Actions, reactions, and heated commentaries from many points of view have filled the African press in recent weeks about the invasion of the Ju/’hoansi-owned Nyae Nyae Conservancy.

Nyae Nyae ConservancyThe difficulties began in early May when a group of Herero herders from Gam, a farming community located south of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, cut veterinary fences that separated their territory from the Ju/’hoansi lands and invaded with their cattle. The farmers complained that they were fleeing their own region due to a poisonous plant that would kill their animals. The apparent success of the initial invaders prompted other Gam farmers to invade until over 1,200 cattle and their owners had moved into the Conservancy.

The immediate problem for the invaders is the fact that the Nyae Nyae Conservancy is not free of diseases, specifically the foot and mouth disease, and if the meat from an infected animal would enter the beef market, the entire Namibian cattle industry would probably be sanctioned internationally. This would be a serious crisis for the poor nation. The Gam farmers, perhaps unwittingly, took their cattle into a land of no return.

A news report on May 29 focused on the Ju/’hoansi point of view. Poppie Khamaswa, a woman who lives with her family at Apel Post in the Conservancy, told the media, “We are not happy. We cannot find gamakhoe [devil’s claw] along the route the cattle moved. We do not hear the kudus at night any more because they took flight because of the presence of so many cattle in the area. The Gam cattle must be moved out of Nyae Nyae because there is no more grazing for the conservancy cattle.”

The devil’s claw she referred to is a wild medicinal herb containing analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Harvested by 377 permit holders in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, the tubers provide an important source of income for the Ju/’hoansi. The country supplies 95 percent of the world’s demand, earning N$2.8 million (US$350,000) per year. It is exported widely, and is the third most popular medicinal plant product in Germany.

The invasion by the farmers and their cattle harmed more than the devil’s claw harvesters. Onesmus Heinrich, who also lives at Apel Post, told the paper that goats brought in by the invaders have destroyed cultivated crops. The animals prefer the gardens over wild foods. /’Ang!ao Kiwit /’Un, Chair of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, told the press, “we have things that we want to do here at the Conservancy, but we cannot continue with them because of the Gam cattle.”

Various groups have come to the aid of the Ju/’hoansi. Lara Diez from the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN) defended the San point of view due to the fact that the Conservancy is ancestral land. “[The Ju/’hoansi] have great respect for the land,” Diez said, “[They] use it in a sustainable way; they have made certain choices about how to use it. They are not agriculturalists, they have not gone the livestock route.”

Diez argued that the government should compensate them for the losses they have sustained due to the invasion. In addition to damage to the devil’s claw plants, the Conservancy calculates losses due to water consumed by the invaders’ animals, lost fees from trophy hunters who are staying away, and diminished tourist revenues. The Conservancy indicates it will seek damages from the government of N$603,700 (US$76,000).

Kiwit /’Un underscored the position of the Ju/’hoansi: “We have promised our ancestors that we would look after the environment. We will do whatever we can to keep that promise.”

The Nyae Nyae Conservancy is known for its wildlife: buffaloes, elephants, wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, lions, hyenas, and a variety of birds that frequent the wetlands during the rainy season, such as cranes, egrets, and flamingos. It is managed by an elected board and a management committee that monitors water supplies, wildlife populations, and the sustainable harvesting of wild foods.

Several NGOs, such as WWF, have provided technical assistance for resource management and the development of institutions, but supporters of the Conservancy are unapologetic about the continuing needs of the Ju/’hoansi. “Most people in the Conservancy still live in abject poverty, but they are at least given options with the various programmes in place,” said Diez. “If the income-generating projects of the Conservancy are destroyed, how can they survive? They are living in the middle of a desert.”

Fransiena Gaus, senior councilor of the Ju/’hoansi Traditional Authority, echoed the sentiments expressed by the other Ju/’hoan. “Most San—and particularly women—are uneducated and depend on the natural environment. As San women, we also need livestock but we are very careful with domestic animals in the area.”

Two weeks ago, the government began confiscating the invaders’ cattle and moving them to holding pens where they may be auctioned for butchering, evidently without any plans for compensating the Herero farmers. The invading Gam farmers were arrested, then released on bail. These government actions provoked outrage in some quarters. Several Namibian political parties have weighed in, obviously seeking political capital from the drama. The South West African National Union, for instance, accused the government of dragging its feet and of handling the matter badly.

The Congress of Democrats condemned the decision by the Namibian cabinet to seize the invaders’ cattle, and demanded that they be returned to the Herero people as soon as they can be certified as disease free. NUDO, the Namibian Unity Democratic Organization, suggested that the government should organize a major land conference, since access to land is the primary issue for the Herero farmers as well as the Ju/’hoansi.

Representatives of the Gam invaders have moved into Windhoek, the capital, to press their own case. Kuratanda Katjizeu, acting as spokesperson for the group, admitted that they had illegally invaded the Conservancy, but he denied that they had cut any fences. It was well known that elephants had long since destroyed the veterinary fences, he maintained. He defined his rights, as a citizen of Namibia, to be “free to live where we want.” He seems to feel that the Ju/’hoansi don’t have the freedom to live securely on lands they have occupied for millennia.

The controversy continued in a news column last Friday, which insinuated that foreign capitalists, agents for the devil’s claw exporting business, were somehow behind the invasion.