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The Nyae Nyae Conservancy: the story of the Ju/hoan San and Namibia’s first internationally recognised conservancy

By | Tuesday, 2nd October, 2018

Johuansi Namibia James Suzman

Every month we post a blog inspired by Journeys by Design’s brochure Experience. This month it is the Ju/hoan of Namibia. Will Jones highlights the lengths to which the Ju/hoan went in creating the Nyae Nyae Conservancy.

In their book The Ju/huon San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence, anthropologists Mega Biesele and Robert K Hitchcock begin with the following: ‘The Ju/hoan of Nyae Nyae are a people who today see themselves as an indigenous minority who have basic rights as citizens of the southern African country of Namibia.’ Later, in the same opening chapter, they say that one of the purposes for writing the book is to discredit persisting stereotypes of the Ju/hoan as either ‘noble savages or helpless victims’, and to do so by telling the ‘story of the formation of the people’s grassroots movement that allowed this tiny group of former hunter-gathers’ to stake their claim in the new nation, establishing control over their own ‘land and resources as the very first internationally recognised conservancy in Namibia.’

I quote extensively because, as the authors say, the story of how the Ju/hoan of Nyae Nyae managed to do this is complex, often misunderstood, and certainly over-romanticised. One of a number of San groups living in southern Africa, and with a population of 11,000, the majority of Ju/hoansi live in north-eastern Namibia and north-western Botswana. In the 1950s they were subject to a government that classed the Sans at the ‘bottom of a several tiered bureaucratic and socio-economic system’, one that granted them neither rights to self-representation nor to the land on which they lived.

Coaxed off their land by either recruitment agents for nascent mines or by a wholesale effort to so-called ‘modernise’ the San, many of the Ju/hoan subsequently settled in purpose-built administration centre Tsumske. I won’t go into detail, but the next 30-years took its toll, the Ju/huon co-opted as farmers and, later, as soldiers, the competition for resources, the lack of employment, the over-population, the forced dependency on programs, and the radical changes in lifestyle, resulting in ‘a whole series of social, economic, and health problems.’ Violent and possessing one of the world’s highest mortality rates, Tsumske was known by its residents as ‘place of death.’

It is against this background that many Ju/hoansi decided to return to their ancestral lands, preferring wilderness to settlement life. However, the move faced significant challenges. In 1970, the government’s decision to create a ‘homeland for Bushmen’ saw 40,000 km2 of the Ju/hoan’s lands ceded to other groups. In the 1980s, the government wanted to convert the eastern block into a wildlife park, and would only allow the Ju/hoan back if they agreed to revert back to traditional hunter-forager customs – essentially as a tourist interest. At the same time, the experience of Tsumske was such that Ju/hoan society was in a state of flux. Later, there were major concerns over post-independence and ongoing appropriation of land through land-allocation programs.

The return, therefore, to Nyae Nyae was gradual, intermittent and full of difficulties, many of which are still in part unresolved. However, return the Ju/hoan did, assisted by outsiders (anthropologists in the main), and via organising themselves so effectively as to influence regional and national government, and to secure ‘a portion of their land and resources’, rights not afforded the majority of Namibia’s San people, who have ‘use right’ use of communal land, but no legal tenure. Necessary changes were made to societal structures, with concessions made to the need for representatives. Unions and co-operatives fought for and protected farming rights, including the Nyae Nyae Farmers Co-operative, which evolved out of an original cattle fund. The Nyae Nyae Devlopment Foundation was formed in 1981.

All this hard work was to bear much fruit in the 1990s. Early adopters as to the efficacy of the conservancy as a viable model for communal living, the Ju/hoan had already been lobbying for conservancy status when a change in the law with regards to the sustainable use of natural resources provided final impetus. The Nyae Nyae Conservancy was registered in 1996, gazetted in 1998, and is the first of the country’s 86 communal conservancies. While still facing difficulties, it has gone from strength to strength, and today is home to a range of wildlife, including lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard and wild dog. Meanwhile, living museum experiences educate both visitors and new generations of the Ju/hoan as to the ancient ways of the San.

There’s a lot more to the story, of course, and I’ll leave the details for another time – or for you to search out for yourself. In the meantime, I half-apologise for the length the post, but only half: it’s an important story, not least for the manner it debunks perspectives that hold the the Ju/hoan as somehow unaffected and unchanged by the modern world, and for their ability to wrestle that world to their own design.

If you would like to know more, or to travel to Namibia, then please do get in touch get in touch. We’d love to help.

Photo Credit: James Suzman featured in The Guardian