Archive for January, 2018

Editor’s Note: Post by Rachel Bedoian (MSc African Studies, 2017).  Rachel is working towards a career in the study of livestock and ecological sustainability of common grazing resources. Through the University of Botswana, Ohio University, and the University of Edinburgh, she has conducted research in Botswana and northern Namibia. The current essay is from her MSc research.

CAS_blog_entry_Rachel_BedoianOpen Kalahari Thornveld Commonage in Lake Oponono Village, Oshana Region, Former Ovamboland, Namibia

Upon independence in 1990, Namibia’s popularly-elected South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) government attempted to reduce massive racial wealth inequities in the state’s population following a century of German and South African colonial rule. On the eve of independence the most productive tracts of agricultural land were owned by white Afrikaner farmers and most rural black Namibians working in agriculture either rented small plots from these farmers or were employed as waged farm labourers. In 1995 the first Act of Namibian land reform was passed. Aimed at redistributing commercial farmland through a government ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy, the Commercial (Agricultural) Land Reform Act hoped to address the racial disparities in commercial farm ownership, which dominated the rural landscapes of central and southern Namibia.

The academic and political attention received by the Namibian commercial land reform act has often overshadowed the importance of Namibia’s second land reform act, which affects a far larger portion of the black Namibian population. The 2002 Communal Land Reform Act (CLRA) set up statutory governing frameworks and tenure policies within the former Bantustan reserves, which consisted of customarily allocated land. The Act created legal structures and de jure (statutory) processes governing homestead plot allocation and tenure security. These areas, commonly called communal areas or communal lands, are lands vested in the Namibian state. They cover the very same physical areas set up through the 1964 Odendaal Commission as Bantustans under South African occupation. Today, local village Traditional Authorities and headmen retain de facto (customary) powers over these communal lands and facilitate the customary processes of land allocation operating under the indirect oversight of tribal chiefs. In many instances, these chiefs and headmen customarily govern their villages freely. Their customary law does not conflict with national and regional statutory law. However, in the area of land allocation, they now share their powers with those of the regional and national Ministries of Land Reform.

The Communal Land Reform Act grants land tenure rights to persons with ancestral tribal claims in a specific village, and in the Former Ovamboland, these claims were primarily based upon an Ovambo matrilineal inheritance structure. Persons with valid claims can reside on and exploit the resources of a homestead plot of fifty hectares (raised from a maximum of twenty hectares in 2015) or may apply for a larger leasehold plot of up to one hundred hectares (raised from a maximum of fifty). Those granted both customary and statutory tenure of homestead plots are able to cultivate and use their plot, but the sale of plots is not legal without specific permission from local headmen and direct approval from the regional Minister of Land Reform.

I conducted my field research in the communal areas of the Former Ovamboland, where there are vast tracts of unallocated and commonly shared Kalahari thornveld grassland. These large areas of land are intended to be for the shared use of village residents and are legally safeguarded as a public resource that cannot be privatized, sold or otherwise accumulated and cordoned off to prevent common access by residents, as stipulated in the CLRA. These grassland areas are intended for exploitation by village residents as a means of contributing to their livelihoods, and are primarily used for cattle and small stock grazing. However, ‘land grabbing’ of these areas of grazing commonage has become a growing local and national concern, as non-resident urban elites stock large numbers of cattle for revenue- creation purposes and fence off large portions of the commonage. These activities are resulting in the shrinkage of the size of common grazing area and a decline in the soil and vegetation quality of the commonage pastures.

Much of Namibia is too dry to support large stock, but rangelands in the Former Ovamboland enjoy a higher ecological carrying capacity than those of other regions, and are thus able to support cattle in varying numbers. Most resident pastoralists in communal areas own and herd thirty or fewer heads of cattle and utilise the open commonage as their main source of pasture. By comparison, most urban elites stocking cattle on the commonage have one hundred heads of cattle, with some grazing upwards of three hundred. Perhaps of greatest concern is that while much commonage continues to be captured by fencing, it is not the case that these fenced areas become grazing areas for the cattle of elite farmers for the majority of the year. Instead, these fenced areas are used only during the annual dry season (January to March) and during times of drought. For the rest of the year (April to December), the cattle stock of urban elite farmers continue to graze on the remaining open commons alongside the small numbers of cattle belonging to resident. Therefore, elite farmers with large herds not only capture and remove large portions of common grazing land from collective use by small-scale local pastoralists, they also continue to degrade the remaining open commonage by allowing their large herds to continue grazing upon it for the majority of each year.

