17 DECEMBER 2020The Namibian (Windhoek)By Delme Cupido
Members of Namibia’s indigenous San communities say a combination of prolonged drought – driven by climate change, unrestrained grazing and deforestation on their lands – is leading to conflict between them and their more dominant, pastoralist neighbours.
We know from a range of scholarly and scientific reports that climate change in southern Africa is not a future event – it is already happening and its effects can already be seen in our region.
It is late November, and I am travelling with a group of consultants conducting community meetings with San communities in north-eastern Namibia. The organisation I work for has been reporting on the effects of the severe drought that has afflicted southern Africa in recent years.
In Bwabwata National Park, I meet Alfred Chedau. He is unmoved by the rains which have recently fallen in the area.
The rains which had so impressed me when we encountered them on our journey to Bwabwata do not really help, Alfred says. It doesn’t rain hard enough for long enough for the plants to grow and ripen as they should. “It wasn’t like this in the old days.”
Alfred is a certified tracker. “I attained 100% in the examination”, he tells me. He is also Khwe – one of the country’s San communities – and acquired his exceptional tracking skills the traditional way, by going hunting as a child with his father and uncles and accompanying his mother and the other women in the community when they went into the bush to gather veldkos (bush food).
Alfred works for IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), a Namibian NGO that helps communities such as the Khwe in Bwabwata benefit from and manage their natural resources sustainably.
At 58, Alfred has lived here his entire life and knows his environment intimately. He is passionate about transferring this knowledge and tells me his most fervent prayer is that God grants him an opportunity to open a tracking centre where he can teach young Khwe how to track and about the different kinds of veldkos that they can use for food and medicine. The drought, he says, is making him lose hope that this will ever happen.
According to a report titled ‘Scraping the Pot’, documenting the situation of the San in Namibia 20 years after independence, veldkos constitutes a major part of the San people’s diet, providing much-needed nutrition during times of scarcity, economic hardships and drought. It also has a crucial cultural value for the San.
Together with hunting, the gathering of plants for food and medicines is part of what defines them as a people. “I cannot even teach children and grandchildren which plants are good for eating because we don’t find them anymore,” Alfred tells me.
It is not just the drought, however, that is destroying the natural biodiversity that the Khwe rely on. As Alfred sees it, “outsiders” who wantonly chop down trees and whose herds of cattle trample everything underfoot are the most serious threat to his people’s survival.
The Khwe have no recognised traditional authority and so have very little political representation. This renders them virtually powerless to stop the deforestation and destruction of the environment. If the government does not step in, Alfred says, there will be nothing left here for his people to survive on.
A few days later, I meet up with ‡Oma Tsamgxao at Tsumkwe in the heart of the
‡Oma is a special adviser to the traditional authority at Nyae Nyae and longtime community activist. The drought and cattle farmers are also much on his mind.
Nyae Nyae encompasses most of what used to be called Bushmanland under the infamous Odendaal Plan which, under colonial apartheid rule, divided the country into ethnically based “homelands”. It holds special significance, as the last piece of territory that still ‘belongs’ to the Ju/’hoan people, perhaps Namibia’s and the world’s oldest surviving hunter-gatherers, and the only place where they are still able to more or less freely practise traditional hunting.
It is also the first, and one of the most successful, of Namibia’s much vaunted conservancies designed to give local communities more control over the management of their natural resources, plants and wildlife, and to allow them to derive benefits from the sustainable exploitation of those resources.
Hunting concessions, tourism and the harvesting of devil’s claw are the major sources of income for the members of the conservancy. Devil’s claw alone, ‡Oma says, brings in as much as N$1 million per year.
Rapidly expanding herds of cattle, mainly owned by non-San people, however, are placing this much-needed income in jeopardy as they trample everything from the devil’s claw to veldkos, and every last blade of grass, underfoot.
“To tell the truth, the drought has been the worst in Bushmanland”, ‡Oma says. “People really suffered a lot. Even the places where people used to get mangetti nuts, they don’t get them anymore because there wasn’t enough rain and these cattle are now everywhere.”
In 2009 farmers from what was then known as Gam (now Ondjou) unlawfully invaded the conservancy, setting off a series of conflicts and court cases that are still ongoing. Despite court orders in favour of the conservancy, many of the farmers remain and their herds are increasing in size.
Local officials appear to be unwilling or unable to do anything about the problem, and many Ju/’hoansi are convinced there is collusion between officials and the more powerful and connected, as they see it, cattle farmers.
The reason these farmers are streaming into Nyae Nyae is because of the overgrazing on their own lands and because Nyae Nyae is seen as having abundant grazing. The irony of this is not lost on ‡Oma, who says the fact that they have looked after their environment and followed land use plans agreed to by the community and the ministry of environment is what now threatens their existence. Without urgent and decisive intervention from the authorities, ‡Oma does not see much hope for the future.Close
In the neighbouring N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Sarah Zungu, also a special adviser to the traditional authority and a longtime spokesperson for the !Kung community who reside there, shares a similar tale of woe.
She too has no doubt that climate change and the prolonged drought are the underlying causes of the conflict between her people and the pastoralists and their destructive herds of cattle.
For speaking out in the local media, Sarah has received death threats, but she is not a woman so easily deterred.
Given that the odds appear to be insurmountably stacked against her and the dangers posed to her life, I ask, why does she still continue to fight?
She looks at me pensively and says quietly, but with an unmistakeable steel in her voice: “If we don’t fight, our people will become slaves.”
* Delme Cupido is a director at Humanity NPC, a non-profit company reporting on indigenous peoples’ rights and the climate crisis. The research for this article was made possible with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.