By Linda Baker, The Namibian
Conservationist Garth Owen-Smith, who has died at the age of 76, was a giant in his field. He laid the foundation for Namibia’s internationally acclaimed community-based conservation movement.
This assessment was part of a stream of tributes to Owen-Smith that followed the news of his death on Saturday.
John Kasaona, director of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), of which Owen-Smith was a co-founder, said: “We have lost a truly people-centred person, an unwavering architect of conservation.”
Kasaona, whose father worked with Owen-Smith in the early 1980s, recalled: “He became a father to me after my own father died, using his own money to support my mother and he put all my brothers and sisters through school.”
He described Owen-Smith as an innovative, forward-thinking philosopher. “In his last years, Garth created Conservancy Safaris Namibia, a world first, community-owned enterprise that benefits five Himba community conservation areas. He also played a key role in engaging with the Omatendeka and Ehirovipuka conservancies to manage their own ‘people’s park’ – an initiative that has reached an advanced stage.
“His gentle yet considered words of support, wisdom, guidance and advice will be missed by many who became what they are today because of his mentoring.”
In a comment posted on Facebook, the Namibian Association of Community-based Natural Resource Management Support Organisations (Nacso) stated: “Namibia – and indeed the world – lost a giant of conservation today. And while all of us at Nacso grieve with his family and for our collective loss, we celebrate his extraordinary life, and in Garth’s words, we remember his lasting impact on this planet.”
Chris Weaver, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Namibia programme, described Owen-Smith as a deeply principled person.
“He made great personal sacrifices based upon his drive to place communities at the forefront of conservation. His engagement with rural communities revitalised community ownership, stewardship and pride over wildlife, laying the foundation for Namibia’s internationally acclaimed communal conservancy movement,” Weaver stated.
The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism also paid tribute to Owen-Smith as “an iconic figure in tourism” who pioneered Namibia’s community-based natural resources management programme, “which is hailed internationally for its contribution to wildlife recoveries in communal areas, and secondly for its ability to empower rural communities to alleviate poverty”.
Born and raised in South Africa, Owen-Smith spent nearly six decades in Namibia’s Kunene region.
Under trees and around campfires, pipe in one hand and mug of tea in the other, this mild-mannered man with the snow-white beard and azure-coloured eyes shared his vision for conservation, development and rangeland management with all he met.
Shunning a tertiary education in favour of learning at the ‘university of life’, Owen-Smith found his true calling in the 1960s in what was then the Kaokoveld.
Through lengthy observations and discussions with traditional leaders, he believed the area most people viewed as a desert wasteland could become a major economic asset as a tourist attraction.
But as the Namibian war of independence raged, the government of the day viewed his activities as subversive – a label that was to stick when he returned in the 1980s.
Denied access to the area, he cycled across southern Africa, pioneered environmental education in Kwa-Zulu Natal and farmed in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).
Returning to the then Kaokoveld in the 1980s, Owen-Smith found that drought and poaching had decimated wildlife populations. A seemingly hopeless situation prevailed, with rhino and elephant carcasses littering the rocky desert.
Together with visionary conservationists Chris Eyre, Blythe Loutit, Ina Britz and some traditional leaders, Owen-Smith advocated that local residents should care for their own wildlife. Working with traditional authorities, a selection of local farmers – many of whom were former poachers – became community game guards, appointed by and responsible to their traditional leaders. Their role was to stop illegal hunting through conservation extension, wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching patrols.
This intervention laid the foundations for Namibia’s community-based natural resource management programme.
Owen-Smith and his long-time partner Margaret Jacobsohn established the IRDNC in 1987. Today, the organisation has 55 staff members, and works with nearly 126,000 people in the Kunene, Zambezi and Kavango regions as well as trans-boundary partnerships in Zambia and Angola.
Game guards and rhino rangers now patrol and educate throughout the country and beyond Namibia’s borders.
Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn have received international recognition for their work. Awards include the 1993 Goldman Grassroots Environmental Prize for Africa; the 1994 United Nations Global Environmental 500 Award; the 1997 Netherlands Knights of the Order of the Golden Ark Award; and the 2015 Prince William Lifetime Conservation Award from the Tusk Foundation.
His autobiography, ‘An Arid Eden’, which he wrote over the course of some ten years, was published in 2010. Owen-Smith ended his life story by writing: “My last words are to the younger readers […] If you believe in a cause and are prepared to stand up for it with passion and perseverance, you can make a difference. Conserving our natural environment will not make you materially rich, but there is no greater satisfaction than having made our planet a better place to live on, even if it is just in a very small way.”
He leaves sons Tuareg and Kyle, grandson Garth and his life partner, Jacobsohn.