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The Ethics of Our Trips- Facing Complexity With Integrity 

Sound ethics are a priority for us - we take seriously the tracks we leave behind on this journey. This isn’t just an expedition - it’s a multifaceted, long term indigenous solidarity project led by the San themselves. Here expedition leader Robin Bowman reflects on some of the complex ethical questions involved in this project.

I get asked some really good questions about the ethics of these trips, and I always appreciate them. There is so much complexity here and for me it’s important to face this with integrity and not shy away from them. 


People often want to know how the bushmen benefit from the trips, and how much of the profit goes to them, which is a really important question. It’s important to note that we are a non-profit organisation, and our staff barely get more than their expenses covered to run the expeditions. This isn’t a Western model which lots of providers operate, whereby a company runs a trip somewhere, makes a profit and gives a token amount of it to the local community (if at all). In this scenario the local people often end up with very little other than a little employment in the safari lodges or wherever.


It’s worth explaining some of the background to this project. These trips are the latest incarnation of a collaboration that began in the mid 80s between Louis Liebenberg (Cybertracker Conservation) and the remote Ju/Hoansi communities which he got to know. The elders approached him to support them in different ways. Tracking The Kalahari is the current manifestation of fulfilling some of these aims. For a variety of reasons the tracking skills (and other skills and knowledge) which were such a part of their life ways were being lost and not passed down. So the elders wanted us to work with them in finding a solution to incentivising the young to take them up whilst also providing an economy based around these skills and giving value to them.


So in 2017 Cybertracker, in partnership with us (Tracking the Kalahari - previously The Old Way) developed a plan which had short, medium and long term aims. Short term was bringing groups out to these impoverished and marginalised communities and pouring thousands of pounds into them by paying the San for their services (taking us tracking, gathering plants, village camping fees, buying crafts, and much more). This provided a crucial income to a large number of families who have very little economic opportunities. They have a mixed economy of hunting gathering and employment where they can find it and so we would pay them in a week far far above what they would earn picking devil’s claw or whatever. The only employment opportunities available to these communities are collecting devils claw (a medicinal plant) or trophy hunting - and they need some financial income as their traditional lifeways are so undermined. 


In the medium term, we saw the young taking up the old tracking skills as they were now economically (and culturally) incentivised, and more trainees began passing through the project. But the long term aim is to help them become qualified through the Cybertracker accreditation process and therefore employable by the wildlife service department, national parks, safari lodges etc. Meanwhile Louis trained the trackers to be able to evaluate and accreditate the trackers themselves - we are always trying to reduce any sort of dependency on us. Right from the outset our main aim is to make ourselves obsolete.

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We are fully aware of the dangers of what some people have called the “ white saviour NGO model” in Africa. In other words NGOs from the West doing very little consultation with local communities and telling them what they need or what’s good for them.

The Master Tracker Project is one of three ways in which the Ju /Hoansi are supported. Secondly we support the Tsumkwe soup kitchen. After visiting for three or four years we became acutely aware of the TB epidemic continuously sweeping through the villages and several of our newly met friends or friend’s children passed away due to the TB. The soup kitchen in Tsumkwe provides two meals a day to the TB patients who are undergoing treatment as the medicine can’t be taken on an empty stomach so the kitchen is a lifeline. However this is only a short term solution to the TB situation and doesn’t solve the problem. So, thirdly we support the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation in their TB gardening project. We help establish gardens and fields for growing vegetables, fruits and dryland crops to improve livelihoods, food security and nutrition which is the first line of defence against TB.


Different ways in which we support these three projects include :

  • paying the San for their time, teaching, skills and training whilst with a group

  • donating profits from the trip

  • creating crowd funders back home raising money

  • raising money from UK, US and EU foundations, trust and charities

  • creating online auctions


Combined together we successfully raise and channel many tens of thousands of pounds every year into these remote communities.

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The question of carbon 

A question people often ask is, how can we justify the carbon footprint of flying Westerners out to Namibia. This is something we ask ourselves all the time, and it feels complex. I personally have an ongoing internal dilemma around flying to run these expeditions and it’s always there as a constant nagging I have.


There’s a couple of ways of looking at this. People often see these expeditions from a Western viewpoint - that we must justify flying and burning this carbon, and I completely understand that point of view. The way we see it is that the carbon footprint of flying visitors are attributed to the total carbon emissions of the Tracker School and communities we visit. I think people often look at these trips and all they see is a Western person going on an expedition to a far flung country . But we see this carbon as the cost of developing this communities’ livelihoods, and of helping preserve the parts of their culture their elders have asked us to support .


The carbon footprint of each western person coming is more than an entire village in the Nyae Nyae and we don’t feel that these indigenous communities should be penalised for historical emissions by developed countries. The carbon footprint of these hunter-gatherers is effectively zero. In other words, should we say to them “We’ve developed our country’s wealth and livelihoods in the west but now despite the fact that your lifeways are irrevocably changed forever (due to loss of land, veterinary fences, reduction in game, introduced diseases, and the rest) we aren’t prepared to fly to you to support the building of your local economy, your infrastructure, and the training and qualifications you need to enable you to be self sufficient in income, independent and self-reliant. We’ll let you go hungry instead”. Because tragically that is the reality. It’s a messy and complicated debate and who knows what the right action is and I’m not saying we’ve got it right but we’re doing what we feel is the best course of action.


It’s true that we could offset the flights and maybe we should look into it. But personally I’m not a big fan of off-setting; I feel it’s a way to assuage guilt and keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere. I spend most of my life running a forestry and rewilding project and do all I can to create carbon sinks in wetlands, planting trees and create healthy soils; all to soak up carbon.


Ultimately I’ve personally made the decision that the benefit to the communities we visit and the hundreds of people who have food in their belly as a result, the ancient skills not being lost, the rich environments preserved and many more outcomes are worth it. Many of us on the team hadn’t flown for many years before coming on this trip, and have come to the conclusion it is worth it. One of my work colleagues hadn’t flown for 18 years before he worked with us and afterwards agreed, saying that in this circumstance he felt it was worth the carbon. Many would disagree with me and I completely understand that position. I suppose it’s up to each of us to make those decisions.

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