Misanet.com / The Namibian / afrol.com, 13 February - The Namibian San peoples !Kung, !Xu and Jo/Hoansi are objecting strongly to the relocation of the Osire refugee camp to a scarce area crucial for their livelihood. The hunters and gatherers have already managed to change the mind of the UN refugee agency, and their voices are starting to get heard in Namibia as well.
Hundreds of marginalised San people living at M'kata and in the surrounding areas, as well as environmentalists, feel the relocation of the refugees will derail a number of community-based game management projects and destroy the forest that provides most of their food.
At a meeting at Tsumkwe, Namibia, last week the San peoples articulated their resistence. They even mooted a legal challenge to the plan, although any law suit would be a last resort if other attempts to persuade Government not to proceed failed, an official of the Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (Wimsa) confirmed yesterday.
Chief John Arnold, the leader of the !Kung traditional authority, has reportedly written a letter to Minister of Home Affairs Jerry Ekandjo in which he outlines the concerns of his people who fear that self-sustaining development projects would collapse if 20 000 refugees were moved there. The area is in what was formerly known as Bushmanland, 50km east of Tsumkwe, and is home to about 6 000 San people.
The San are well known as a hunter-gatherer community, depending largely on wild berries and roots for survival. The Wimsa official said "for the past 10 years these communities have tried to replenish the natural resources in the area, including game. The stakeholders have put up a team to explain [to Government] why this [relocation] is not a good idea."
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."
In January, Survival International, a worldwide organisation "supporting tribal peoples," 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 that "the Namibian Government must not destroy one vulnerable community in order to protect another."
UN opposes Namibian government
The UN objection was voiced in a meeting held behind closed doors last Thursday between Minister of Home Affairs, Jerry Ekandjo, his top aides, donor governments and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Namibian government has in principle decided that the move to M'kata is necessary and was awaiting a final go-ahead from Cabinet.
However by the end of Thursday's meeting Government had been persuaded that a feasibility study be undertaken before any relocation takes place. A well-placed source said Mengesha Kebede, the representative of the UNHCR's regional office in Pretoria, told the Minister at the tense meeting that donors might withdraw funding if the Namibian Government went ahead with its plans.
Home Affairs spokesman Mikka Asino told The Namibian yesterday that a submission has already been made to Cabinet on the proposed move to M'kata. However, the plans are likely to be put on ice for a time while the feasibility study is carried out.
The proposal to move the refugee camp from Osire stems from pressure from the Angolan and South African governments as well as from complaints by commercial farmers in the area. The Angolan government has expressed concern that Osire's easy accessibility has helped Unita rebels keep in touch with their comrades at the camp. Pretoria has also said it is not happy about the the flow of refugees leaving Osire and crossing into South Africa.
Commercial farmers living in the vicinity are apparently worried that the growing number of refugees there will deplete resources such as vegetation, wood and underground water levels.