Botswana accepts San as indigenous to the Okavango Delta

38th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee gave its approval to inscribe the Okavango Delta as Botswana’s second World Heritage Site. 

Director of the IPACC Secretariat

June 25th, 2014

The 38th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee gave its approval to inscribe the Okavango Delta as Botswana’s second World Heritage Site. As the Minister read the official message of thanks to UNESCO on Sunday 22 June 2014 in the Qatar National Convention Centre, the flag of Botswana was being held up behind him by Mr Gakemotho Satau, a Khwe San man from the Kuru Family of Organisations (KFO).

The inscription of the Okavango Delta should not only lead to a long term strategy for the conservation of the biodiversity of the Delta, one of Africa’s largest inland waterways; it also creates a new opportunity for indigenous San peoples to share in the duties of conservation and the benefits of sustainable tourism and natural resource use.

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) has been supporting the Kuru Family of Organisations and the Trust for Okavango Cultural and Development Initiatives (TOCADI) to study and engage in the nomination of the Okavango Delta. As the inscription decision is dependent on both UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and the contributions of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisory body on natural site nominations; it meant that Botswana had to give adequate heed to international norms and standards regarding the rights of indigenous peoples in the territory.

In August 2013, IPACC and TOCADI hosted a workshop for San youth and elders from across the Delta territory to discuss the meaning of World Heritage inscription and UN standards relating to indigenous peoples’ rights with regards to Protected Areas and traditional knowledge of biodiversity.

Ms. Tlhokomelang Ngaka spoke for the whole group when she rose to endorse the inscription initiative. “For us the San, the conservation of the Delta and our natural heritage is a foundation for our culture and our future. Our languages, culture, knowledge, our very existence is tied to the natural heritage of this region”.

Despite the overwhelming support by the San for the inscription, there were also concerns. San people have had difficult experiences with other Protected Areas in Botswana and there is a serious concern about evictions. Further, the delegates to the workshop identified that there is a particular cultural heritage in the Delta that they would like recognised and conserved. Different groups of the ||Anikhwe San used to live on the islands in the Delta, and they have mapped this cultural landscape and ask that it be recognised. Finally, Gakemotho Satau and other San leaders have emphasised that the San are rich in traditional knowledge, including tracking and nature monitoring skills, and they would like to see themselves employed and engaged in the day to day conservation of the Delta.

The San organised to communicate their concerns to the national technical team preparing the dossier and to the IUCN’s World Heritage Division. IUCN adopted the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as its international standards document on indigenous rights. IUCN and TOCaDI made arrangements for the San leaders to meet with the IUCN technical mission to Botswana in October 2013.

The IUCN acknowledged that the San are the indigenous peoples of the territory and noted their concerns regarding land tenure and cultural heritage. This was then included in the official evaluation report which went in front of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar in June 2014.

IPACC with financial support from the Open Society of Southern Africa supported two African indigenous delegates to attend the UNESCO 38COM meeting in Qatar. Mr Diel Mochire Mwenge from the Democratic Republic of Congo monitored the reporting and threats to the DRC World Heritage Sites. Mr Gakemotho Satau monitored the Okavango Delta nomination. Both were able to address side events at the UNESCO meeting.

There was a moment of concern when it was noted that the State Party had officially indicated that there were no San living within the boundaries of the core zone of the designated property. This was investigated by the IUCN’s Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity and Protected Areas (TILCEPA). The state submission claimed that there were only 530 local villages within the core zone, which was contradicted by the official map submitted to IUCN and UNESCO. According to the map, there appear to be thousands of villagers on the banks of the Okavango that are inside the core zone, both San and Bantu-speaking fishing and farming peoples. IUCN in dialogue with Botswana noted that this information appeared to be uncertain and requires further evidence gathering.

The Honourable Minister, Tshekedi Khama, officially represented Botswana at the UNESCO meeting. He also spoke to a meeting of the African World Heritage Fund where he emphasised the importance of Protected Areas and World Heritage in providing sustainable incomes and futures for local communities. He held up the example of Tsodilo Hills cultural World Heritage Site.

Satau summed up his satisfaction with the nomination process. He felt it was an important day for the San people and all other Botswanans. He was looking forward to the follow up workshop with government on the implementation of the international treaty inscription. The co-Chair of TILCEPA, Dr Nigel Crawhall, noted that for indigenous peoples globally, it is important to engage with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and to have regular contact and dialogue with the Advisory Bodies. There is much room for improvement in the procedures of the World Heritage Committee and the nominations, but the foundation of a win-win situation of national heritage conservation, protecting the global human heritage, and respecting the rights, culture and knowledge systems of indigenous peoples and local communities are all possible within this mechanism. 


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