Gender, ethnographic myths and community-based conservation

Gender, ethnographic myths and community-based conservation in a former Namibian ‘homeland’

pp. 142-164 in Hodgson, D. (ed.) (2000 ) Rethinking Pastoralism in Africa: Gender, Culture and the Myth of the Patriarchal Pastoralist. Oxford, James Currey. (Currently being reprinted in Brockington, D. and Robbins, P. in press. Hunting and Conservation: A Reader, Springer Verlag, Berlin.)

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This paper explores gendered aspects of natural resource use and conservation relating to Damara herders in northwest Namibia. The Damara are a Khoe-speaking people who currently rely for subsistence on varying combinations of pastoralism, foraging and horticulture as well as finding alternative means of income-generation within the formal and informal economies. It is argued that a misleading ethnography from the past, combined with a century of imposed patriarchal ideals associated with colonial administrative and judicial systems, hampers contemporary understanding of resource-use issues among the Damara. These processes, and the perceptions of women they generate, obscure the roles played by women as users and managers of natural resources and inform contemporary initiatives which consolidate male control.

Drawing on field experience and data accumulated over seven years work with Damara pastoralists in arid north-west Namibia, Damara women’s experiences of natural resource-use activities are highlighted: their management decisions, the depth of their ecological knowledge about their local environment, and their enjoyment of enacting this knowledge as an expression of cultural identity. As such, I focus on women’s use of aromatic plants for perfume as an ideal suite of resources on which to build discussion. Considerable technical knowledge is required in the identification and preparation of plant perfumes and the end product is highly-valued with a wide sphere of trade among women throughout the region. The cultural and gendered symbolism associated with plant perfumes, and their appreciation as a luxurious source of personal beauty, lends poignancy to this otherwise ‘invisible’ economic and cultural activity.

Beyond this, I consider how conceptual gender associations with specific natural resources can both foster and create a climate of contemporary environmental policy and intervention which is hostile to women. This is manifest, for example, in a continuing focus on large mammals in the Community-Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programmes of southern Africa, which otherwise emphasise the strengthening of community management institutions as the means of promoting both biodiversity conservation and rural livelihoods. From a feminist political ecology perspective, CBNRM initiatives in the drylands of Africa disadvantage women by reinforcing conventionally gendered relationships between people and environment in favour of man the hunter or herder, as opposed to woman the gatherer or gardener. Broader understandings of the natural resources utilised by herding populations, and the deconstruction of ‘ethnographic myths’ supporting static conceptions of power and productivity in favour of men, are discussed as realistic means of increasing the inclusiveness of CBNRM activities in relation to concepts of both ‘community’ and ‘natural resources’. Further, the identification of specific gender conditionalities, as with the use of perfumes, might open areas where women (or at least some women) are better able, through their own agency and interest, to seize the opportunities potentially available to all Namibians in post-independence Namibia.

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  1. Good evening

    My name is Bianca from Namibia, I have been doing research on the Buchu plant and through this research I have found that the Buchu plant is native to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, but no findings of where exactly in Namibia it grows.

    My research goal is to find out whether this popular plant can be harvested in Namibia, one can understand the benefits this can bring to the Namibian economy and the income it can generate for the people that hold the history of the plant.

    My curiosity is also if the plant really does grow in Namibia why haven’t harvesting methods for it not been implemented.


    1. Hi Bianca – I am so sorry – I haven’t looked at comments here for ages and I have just seen this! Please can you email me on s.sullivan @
      All best, Sian


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