Hai//om fight for the right to ancestral lands

By Magreth Nunuhe

Windhoek – Before the advent of colonialism in Namibia, the Hai//om people of the San descent lived a simple existence — free, happy and peaceful. They planted food to eat, hunted game, tended animals and traded as they had learned from their ancestors.

This was enough to sustain their needs until in 1884 when Germans colonised Namibia, grabbed most of their land in the Etosha pan area in northern Namibia and turned it into a national park.

This was exacerbated by the South African apartheid rule that followed, which removed the Hai//oms by force from the area in 1954, marking the beginning of a harsh struggle for the return to the land of their forefathers.

After independence, not much changed for this indigenous people either.

While on one side the Etosha National Park offers excellent game viewing with dozens of animal species and brings in lucrative foreign revenue, the forgotten Hai//om San people say they have been pushed to the periphery.

They feel that the land that their ancestors once entrusted them with has been lost and so has their culture and dignity.

And now the Hai//om, mostly living on resettlement farms, are determined to claim that land back –- through the legal route.

With the help of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a public interest and human rights organisation, in 2015 they launched an ancestral land rights claim to the tune of N$3.9 billion in the High Court in Windhoek against the government to the area known today as Etosha National Park.

They seek restoration of their rights to Etosha National Park, partial ownership of 11 farms in the Mangetti area, use of the land and full rights to development, among others.

But the Hai//om are not the only group claiming ancestral land rights. The Ovaherero and Nama ethnic groups, who lost more than half of their population and whose lands were confiscated during the German genocidal war of 1904-1908, are also demanding restoration.

Claims for ancestral land reached momentum in the last few years in the southern African nation, giving birth to land activism groups such as the Landless People’s Movement and the Affirmative Repositioning movement.

Land division mostly benefitted the white minority during colonialism, constituting only about 0.2 percent of the population, but controlling about 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land.

The Namibian government instituted a re­settlement programme under the “willing-buyer, willing seller” scheme to redress the effects of the colonial era, but the programme was marred by irregularities and deliberate inflation of farm prices, gobbling up much of government’s funds for resettlement.

National data indicate that Namibia has about 4,000 commercial farms of which almost a thousand farms have been acquired by previously disadvantaged Namibians through private transactions or government-facilitated loans since independence in 1990.

By 2020, the government is expected to have transferred a further 15 million hectares of commercial agricultural land to homeless blacks who were mainly dispossessed, with a third of that area to be used for resettlement purposes and two thirds for agriculture.

Over five thousand people have been resettled since independence. The decision to not deliberate on the issue of ancestral land at the landmark 1991 First National Land Conference seems to be at the back of woes over land ownership and restitution.

That land conference dealt with issues like the challenges of accessibility to commercial land and the protection of farm workers from exploitation.

The second land conference slated for September 2017 is expected to address many bottlenecks in the land reform process, while interest groups also want the issue of ancestral land rights to be discussed.

While acknowledging the rights to ancestral land, President Hage Geingob recently cautioned that if the issue of land is not treated with diligence, it can cause chaos in the country.

Geingob said he was open to consultation with those call­ing for restitution on ancestral land in order to reach a national con­sensus, but maintained that the San people have more claim to land than any other ethnic group in Namibia because they were the first inhabitants here and seem to be left out of the dialogue on land.

This is the story that resonates with many indigenous people in Southern Africa and elsewhere, where the land issue has taken centre stage as it speaks to their cultural integrity, sustenance and basis of their existence.

For many former colonies, land tenancy became a headache for many governments as domestic laws that led to land expropriation for national interests did not take into account fair compensation to restore the dignity, well-being and enjoyment of the rights of many indigenous peoples.

Like the Hai//om of Namibia, the Basarwa of Botswana, also referred to as the Bushmen of Central Kalahari, claimed a monumental victory when 10 years ago, the High Court in that country ruled in their favour that they were illegally evicted from their ancestral homelands.

