- Namibia’s internationally acclaimed Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program receives significant backing.
- Two CBNRM land conservancies are sited in the last strongholds for Indigenous communities in southern Africa, the Ju/hoansi San and the !Kung San.
- However, research suggests that the conservancies’ natural resources often benefit traders, herders, and trophy hunting guides more than the Indigenous peoples, who too often are unable to access their traditional lands.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Namibia’s internationally acclaimed Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Program, whereby the government ostensibly allows rural and Indigenous communities the opportunity to manage and profit from their own natural resources, has received significant Western backing.
However, research indicates that within the two CBNRMs which are designated to Indigenous San communities (the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy to the Ju/hoansi San and the N#a Jaqna Conservancy to the !Kung San), the benefits from natural resources are felt more so by unscrupulous traders, cattle herders and trophy hunting safari operators.
The San’s traditional subsistence way of life is being threatened, and without means of finding employment elsewhere, many Indigenous communities in the Kalahari face impoverishment, starvation, exploitation, and marginalization.
This may see the annihilation of one of the world’s oldest cultures as we know it, and it reflects a growing pattern whereby the communities who have the most knowledge of the natural world are today being obstructed from utilizing these natural resources. The loss of access to land is particularly devastating to Indigenous communities who rely on natural resources for their self-sufficiency.
Land grabs in N#a Jaqna Conservancy
The Indigenous !Kung San people who occupy the N#a Jaqna Conservancy (b) are witnessing their historical lands be overrun by cattle herders from Namibia’s ruling ethnic groups, which is tacitly sanctioned by central and local government authorities.
Authorities on conservancy land are thought to be accepting illegal bribes by non-San settlers in return for grazing rights on San traditional land within their conservancies and favoring political friends in land allocations.
Non-san settlers have been encroaching as early as 2002, but the influx intensified from 2012 onwards. Recent research indicates there to be over 65 illegal settlers in February 2021. Whilst there has been an ongoing lawsuit since 2013 by the conservancy seeking the removal of the fences, the fences have not been removed and many more illegal settlers have arrived since.
The cattle brought by the settlers destroy crop fields and bush fruit, reducing the !Kung San peoples’ access to food.
Professor Robert Hitchcock, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has worked with the San in Namibia for decades, said via email that, “In N#a Jaqna, certain parts of the conservancy have been taken over by outside interests and fenced, and they try and prevent people from gaining access to the lands that they have fenced, and they use the police to arrest people if they come into land that they have claimed as their own.”
This was the subject of a legal case that was filed in 2013 and won by the conservancy members in 2015. “The problem is that the High Court has failed to implement the results of that court case,” Hitchcock said.
During fieldwork I conducted in 2021, an elderly !Kung San couple spoke of the consequences of the influx of non-San residents. “We have sleepless nights about these people,” they said. “The cows raid our homes, and the conservancy does nothing. They destroy most things, so roots and berries are hard to find.” The couple had resorted to eating nuts that had been regurgitated by the incomers’ cattle.
Furthermore, there are multiple ‘shebeens’ (bars or pubs) run by non-San settlers in N#a Jaqna Conservancy. The businesses do not contribute to the economic development of the San community.
Dilemma of trophy hunting in the Nyae-Nyae
East of N#a Jaqna in the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy (a), the other of the two San conservancies, the Ju/hoansi San people endure similar discrepancies over access to land.
The area has been given one of the highest trophy hunting quotas in the country by the government.
Global conservation organizations including WWF maintain that trophy hunting in some circumstances can be beneficial as a conservation tool for certain species, and is acceptable when the generated economic benefit improves livelihoods.
But over the years there have been allegations against trophy hunting operators by local communities in the region which focus around access to natural resources.
“We can no longer hunt and gather in our conservancy, even though it is our right to do so,” one Ju/hoansi San elder from the Nyae-Nyae conservancy explained. “If we go out to hunt, he drives us back and says it is his land.”
While trophy hunting may generate economic benefits to conservancies, analyses which focus purely on such economic benefits may overlook the often fraught social dynamics that trophy hunting brings – dynamics that have reified impacts for the lived experiences of Indigenous San communities living on conservancy lands.
As policy-level conversations about the future of trophy hunting intensify, the perspectives of Indigenous communities on the ground must be included, and these conversations must consider the social dynamics such policies bring.
Much at stake
The San people, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, are one of Namibia’s six Indigenous populations. Today, they comprise less than 2% of the national population and have faced generations of marginalization and land eviction under South African apartheid rule prior to independence in 1990.
The two conservancies mentioned (Nyae Nyae and N#a Jaqna) are two of the last strongholds for Indigenous San communities in southern Africa.
The San people are the only ethnic group in Namibia whose health status has declined since independence. Livelihoods will likely continue to decline unless their land rights are guaranteed.
If this maltreatment continues – namely, the fencing off of their resources (and subsequent lack of self-sufficiency) on conservancy land, the mistreatment by dominant ethnic groups and by trophy hunting operators – then generations of knowledge, language and culture will soon be lost.
Izzy Sasada is a journalist, filmmaker and photographer focused on our changing relationship with the natural world, from trophy hunting in the Kalahari Desert to illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon.
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