wilderness areas need to be protected and funded before rapid economic growth consumes this resource-rich continent. If we do nothing, “wilderness” will disappear under the weight of over-population and development within the next 15 years…
“Bush Boyes on Expedition: 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/26/bush-boyes-on-expedition-okavango-wetland-bird-survey/
“Bush Boyes on Expedition: Seronga to Jedibe Across the People’s Okavango…”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/03/bush-boyes-on-expedition-seronga-to-jedibe/
“Bush Boyes on Expedition: Escape from Chief’s Island”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/11/bush-boyes-on-expedition-madinari-mother-of-the-buffalo-island-to-the-mombo-wilderness/
“Bush Boyes on Expedition: Escape From Chief’s Island and World Heritage Status… http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/18/bush-boyes-on-expedition-escape-from-chiefs-island/