African wetlands and cultural heritage: Enhancing conservation and diversifying participation

February 02nd was annual World Wetlands Day, carrying a theme of “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction“. A number of issues come to mind when thinking of risks to wetlands, with the most common being climate change.  However, just as much as we think of biophysical risks to these spectacular landscapes, we have to apportion a similar concern to the soft side of risks, being the prevailing disconnect of wetlands with people’s social and cultural values inherent within the protected area model.

Okavango Delta World Heritage Site

Suryeing cultural heritage of wetlands

This is significant in most of sub-Saharan Africa, where setting aside of landscapes is seen by most governments as a step forward in sustainable preservation. But does this bring sustainable conservation?

In my work that looks at overlaying cultural values in otherwise wilderness and and wildlife landscapes such as the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site, I have observed a risk created by a biased focus on biophysical conservation, at the exclusion, or rather ignorance of the socio-cultural and psycho-social values tied to these landscapes. Detailed discussions of these examples can be found in my earlier publications on the subject at the following journal article ( 

and a book chapter  (

The prevailing approaches to ‘conservation’ (it is rather preservation), are nurturing sub-Saharan communities to become indifferent to the landscapes because they do not recognise and acknowledge local populations’ inherent identities that already exists in these wetlands landscapes (now protected areas), and can be brought out through archaeological, ethnological, anthropological focus to conservation.

Most ‘conservationists’ focus only on the biophysical landscape, the wilderness and wildlife values of these landscapes at the exclusion of the socio-cultural and psycho-social values that carry potential to compel communities to perceive themselves as connected to the areas and therefore inherently responsible for them, with or without wildlife profits emanating from business venture agreements.    For African protected wetlands areas the connections of people and landscape and consequently a nurture of responsibility can be achieved by overlaying the archaeologies, ethnologies, and folklores and folklifes associated with the people that inhabited these landscapes in the past and in the present, and showing these as a package of what constitute the overal use of the landscape, whether in tourism or simple subsistence uses.                                                                                                               Currently what transpires in most protected African wetlands is the emphasis on disconnecting the people heritage (socio-cultural and psyscho-social) from the biophysical heritage, and calling all that conservation when in fact it is preservation. This is the same practice that see listing of wetlands such as Okavango Delta, solely as ‘nature’ environments when in fact they are ‘mixed (nature and culture’ value environments. This in itself does not enhance the sustainability of the landscape but rather creates either a nurtured indifference to the landscape by the people as they are disconnected, or creates a resentment borne from the disconnection that translates to over-harvesting and/or poaching within the landscapes where access is finally secured in measures that later on translate as illegal.

The sustainable approach will be to nurture the people’s connection to the landscape by recognising, acknowledging, overlaying, juxtaposing and fully interpreting their identities in the new mediums that have now emerged as ways through which these landscapes are now interpreted. Tourism is one of the most popular mediums, but not necessarily the only and best medium. More in-depth discussions of the non-sustainable nature of disconnecting people (cultures) through the protected area management approach can be read in chapter 2 of the book titled African cultural heritage Conservation and Management: Theory and Practice from Southern Africa (2016), available at the following  web-link:

Therefore as we ponder on what constitute “risk” to wetlands on Wetlands day 2017, it is not enough to all be talking of climate change, which is the obvious mention. I would like for us to move away from the biophysical risk and focus on the cultural-psycho-social disconnect risk which leads to socio-political issues relating to the use of wetlands in sub-Saharan African in particular where they appear in protected areas.                                           In our segregated disciplinary approaches, we see African wetlands for their biophysical value, which in the modern economic centered governances automatically translates to tourism revenue and more economic investments. But we fail to look at what protected wetlands’ future is if it is disconnected from the people surrounding it, being local populations. The book on  ‘African Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management (2016)  ( brings out discourses on how international conventions and disciplinary approaches are fuelling these disconnects instead of using cultural values, inherent amongst local peoples, to enhance conservation of these landscapes by recognising and overlaying cultural values in protected wetlands of southern Africa. This can further add value to the tourism package that is given so much attention in African protected landscapes.





Dr Susan O. Keitumetse competed for and won two separate Commonwealth scholarships both to University of Cambridge, UK , where she pursued MPhil (Archaeological Heritage Management and Museums) and later on PhD (African cultural heritage and Sustainable Development). Before she had obtained a BA degree (Archaeology and Environmental Sciences) and Post Graduate Diploma in Education (Geography and History) from the University of Botswana. During her post-graduate studies, she combined both environmental science and archaeology disciplines to venture into the broader cultural and heritage management studies with a particular focus on sustainable development and cultural heritage management at the department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge. With a view to catalyze a linkage between environment and cultural heritage in Africa, Dr Keitumetse conducted various researches and published works that illustrate the relevance of cultural and heritage resources for the broader environmental conservation. She works at the University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute as a researcher in cultural heritage and tourism where she undertakes applied research in areas such as the Okavango inland Delta World Heritage Site and Kalahari areas. Of particular note is her developing conservation model of Community-Based Cultural Heritage Resources Management (COBACHREM) to guide local communities and practitioners’ initiatives towards sustainable use of cultural heritage resources for social development. Dr Keitumetse is an associate editor of the journal Environment, Development, and Sustainability published by Springer. She also sits in the editorial board of the international journal of community archaeology and heritage, published by Taylor and Francis, as well as the International Journal of Heritage and Sustainable Development published by Green Lines Institute, Portugal. Dr Keitumetse has both national and international experience from across the world. She has won academic grants for research fellowships in international institutions that include; the Rockefeller Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA; the Watson Scholar Fellowship at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA and the Wenner-Gren Foundation research grant for research on ‘historical archaeology of marginal landscapes of eastern Botswana’. Outside academia and in international development Dr Keitumetse has worked and continues to work with institutions such as UNESCO as an expert advisor, examiner, facilitator, and consultant within the intangible cultural heritage section. She has corporate governance experience from African government parastatal institution dealing with environment, heritage, tourism and land use planning. These are derived from her tenure as a board director of Botswana Tourism Organisation for six years, where she also chaired a quality assurance committee of the board dealing with grading and certifying tourism accommodation. Her overall research interests are in the areas of sustainable development and cultural heritage conservation; historical archaeology; community heritage management; communal cultural identities; heritage tourism; heritage and protected areas; international management of cultural heritage; amongst others. Dr Susan Keitumetse has published extensively in the field of cultural heritage conservation and management in Africa, Her works comprise of peer-reviewed articles in international journals; peer-reviewed book chapters; refereed conference proceedings; and technical reports in international periodicals, magazines and newspapers. These can be accessed through search engines such as Google Scholar and LinkedIn. *********************************************************************************************
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