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100 Years of Etosha: Not Everyone is Celebrating

Tuesday, October 5, 2007
Column - Willem Odendaal, Project Coordinator, LEAD Project
The Namibian

THE 100th birthday of Namibia's premier tourist destination, the Etosha National Park, was celebrated in spectacular fashion at Namutoni last Friday.

The celebrations coincided with the official opening of the Park's three newly refurbished Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) rest camps by President Hifikepunye Pohamba and were attended by more than 1 000 invited guests including Cabinet Ministers, members of the diplomatic corps, governors, politicians, traditional leaders, communities and representatives of non-governmental organisations.

While most of the keynote speakers on that day chose to reflect on Etosha as one of the most important contributors to our state coffers, virtually nothing was mentioned about the pain, neglect and disregard that Etosha's former inhabitants - the Hai//om - had to endure during the past century in order to make this year's centenary celebrations a reality.

Since time immemorial, the Etosha area was the home of the Hai//om.

But they were evicted from Etosha in the 1950s because they did not fit in with the plans the South African government had for the park during that time.

Now numbering over 9 000, the Hai//om represent the largest San population in Namibia.

In 1997 a group of Hai//om protesters blocked the road at the two Etosha entrance gates in an effort to raise awareness for the fact that Etosha is their homeland, but instead they incurred the wrath of the Government, which responded with teargas.

Today, the Hai//om, in contrast to other San communities in Namibia, have been completely displaced and have no communal land at all.

During the 19th and early 20th century, the Hai//om lived in the region stretching from the former Ovamboland, through present-day Etosha, to Grootfontein, Tsumeb and Otavi, and south to Outjo and Otjiwarongo.

Far from being isolated, they were enmeshed in elaborate trade networks with their Oshiwambo, Otjiherero and Khoekhoegowab-speaking neighbours.

The German colonial administration, which established the park in 1907, tolerated and indeed welcomed the presence of the Hai||om, much of whose traditional territory outside of the park had been colonised by white settlers.

They made traditional use of the land south of the great white Etosha pan, where tourist roads and rest camps are to be found today.

The Hai//om remained in the park for almost another half century until 1954 when they were finally forced out of their ancestral home.

Etosha is replete with Hai//om place names, for example Okaukuejo is called ‡Huiop, Rietfontein is called //Nasoneb and Namutoni is called ‡Amob.

A recently produced set of maps by the Xoms/Omis Project (Etosha Heritage Project) of the Legal Assistance Centre testifies to the historic land use of the Hai//om.

Etosha population data indicates that 500 to 1 000 Hai//om lived there from the 1920s until the 1950s and that Hai//om goats and cattle grazed at the waterholes of Etosha into the 1950s.

Since then only a few Hai//om were employed at the park's rest camps but most of them were as a result of their eviction forced to join the legions of landless generational farm labourers eking out a living on the farms bordering Etosha.

This history of the Hai//om in Etosha has obvious legal significance: the Hai//om have a claim to Etosha based on aboriginal (or indigenous) land title.

The outline of this legal claim is that the Hai//om have lived in the Etosha area since well before German colonisation.

They had exclusive occupation and a livelihood from hunting and gathering in the southeastern area of the park.

Arguably, their eviction from the park under South African rule was unlawful under the United Nations mandate which required South Africa to govern the territory of Southwest Africa for the benefit of the peoples of Namibia.

While it is not unprecedented for an indigenous people to 'own' a national park - Uluru and Kakadu National Parks in Australia are both owned by their indigenous occupants and leased to the Government with substantial development advantages to the respective tribes - it would be a difficult legal challenge in Namibia.

However, because of the injustice of the Hai//om having no land, some concessions have been brought up.

One plan, never acted on, was to permit the Hai//om to operate a potentially lucrative tourist camp in a remote corner of Etosha.

More recently, following the promise of accelerated land reform, has been the Government's plan to purchase farms near Etosha to be granted to the Hai//om for resettlement on - at least a small portion of - their former lands.

On the one hand this is a positive step, but on the other hand, this can only be regarded as a start considering that there are 9 000 Hai//om living in the area, most of whom are dispossessed, poverty stricken and landless.

Aggravating the problem of poverty, landlessness and lack of empowerment of the Hai//om, the Hai//om Traditional Authority, which is recognised by the Government since 2004, lacks substantial support from many Hai//om communities, which claim that the traditional leader was not elected by the majority of them.

This leadership crisis has further weakened the Hai//om as a people, making it more difficult for them to negotiate a successful and sustainable resettlement plan or alternative poverty alleviation programmes for the future.

It is crucial, given the dismal failure of the national resettlement so far, that the entire Hai//om community be consulted to choose the terms and conditions of their future resettlement.

For example, many of the San resettled at villages such as Tsintsabis, Omega, Excelsior and Mangetti Dune have hardly any income opportunities as a result of poor post-resettlement planning.

These experiences are proof that the envisaged resettlement programmes for the Hai//om have to be carefully researched and monitored in order to ensure that Hai//om choices are respected and that these resettlement projects truly benefit the Hai//om.

Ideally, the Hai//om who are assigned for resettlement on these projects would benefit immensely if they are offered honest partnerships with the Government as managers of the Park as well as private tour operators in the area.

Today, Etosha is still essentially the same park that the South African government created in the 1950s.

As such it represents an idea of nature conservation rooted in another era.

It is time for the Namibian Government to critically reflect on past mistakes and to re-conceptualise the park and its surroundings, even as we hold it out to the world as one of the great wildlife preserves in Africa.

Any such re-conceptualisation of Etosha must include a strong Hai//om presence, as this park is located on their lands.

As was already mentioned, there are now models in the world of jointly owned national parks, with land either shared with indigenous peoples or owned by indigenous peoples and leased to the state for park purposes.

Certainly, nature conservation does not have to take place in isolation from Hai//om economic empowerment.

With this in mind, the Government holds a key role in assisting the Hai//om to rid themselves of their present state of abject poverty.

For example, existing tourist facilities in the park could be supplemented by new tourist facilities run wholly or partially by the Hai//om on their new lands.

In other words, there is no reason why the Hai//om should not benefit from the tourism opportunities that Etosha and its environs have to offer.

When President Pohamba launched the official commemoration of the Etosha Centenary, he rightly commented that national parks such as Etosha are national treasures and that their tourism potential should be harnessed for the benefit of all Namibians.

Sadly, last Friday's centenary celebrations represented a lost opportunity to acknowledge the injustices suffered by its original inhabitants, the Hai//om, when they were evicted from the park in 1954.

Still, acknowledgment, reflections or promises are not sufficient; they have to be followed by real practical steps, such as the reintegration of the former inhabitants into the Etosha National Park economy.

Let us hope and pray that the Namibian Government has the wisdom to see to it that the Hai//om are the first to benefit from the park's future income generating activities.

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