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Controlling Their Destiny: Ju|'hoansi of Nyae Nyae

For over 20 years the Nyae Nyae people were supported in the artificial government settlement of Tsumkwe with weekly deliveries of food relief. Alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and anomie were all-too-familiar features of the overcrowded rural slums. Then, in 1981, seeing that their situation was spiraling out of control, a few far-sighted individuals began to leave Tsumkwe and head back to their home territories, called N!oresi. This movement proved to be the salvation of the Ju|’hoansi; the culturally re-energized people of Nyae Nyae, with the support of sympathetic outsiders, were able to wrest back control of their land and livelihood from distant government agencies.

With the initial support in 1981 of John Marshall, the Nyae Nyae San initiated an integrated rural development effort. Originally a “cattle fund” to provide Ju|’hoansi with livestock, tools, and seeds, it grew into a multi-faceted collaborative development program involving a non-governmental organization (NGO), the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation (NNDFN), and a community-based organization, the Nyae Nyae Farmers Cooperative (NNFC), now called the Nyae Nyae Conservancy (NNC). The program has empowered Ju|’hoansi communities through a bottom-up participatory development approach.

In 1982-83, more Ju|’hoansi families began to move out of Tsumkwe (Tjum!kui) to get away from crowding and conflict and re-establish homes in their traditional territories. They supported themselves through a mix of foraging, pastoralism, agriculture, and small-scale rural entrepreneurship.

The Ju|’hoansi and their supporters in 1983-84 successfully lobbied against the establishment of a nature reserve in Eastern Bushmanland. The planned reserve would have forced them to give up their livestock and cater to tourists in a “living museum” situation that John Marshall dubbed “A Plastic Stone Age.”

In 1986, the Ju|’hoansi formed the Ju|Wa Farmers Union (JFU), an organization that assisted local people in livestock raising and other development activities. The cooperative sought to protect Ju|’hoan land and rights through lobbying at the local, regional, and national levels. When Namibia finally won its independence from South Africa in a United Nations-brokered agreement in 1989, the JFU supported SWAPO in the first democratic elections. After independence, the cooperative played a major role in getting communal forms of land tenure recognized as legitimate at the Namibian Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question held in Windhoek in June and July, 1991.

In 1992-93, the Ju|’hoansi successfully ousted incoming pastoralists from adjacent districts who were bringing in cattle and illegally grazing on traditional Ju lands. The NNFC played a high profile role in drawing attention to land tenure and resource rights issues at national and regional conferences; the organization became a charter member of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), which was founded in 1996.

The Ju|’hoansi have worked closely with the representatives of the NNDFN and various aid agencies in locating and mapping the boundaries of their territories and in coming up with rules for how the land and its resources should be managed.

With assistance from the NNDFN, the Ju|’hoansi were able to set up new communities based on traditional kinship arrangements. By 2001, the Ju|’hoansi population of about 2,200 was divided into 35 such communities within a 9,003-square-kilometer area, many of them with their own herds and agricultural fields.

Structures of Governance

The formation of the cooperative was a major challenge to strongly egalitarian Ju|’hoansi, who highly value personal autonomy; few had experience in setting up and running representative bodies. The Ju|’hoansi initially held open meetings in which literally hundreds of people participated in the traditional style of consensus-based decision-making. Soon, of necessity, the communities began to delegate responsibility for attending meetings to specific individuals. Elections were held, and two representatives known as rada—at least one of whom had to be female—were chosen from each of the communities.

The Cooperative’s executive now undertakes trips to each community to listen to the concerns of local people and make community members aware of wider political, economic, and environmental issues. The Coop has its own bank account and runs a cooperative shop and handicraft purchasing operation. Over its 15-year existence, the Cooperative has evolved into a flexible, generally participatory organization for internal communication and external representation.

Full participation has not been easy to maintain. In principle, no decisions were to be made without efforts to gauge the opinions of the entire population, a difficult process with 35 far-flung villages in sandy savanna connected by deeply-rutted tracks. But the advantage of full participation is clear: once initiatives are agreed upon, they have the full support of the Ju|’hoansi, who then play key roles in implementation, including, for example, building village schools and formulating curricula.