Common grazing areas face this elite capture more and more frequently, and this capture is maintained primarily through corruption on the part of regional chiefs and/or local Traditional Authorities (TAs) and their headmen. Cattle-holding elites additionally enforce grazing land capture by applying a variety of intimidation tactics on local pastoralists. These tactics generally include verbal and implied physical threats but also exist in more subtle and unstated entrenched structures of power. As one man said: ‘you do not want to piss off the rich man’, the implication being that a rich man can destroy your life if he so pleases, and this is especially the case when national government officials and locally-powerful urbanites are those one would be ‘pissing off’. This intimidation largely works. The fact that the number of fences cut or cattle stolen is shockingly low in most areas of Ovamboland attests to it.

Progress is perhaps being made, and two separate verdicts, in 2015 and 2016, found the fencing of commonage to be explicitly in violation of the CLRA, which contains a provision safeguarding the open-access of common grazing. However, these verdicts have yet to be enforced fully since their rendering, and the vast majority of fences both remain standing and their legitimacy unchallenged. At the conclusion of my fieldwork, I spoke to communal land researcher John Hazam at the pro-bono and class action Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. A former employee of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Hazam told me his greatest lament about the recent verdicts and the lack of follow-up action was that in Namibia ‘the wheels of justice turn slowly.’ It remains to be seen if these recently rendered verdicts demanding the removal of illegal fences on commonage will be enforced fully at the national, regional and customary levels.


Related Readings

1. Alden Wily, L.A., 2008. Custom and commonage in Africa rethinking the orthodoxies. Land use policy, 25(1), pp.43-52. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837707000191

2. Cousins, B. and Scoones, I., 2010. Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(1), pp.31-66. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150903498739

3. Devereux, S., 1996. Fuzzy entitlements and common property resources: struggles over rights to communal land in Namibia. Available at: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/3346/wp44.pdf?sequence=1

4. Lohmann, D., Falk, T., Geissler, K., Blaum, N. and Jeltsch, F., 2014. Determinants of semi-arid rangeland management in a land reform setting in Namibia. Journal of arid environments, 100, pp.23-30. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140196313001754?via%3Dihub

5. Mendelsohn, J., 2008. Customary and legislative aspects of land registration and management on communal land in Namibia. Ministry of Land and Resettlement and European Union, Windhoek. Available at: https://landportal.info/sites/default/files/mendelsohn_j_land_registration_and_management_on_communal_land_in_namibia.pdf

6. Mendelsohn, J.M., El Obeid, S. and Roberts, C., 2000. A profile of north-central Namibia. Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers.

7. Odendaal, W., 2011. Elite land grabbing in Namibian communal areas and its impac on subsistence farmers’ livelihoods. (a) Available at: http://repository.uwc.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10566/601/PB%2033.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

8. Republic of Namibia. 2002. Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 (Act Number 5, 2002). The Government Gazette of the Republic of Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia. Available at: Legal Assistance Centre. www.lac.org.na/laws/pdf/communallandreformact.pdf

9. Republic of Namibia Ministry of Land Reform. 2014. A Decade of Communal Land Reform in Namibia. Available at: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/binary/D7CBGQXC4HB36DQDVMD57YMHILWSXI2R/full/1.pdf

10. Tapscott, C. and Hangula, L., 1994. Fencing of communal range land in northern Namibia: social and ecological implications (No. 6). Social Sciences Division, Multidisciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia.

11. Verlinden, A. and Kruger, A.S., 2007. Changing grazing systems in central north Namibia. Land degradation & development, 18(2), pp.179-197.

12. Werner, W. 2011. ‘What Has Happened Has Happened’: The Complexity of Fencing in Namibia’s Communal Areas. Available at: http://www.osisa.org/sites/default/files/fencing.pdf


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