Namibia must do more for indigenous people

By Richard Lee | September 28th, 2012
San hunter © Karl Symons
San hunter © Karl Symons

The first ever visit to Namibia by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was always going to be a landmark occasion - whatever he said at the end of it. But James Anaya's concluding remarks have ensured that his trip will be talked about for a long, long time - because he made it clear that the Namibian government has an enormous amount of work to do to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

“Like many other countries around the world that have experienced European colonization and waves of migration, indigenous groups that are in the minority in Namibia have suffered injustices in the past that leave them disadvantaged, to varying degrees, in the present," said Anaya. "The groups with whom I met shared the common sentiment that, relative to other tribes in the country, they have not seen the promises and benefits brought by Namibia’s independence in 1990 fulfilled for them."

"These groups have expressed to me a strong desire for greater inclusion in decision-making at all levels, to be able to genuinely set their own priorities for development, and to regain or strengthen rights over lands and natural resources, particularly lands to which they retain a cultural attachment."

During his 9-day visit from September 20-28, the UN Special Rapporteur travelled to various parts of Namibia, meeting with representatives and members of various San groups, including the Ju/’hoansi San in Tsumkwe; the Khwe San living in the Bwabwata National Park in the Caprivi and Kavango regions; and the Hi//om San living in and around the Etosha National Park. he also met with representatives of the Ovahimba, Ovazemba and other indigenous peoples in Opuwo and with representatives of the Rehoboth Baster and the Nama people in the capital, Windhoek. He also had meetings with officials from the government, NGOs and the United Nations. 

While pleased that the Namibian government has dedicated attention to the development of San and other minority indigenous communities and has launched some encouraging initiatives, the UN Special Rapporteur said that he detected a lack of "coherent government policy that assigns a positive value to the distinctive identities and practices of these indigenous peoples, or that promotes their ability to survive as peoples with their distinct cultures intact in the fullest sense, including in relation to their traditional lands, authorities, and languages."

With respect to the San peoples in particular, who were the primary focus of his visit, Anaya recognised that, especially in recent years, the government has entered into some innovative arrangements with San tribes through which they have been able to increase their control over the management of land and derive some substantial benefits - and urged that these kinds of innovative arrangements should be expanded and strengthened, along with greater efforts to ensure San peoples’ security of land tenure.

He gave one example, highlighting the situation in Tsumkwe where the Ju/’hoansi San have recognized communal lands and yet where "outsiders have been erecting fences and encroaching on these lands, a problem that apparently is worsening without an adequate response by the State."

He added that “there are still numerous San communities that were entirely dispossessed of their lands prior to independence, and those lands are now in the hands of the State and private landowners. These communities face serious social and economic conditions with scarce employment opportunities. I met with representatives of the Hi//om San tribe in Oshivelo, for example, who have for decades been living on a plot of land behind the police station as they await their long-promised lands, after having been evicted from their traditional territory in what is now the Etosha National Park in the 1950s."

In recent years, the government has embarked on a resettlement programme that involves purchasing land for San and other groups and that appears to have positive elements and potential - although further examination is required. But the Special Rapporteur said that he had learned that "more needs to be done to identify adequate lands for resettlement and to develop land-use planning arrangements, in consultation with the affected San communities, as well as to provide ongoing support for the sustainable development of resettled communities."

In particular, he found that "there needs to be a re-evaluation of the adequacy of measures taken in response to the removal of Hi//om people from the Etosha National Park prior to independence. I acknowledge that the purchase of farms adjacent to the park for the resettlement of some Hi//om people may be a step in right direction to provide redress for their removal from the park. However, as is the case with other resettled communities, these San communities require support in order to ensure that they can sustain themselves and thrive in the lands to which they have been resettled. Additionally, close consideration needs to be given to the unresolved claims of the Hi//om San people to lands within the Etosha National Park, as well as to their expressed desire to participate in the management of that park."

Critically, he added that "San people who today reside in the park should not be coerced into leaving."

Anaya also highlighted the demand by all the groups for increased educational opportunities - and the numerous barriers that prevent this from being realised.

"Despite the guarantee in the Constitution that primary schooling be provided free of charge, and the commendable policy of the Ministry of Education to provide early schooling in indigenous languages, I have heard numerous accounts that these directives are not being effectively implemented on the ground. I also heard across the country that San children have been reluctant to attend school because they face discriminatory treatment by teachers and bullying by peers. I am concerned about reports that I heard in Opuwo that Ovahimba children are forced to cut their hair and remove their traditional dress in order to be allowed access to the public schools."

And last but by no means least, he talked about the concerns that he had heard among all the groups about many communities that do not have recognized traditional authorities.

"In absence of such recognition, minority indigenous communities are often placed under the jurisdictions of chiefs of neighboring dominant tribes, who make decisions on behalf of the minority communities. In this regard, I heard from unrecognized Ovahimba chiefs that they have not been informed about mining activities taking place on lands where the Ovahimba communities graze their livestock, an activity that is central to their livelihoods and culture. The lack of recognition of traditional chiefs is, in accordance with Namibian law, related to a lack of recognition of the minority indigenous tribes' communal lands."

The Special Rapporteur concluded that he will finalise his report into the situation of minority indigenous peoples in Namibia in the coming weeks. The report will be made public and will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

His mission was conducted in light of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 with the affirmative vote of Namibia. In accordance with the Declaration, indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their distinct identities and cultures as a basis of their development and place in the world, to pursue their own destinies under conditions of equality, and to have secure rights over lands and resources, with due regard for their traditional patterns of use and occupancy.

"I hope that that this report will be of use in the search for solutions to the ongoing challenges that indigenous peoples in the country face, and to advance their rights in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant international instruments.”

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