Development Assistance

The Ju|’hoansi of Nyae Nyae have received assistance from donors in southern Africa, Europe, and the United States. In the mid-1990s, the Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) Project, a joint effort of USAID and the Namibian government, began providing funds and technical assistance to the NNFC to foster self-sufficiency.

The NNFC’s agenda has included seeking control over the district’s land and resources, promoting development activities, and taking part in land use and environmental planning with the government, NGOs, and the private sector. The NNFC, aided by the NNDFN, has struggled to promote better financial management and maintenance of assets like trucks and water pumps, and better use of human resources.

Ju|’hoansi have stressed the importance of maintaining “the health of the land” in northeastern Namibia. The government’s prediction that Ju|’hoan livestock would degrade the land has thus far not transpired, in part because the livestock herds are relatively small and widely dispersed, but also because the NNFC was successful in establishing guidelines to promote conservation and sustainable development internally and to prevent the over-exploitation of local resources by outsiders.

The NNDFN in turn has had an important impact on job creation by opening a number of positions in the leadership and everyday management of the NNFC. The new generation of Ju|’hoan leaders has been expected to transcend deeply-held values that favor altruism and non-self-aggrandizement even as they have had to forge new public selves and grasp the nettle of rapid decision-making. Individual leaders have suffered mightily in this process, facing conflicting demands from constituents and the hierarchical structures that pay their salaries. Rank-and-file community members’ early faith in the new leadership has been eroded by the widening gap between old and new social values. Fortunately, this situation is changing, partly because years of collaboration with outside agencies have made the Ju|’hoansi recognize the value of a chain of command and centralized decision-making.

The Nyae Nyae Conservancy

The NNFC has collaborated with the government of Namibia and such NGOs as the World Wildlife Fund/US and Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation Agency. These efforts have resulted in one of the Nyae Nyae peoples’ greatest accomplishments to date: the establishment of an area of communal land where communities have control over natural resource management and utilization through a statutory body recognized officially by the national government. The Nyae Nyae Conservancy, established officially in February 1998, was the first in Namibia. At 9,003 square kilometers, the Conservancy has 752 members and is overseen by a conservancy committee. The Conservancy’s founding has given the Ju|’hoansi greater control over what happens in their area. It has also served to instill in them new confidence and to encourage new investment and entrepreneurial activities.

In 2000, the Conservancy advertised for joint ventures, and 11 different firms applied, of which four were eventually interviewed. La Rochelle, a hunting company owned by a German industrialist, was chosen. The company paid the Conservancy N $260,000 ($37,000 US) for hunting rights. While most of the funds were used to support Conservancy management and administrative costs, part was set aside to pay dividends of N$75 ($10 US) to each Nyae Nyae household.

In 2001, the NNC continued to work on natural resource management issues and to engage in capacity-building. Substantial investments were made in the translocation of game into the Nyae Nyae area, with some of the animals purchased out of the Conservancy’s own funds. As of mid-2001, some 730 game animals—including hartebeest, gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, kudu, zebra, and eland—were introduced in the Conservancy.

The NNC, oldest of the 14 community-based natural resource management projects in Namibia, is one of the few with a complete management plan. The plan supports community rangers who assist in monitoring and managing the natural resources in the Nyae Nyae region. Poaching is rare, thanks in part to the vigilant efforts of the Conservancy members and the public’s feeling that the Conservancy is theirs.

The Conservancy runs tourism safaris to a village where crafts are sold and dances performed, and has also been involved in work with film companies that pay royalties to the NNC for the privilege of working in the Nyae Nyae area. One recent film was the 1994 documentary Distant Echoes: Yo Yo Ma and the Kalahari Bushmen.

After a shaky start and the wrenching changes brought about by the end of Apartheid and Namibian independence, the NNC and its various communities have made substantial progress in the past two decades. The Ju|’hoansi, however, continue to face serious challenges, including alcohol abuse and the spread of AIDS. Most recently they have had to confront the possible resettlement of some 21,000 Angolan and other refugees in the M’Kata area of Tsumkwe District West, bordering Nyae Nyae to the west. And encroachment continues by pastoralists, with land pressure increasing in the Gam district immediately to the south on account of the mid-1990s repatriation of 5,000 Herero from Botswana. The well-being of the Ju|'hoansi and their land will very much depend on the willingness of the members of the Nyae Nyae communities to deal both with internal social problems and challenges from outside.

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