Music, dancing and smiling platitudes greeted the royal guest in the fishing village of Samochima, northern Botswana. But cutting through the convivial mood was a cry of anguish – and a plea for a way of life threatened by tourism in the world’s largest inland delta.
Crown Prince Haakon of Norway had arrived as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). While addressing an audience in the shade of some fig trees, he was confronted by a local fisherman, Saoshiko Njwaki, who spoke out bluntly about growing resentment at the world’s indifference to their plight.
“Tourists are allowed to go into the delta without local guides,” Njwaki told the prince. “This is worrying to us because no one knows what they might do.” It was only because of the intervention of a local conservation body that “all-out war” with tour operators had been averted, he said.
At stake is no ordinary prize. The Okavango Delta is a watery wilderness of channels, lagoons and islands that empty into the Kalahari desert. Its 16,000 sq km of swamps are filled with birds, crocodiles, elephants, hippos, lions and an abundance of other wildlife.
It is also Botswana’s premier tourist attraction. For years the southern African country has restricted visitor numbers to preserve its habitat. But the government now sees tourism as crucial to a diversified economy that cannot depend on diamonds for ever. The fishermen who rely on the delta for their livelihoods accuse tourists of riding roughshod over their needs and jeopardising the fragile ecosystem.
Njwaki, who as chairman of the Okavango Fishers Association represents 400 commercial fishermen and women, said: “Tourists normally come here to see nature and for casual fishing, but they should do it in an orderly way. As people living here, we are very conscious of conserving our environment, but tourists come with their boats and disturb it. It causes problems for us and it affects the wildlife.”
The fishermen’s age-old mode of transport is the makoro, a canoe hollowed out from a tree trunk that glides along the waterways. It is helpless against the waves generated by tourists’ motorboats.
“They don’t respect us,” Njwaki said. “When they come in motorboats they don’t slow down for fishermen who are using dugout canoes. They also cut our nets. We have a further problem of houseboats. People pitch up to camp and throw their waste in the river. We formed our association to address these concerns, so they will do things properly with tour guides.”
He said the association had appealed to the government for support, but without success. “We want tourism to be controlled, but the Water Affairs Ministry has been unable to tell us how to do it. We don’t have a problem with people coming, but we need regulation. It shouldn’t just be floodgates opening to people to do what they like.”
About 120,000 tourists visit the delta every year for attractions including the Moremi Game Reserve, more than a hundred camps and lodges and the rock paintings of the Tsodilo Hills.
Tour operators in Samochima reject the fishermen’s arguments and accuse them of hurting local ecology by over-fishing. David Pryce, of the nearby Shakawe Lodge, described the criticism of tourists as “racist”, adding: “When people are in the wrong, they like to find an excuse to blame someone else.”
He estimated that the fish population in this part of the delta had dropped by 80% over the past 10 to 15 years and blamed the use of fishing nets bought with Norwegian donor aid. “I’d say tiger fish are down to 20% of what they were,” Pryce said. “Now we don’t promote fishing at all for visitors. We changed our name from Shakawe Fishing Lodge to Shakawe Lodge.”
Preservation of the delta is a primary aim of the Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre at Botswana University. It admits that there are “many questions” about the gains and drawbacks of tourism. It has called for greater efforts to share the benefits with poor people.
Dr Nkobi Moleele, the centre’s national project co-ordinator, said: “I don’t think there’s a problem of too many tourists or how they behave, but there is a problem with our [management] system. Samochima is an open-access area: you can take your boat there and do whatever you want. This doesn’t give communities the power to plan and agree how to do things. We don’t know the numbers in these open-access areas because it’s not controlled. That’s the problem.”
Botswana is the world’s biggest diamond producer and reaps half its revenue from the gem stones. But the global economic crisis has caused their value to plummet and concentrated minds on finding alternatives. Experts predict that Botswana’s diamond reserves will run out in 20 years, a time-bomb under one of Africa’s most successful economies and stable democracies.
Ian Khama, the country’s British-born president, said after his re-election last month: “We have always appreciated that our dependence on diamonds as a major revenue earner leaves us vulnerable, and therefore the need to diversify is very important.”
Tourism, the second biggest economic sector, is ripe for growth. In the past, Botswana has styled itself as one of Africa’s best kept secrets, pursuing a strategy of high-value, low-volume travellers. But earlier this year a 94m pula (£8.6m) expansion was announced, including a website aimed at the lucrative US market.
During his trip, Prince Haakon said he hoped the UNDP could help the rival factions reach a compromise. “It’s all about balance so the tourism and fishing industries can find ways of working out their differences through democratic processes and peaceful means,” he said.