Even in the world of conservation, setting out to research, monitor, and help preserve an entire watershed in Africa can be considered quite the commitment. In that journey’s early beginnings, it can be hard to know exactly what progress looks like, when foundations are laid, collaborations made, and scientific theories guide the way forward. In its first year of partnership, Okavango Eternal has worked closely with local communities to decide what projects meet the needs of those communities while helping to conserve the area. As year one closes, here are some of the highlights of the partnership so far…
A cultural exchange trip to Gorongosa
In Angola’s eastern Moxico region—where the Okavango Delta’s source lakes lie—many small communities rely on subsistence crops and illegal hunting. However, after much outreach and discussion with village elders, the idea of moving away from hunting, and increasing produce to sell, was deemed to be a good first step toward more sustainable livelihoods. To gain ideas and inspiration, several Angolan villagers connected to the project traveled to Mozambique to visit communities prospering in Gorongosa National Park. The group from Angola learned about the benefits of pooling community resources through cooperatives, selling excess produce through these co-ops, and subsequently infusing additional revenue into resources like schools and infrastructure. “I learned about savings in the neighborhood,” says Elias Ngunga about his discussions with the cooperatives of Gorongosa. “Each neighborhood has a contribution box to store money, with lists and booklets. It is something that I’d like to adapt here. It’s money you can save for the whole year and make it possible to send your children to school.”
Increasing locally grown produce in Angola
After the exchange trip, communities agreed that before cooperatives can be formed, there should be a proof of concept that creating more produce is a viable, sustainable option. The first case is honey. Communities near the source lakes have been harnessing wild bees for generations, using traditional techniques to strip bark from trees, craft it into beehives, and then position the hives in trees at a height they know the bees prefer. But boosting honey production also means overcoming some practical issues: These traditional hives are placed high in the trees, making it difficult for some beekeepers in the community to check and retrieve theirs, and each bark-made hive must be destroyed to harvest the honey. Okavango Eternal provided a collection of modern community-approved beehives that can be popped open to check the progress of the honeycomb inside. They can also be placed either in the trees or on the ground, making accessibility for all members of the community easier. Beekeepers can now check the hives to be certain they’re not harvesting honey too early―which should help ensure a maximum yield each year. The first harvest will take place at the end of this year, which is when all involved will determine if this project is a success and worthy of long-term investment.
Improving crop yield and production are two more areas that locals would like to focus on. Sandy soil in the region makes it difficult to grow a wide variety of crops, so earlier in the year the partnership sent an agronomist to test soil samples. “These soil samples are actually very important for the beginning of the project. [The communities] could benefit because the soil is the base that we consider the main agent for production,” says Angolan agronomist Mucaso Oafombi. “We have to understand what to add there, so that we can increase our production and productivity in this soil that we have.” There are hopes that with some finessing, the soil in this region could produce higher yields to sell and generate additional income.
An annual boat race in Botswana
While the Okavango Delta itself is the epicenter of a vibrant tourism industry, the surrounding local communities are not benefitting enough from that income. These villages are remote, and can be cut off―even from one another. To garner a level of collaboration similar to that in Angola, the partnership hosted the Nkashi Classic, a time-trial style mokoro boat race named for the pole used to move these traditional dugout-style canoes through the water. The event garnered significant local attention, allowing participants a chance to put their punting proficiency to the test while championing traditional skills that many in these communities assume are no longer relevant in the modern world. Going forward, Okavango Eternal plans to host an annual Nkashi Classic to maintain connections between people around the Delta, so that they can work together to form new livelihood opportunities and celebrate their traditions.
Starting a sea change in female inclusion
In many communities across the Basin, women and girls can still be excluded from traditionally male-dominated roles, especially those that involve leadership. Challenging perceptions on this, Okavango Eternal has been naming local women to prominent positions during expeditions, especially in the critical roles of mokoro polers and guides. On the latest scientific transect of the Okavango, two female polers, Linda and Paula, helped guide the group of scientists and researchers through the Delta in mokoro. “I used to canoe with my friends,” says Paula. “Once I became more skillful with the canoe, to fish with nets, I felt confident to come here to work [with the partnership].” Guiding scientists through the wild may be just the start, but it’s the start of something much bigger, and word of opportunity is already spreading. “I’ve found many older women that came from different countries to work [with the partnership],” says Linda about her expedition experience. “It’s good to meet and know more about them. It’s important for everyone. You start knowing more about their way of work, their bravery.”
Aiding scientific research in the region
In order to deepen understanding of delicate ecosystems in the region, Okavango Eternal is funding ongoing research in the form of grants. Several Ph.D. students have received funds to study various aspects of the Okavango water system, including conducting surveys of aquatic life and river conditions, and examining how large peat deposits in Angola store, filter, and release water into the rivers. Farther down the Basin, Okavango Eternal continues to place water monitoring stations at key points along the rivers that feed the Delta. These are able to collect information like water volume and velocity—building a data set that lets scientists track the timing and quality of the annual Delta flood.
Just like gliding down the lesser-known river systems that feed the Okavango Delta, in the mission to help secure a prosperous future for all living across the region there are many unknowns—but for Okavango Eternal, progress is well underway.
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