However, the government did not uphold that ruling and the majority of the Basarwa are still forced to apply for one-month permits to stay on their ancestral land or face seven years in jail.

An online petition by Survival International (SI) addressed to the President of Botswana, Ian Khama, and his brother, Tshekedi – the Minister of Environment, Conversation, Natural Resources and Tourism – is challenging them to uphold court rulings and respect the rights of Basarwa.

The global movement for tribal peoples’ rights tries to prevent the annihilation of tribal people and to give them a platform to speak to the world so they can bear witness to the genocidal violence, slavery and racism they face on a daily basis, according to the SI website.

Similarly, the Nama tribe of South Africa, a former goat herding community in Richtersveld,  won a court ruling to return to their diamond-rich land in 2007.

They were chased off their ancestral land in the 1920s after mineral rights were awarded to a state-run diamond mining company set up in 1927 as a work programme for poor whites, according to an Associated Press report.

They lodged their claim to the land, part of South Africa’s coastal plain, in 1997, following the end of white rule. After a drawn-out legal battle in the Johannesburg Constitutional Court, the government agreed to restore the 330-square-mile coastal plot and to pay $28 million in compensation.

The mining company and the Nama will form a joint-mining venture, in which Alexkor will hold an interest of 51 percent.

Elsewhere, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights found the Kenyan government guilty of violating the cultural and economic rights of the Ogiek community by persistently evicting them from their ancestral land.

The Kenyan government will know in three months how much it has to pay the community for the continual evictions from the Mau Forest in the Rift Valley. The Ogiek are hunter-gatherers,  some in the deep forest, live purely by hunting and gathering, while the majority grow vegetables and also keep livestock. They have traditionally hunted antelope and wild pigs, which is now illegal.

In the United States of America, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians celebrated the return of productive wetlands to their traditional homeland on the Oregon coast in October 2016.

The 125-acre parcel, called Fivemile Creek, upstream of Tahkenitch Lake, holds special significance for the recovery of threatened coho salmon on the Oregon coast, as well as for the broader effort at restoring land and treaty rights for the Siletz Tribe.

The UN Declaration recognises indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands, territories and resources, including rights to those lands, territories and resources traditionally held by indigenous peoples but now controlled by others as a matter of fact and also law.

The members of indigenous peoples, who have unwillingly lost possession of their lands, when those lands have been lawfully transferred to innocent third parties, are entitled to restitution thereof or to obtain other lands of equal extension and quality, the UN declared.

The members of indigenous peoples who have unwillingly left their traditional lands, or lost possession thereof, maintain property rights thereto, even though they lack legal title, unless the lands have been lawfully transferred to third parties in good faith, according to the UN Declaration.

Delegates at the recently held UN Permanent Forum’s sixteenth session stressed the need to recognize ancestral land rights, and indigenous peoples’ role in shaping sustainable development.

They said that “Without respect and recognition for traditional environmental practices and land rights, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would fail to achieve its full potential to protect the Earth and all its inhabitants.”

Landless Namibians have vowed to will do all in their power to get their ancestral lands back, saying it is their right, while some parliamentarians have argued that the only way to address the land issue diligently is to acknowledge ancestral land.

“History is there and documented

. It has a list of who was there and who was evicted from their ancestral land, and how those lands were unproductive,” said Ignatius Shixwameni, an opposition leader. But the Minister of Land Reform, Utoni Nujoma, maintained that ancestral land claims would promote Bantustans and tribalism.

Others have also argued that there is not enough evidence to prove which areas belong to whom and that Namibia now belongs to those who live in it.

But Namibian Ombudsman John Walters was reportedly quoted as saying that resolutions taken at the first land conference in 1991 are not cast in stone and that ancestral land claims are guaranteed by the constitution.

Walters urged government to engage in dialogue with indigenous groups who feel they have valid claims to their ancestral land.

• Additional information: Namibian Sun, Channel Africa, Idex Online,Indian Country Media Network & africa.cgtn.com

June 2017
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