Land grabs threaten San in Namibia
Plea for police to stop land invasions
Just weeks after a critical UN report on the status of indigenous people in Namibia, the scale of the government’s failure to promote and protect their rights has been highlighted once again by the desperate plight of the !Kung community.
The Chairperson of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Sara Zungu, has warned that the !Kung community – a San community living in Namibia’s western Tsumkwe region – faces a major crisis brought on by the theft and invasion of their lands, which the Namibian government seems unwilling to try and halt.
What makes the situation even more worrying is the !Kung (or !Xun )are one of only two San communities in Namibia to have benefited from the country’s flagship Conservancy Programme, which it promotes, with some justification, as a model for community based natural resource management. Their rights and land and future should be more secure than other indigenous groups but they are not.
For several years now, commercial cattle farmers have been erecting illegal fences on the lands of the !Kung. However, the police and wildlife authorities have largely ignored the problem and, it is alleged, have at times even abetted the invasions.
In his 2013 report on the status of indigenous peoples in Namibia, the UN Special Rapporteur, Dr James Anaya, addressed the issues facing the San in N#a Jaqna and Nyae Nyae conservancies.
“Within the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, which was created in 2003, the majority !Kung San people are authorized to harvest wildlife sustainably and collect wild foods. However, this conservancy is located in an area with minimal wildlife or other tourist potential, so it has not been able to draw the same economic benefits as has Nyae Nyae,” said Dr Anaya’s report.
“Like Nyae Nyae, the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy is threatened by encroachment by outside groups and the erection of illegal fences. The conservancy is also threatened by the proposal to convert part of its land area into mixed farming settlements, a resettlement effort that according to information received, is being pushed by the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement.”
The invasions – apart from being an outright and unlawful land grab – also threaten the ability of the !Kung to harvest the wild foods, which they are entitled to do as N#a Jaqna is also a Community Forest and upon which they depend for their food sovereignty.
The scale of the invasions and illegal fencing appears to have significantly increased since the death of the !Kung leader, Chief John Arnold, in 2012. His death precipitated a leadership vacuum which, according to human rights activist Willem Odendaal of the Legal Assistance Centre, seems to have been filled by a counsellor from the Traditional Authority, who has claimed, without the consent of the community, the mantle of leadership of the community. In this role, the TA counsellor has been illicitly ‘selling’ the land to non-community members.
However, Sara Zungu, a senior member of the Traditional Authority, is standing up for the community, despite facing considerable negative criticism and aggression from the illegal fencers. This is remarkable – firstly just as a San person willing and able to speak out, and secondly as a woman, showing real leadership under very difficult conditions, and being an inspiration for others in her community.
With support from the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Programme at OSISA, the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN) has been working on documenting the position of the illegal fences through the collection of GPS coordinates, which should also provide the necessary evidence for the government to act.
However, it is a Sisyphean task – as illustrated by the fact that the ministry has apparently lost some of the coordinates provided to it, while the community has needed a police escort to collect the data on eight because of the real threat of violence from commercial farmers. In addition, the fences are being put up at a rate that far exceeds the time it takes to remove them. As Sara Zungu says, “More fences are erected on an almost daily basis.”
But she and the other members of the community are not giving up hope. Together, the Management Committee and community of N≠a Jaqna Conservancy – led by Zungu – have issued a list of key demands that they believe will help to protect the land, life and rights of the !Kung. In particular, they want:
- The Office of the Prime Minister to formally acknowledge the crisis and commit to resolving it and supporting the affected community;
- The Otjozondjupa Communal Land Board to speed up the process of investigating the illegal fences throughout the conservancy, which are increasingly almost daily, and swiftly remove those that are deemed illegal;
- The Ministry of Regional and Local Government and Housing and Rural Development to support the community and the legally elected representatives of the Traditional Authority to transparent and democratic elections; and
- The Ministry of Enviornment and Tourism to assist with reporting illegal fences in the conservancy.
“If these flagrant abuses of the laws go unaddressed,” said Ms Zungu, “then the future of all Namibia’s communal areas is at risk.” What she didn’t say, and doesn’t need to, is that with it will go almost the last hope of the San holding on to what little of their land they have left.
About the author(s)
Delme is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Senior Programme Officer. Delme was the APM in OSISA’s HIV programme from 2006-2010. Prior to joining OSISA, he was the Coordinator of the AIDS Law Unit of the Legal Assistance Centre, a public interest law centre based in Namibia. Delme was active in the international HIV Treatment Access movement, was a founding trustee of the AIDS Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, a founding member of the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, the Pan African Treatment Access Movement and the Collaborative Fund for HIV. Delme holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cape Town, and obtained a bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of the Western Cape.