afrol.com, 18 January - Rights organisations are in outrage over Namibian and UN plans to construct a refugee camp for 17,000 Angolans in the scarce environment housing the !Kung San ("Bushman") community. The !Kung people live directly from the regions natural resources and the camp could be devastating to the environment.
Survival International, a worldwide organisation "supporting tribal peoples," has called on the Namibian Government and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to re-evaluate their plans for the camp as "refugees could more conveniently be resettled in smaller groups on former commercial farms." Stephen Corry, Director of Survival, commented "the Namibian Government must not destroy one vulnerable community in order to protect another."
The 6,000 or so !Kung live in Tsumkwe District West, a remote part of Namibia formerly known as 'Western Bushmanland'. They depend for their livelihood on the animals and plants of the bush, which provide them with up to 80% of their food. However they have also made development plans and started their own small projects.
Since 1997 they have been discussing a scheme for managing the local natural resources, and they have applied to the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism for conservancy rights. "All this will be wrecked if the government goes ahead with the plan to put a camp of 17,000 mainly Angolan refugees on their territory," Stephen Corry says.
Nxame Aromo, a senior traditional counsellor of the !Kung, says that the Angolan refugees "are more than us and this area is too small. Where are our children going to settle when they grow up? Where are we going to get firewood? We depend on the forest for food and for poles to build our houses. The area in which they want to put the camp is where we get grass for thatching our huts, and where all our food sources are."
- We want to manage our environment through conservancies and we want to generate income from the forest and from our wild animals, he went on. The environmental impact of a large number of penniless refugees is known to be disastrous in fragile landscapes.
The UNHCR support to the project is surprising, as the UN agency is very much aware of the negative environmental impact of refugee camps. Refugees are given a shelter, basic health services and food rations, but most try to extend the modest grants with some extras, available on the surrounding land. First of all, firewood is needed for cooking (and sometimes heating), and this is collected locally. Secondly, attempts normally are made to grow basic food crops and keep some livestock. Land and water resources and the vegetation (fodder) are used.
The UN agency has been working on environmental impact of refugee camps for many years. In 1995, a "Working Group on Environment and Refugee-Affected Area Concerns" delivered its report to the agency's leadership, warning about possible negative impacts. Based on this report, environmental guidelines were decided on.
Further, recent experiences from Guinea, a much more fertile landscape than the Tsumkwe semi-desert, have shown that the environmental impact on the landscape surrounding the camps is significant. Deforestation (mostly for firewood) has been heavy. The impact on the Tsumkwe District semi-desert, and on its !Kung population directly depending on the scarce natural resources, will be even more dramatic.
Survival therefore is urging the Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs and the UNHCR, who are responsible for the camp, "to rethink this disastrous plan." Another rights organisation, the Mali-based "United States of Africa", has stated its support to the !Kung and outrage over the project.
Mariam Keita, spokeswomen of the latter organisation, states that the case demonstrates that "neither western nor African governments should be trusted." She grasps the wider perspective and goes on "Only the empowerment along traditional models of thought and behaviour will take African nature and culture into proper account."
The organisations, led by Survival, are taking action by encouraging everybody to send letters or mail to Minister Jerry Ekandjo.