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Conservation and Conflict: People, State Policies, and Protected Areas In Southern Africa

A paper presented by Robert K. Hitchcock at the conference in Seville, Spain on Warfare, Environment, Social Inequality and Peace Studies. May 29th 2015.

This paper by Robert K. Hitchcock, Maria Sapignoli and Wayne A. Babchuk (1) explores questions of the ethics of wildlife conservation, (2) examines human rights, animal rights, and community based conflict management approaches, and (3) assesses who has the power to determine policies and practices related to land and natural resources.


In November, 2011, a group of individuals, who two governments identified as ‘poachers’ left Sudan mounted on camels and horses and carrying weapons moved into the Central African Republic. They rode along the border and went in to Bouba-Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. Using automatic weapons, they killed sizable numbers of elephants over a three month period, starting in January, 2012. The government of Cameroon sent an army contingent into the park in April, 2012 to drive out the poachers, and people were killed on both sides. Some of the poachers were members of a group of nomadic Arabs known as the Rizeigat, who allegedly had ties to the Janjaweed who were involved in the Darfur genocide in Sudan.

The group in the national park managed to kill some 650 elephants in a period of three months (data from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW). Some of the poachers went on to kill elephants in Zakouma National Park in Chad. The killings of the elephants and the trafficking in their body parts represented what Peter Canby (2014:35) said was ‘a serious escalation in the tactics and daring of poachers in Africa.’ Government officials and Indigenous and minority peoples in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Chad spoke out against the destruction of the wild animals, which they said was a result of ‘the actions of terrorists.’

The indigenous and minority groups were concerned, justifiably, that they would be seen themselves as terrorists and as members of criminal organizations. Wildlife trafficking is said by some states and international organizations to involve indigenous peoples, a position that is contested vigorously by indigenous and minority peoples’ organizations.

As Balmford et al (2001:2616) noted, there are conservation conflicts across Africa. Some of these conflicts ae between states and local peoples over protected areas and access to wildlife. There are several ways that states and international organizations have attempted to deal with wildlife losses. One of them is the protection strategy, declaring blocks of land off limits to general use. Tied to this is the removal of local communities from areas that have set aside for conservation. A second strategy is to stop hunting completely, as was done by Kenya in 1977 and Botswana in 2014. Third, anti-poaching operations are employed, with game scouts, police, and sometimes military personnel taking part in operations in which local people are detained, arrested, and jailed for contravening wildlife laws. In some cases, wildlife officers and police engage in shoot-outs with people suspected of poaching, resulting in injuries and deaths on both sides, as occurred in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya in the past several years.

Other strategies include placing animals on Appendix 1 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), cutting off of the trade of high value body parts (HVBPs), using market mechanisms to try and reduce wildlife trafficking. The burning of stockpiles of ivory has also been employed. The promotion of sustainable use of wildlife is also an important strategy. Part of that strategy is the promotion of tourism, which brings substantial funds into African countries (see; accessed 21 May, 2015; Balmford et al 2015).

There are a number of justifications offered for removing people from protected areas. One of them is that states claim that people are a threat to the fauna, flora, and habitats of places judged to be ‘pristine’ or are said to have high conservation value. Using the argument of ‘non-traditionalism’ (i.e. targeting those people who are not pursuing ‘traditional lifestyles’, defined as mobile hunting and gathering, wearing of skin clothing, and use of digging sticks, bows, arrows, and spears, some ecologists and environmental non-government organizations (such as the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation; see, accessed 15 May, 2015) have argued that people should be removed from protected areas if they were engaged in ‘non-traditional’ activities such as keeping livestock or taking part in farming or trading.

It is important to note, however, that many of the areas where indigenous peoples have resided for lengthy periods of time exhibit less environmental degradation than do more heavily populated areas occupied by non-indigenous populations. There is heightened concern about the impacts of both conservation and development projects on indigenous and minority peoples  These are processes in which local people are forced to leave areas because an area was set aside for conservation and protection purposes, as occurred, for example, with the establishment of Wankie Game Reserve (now Hwange National Park) in Zimbabwe in 1928, Kidepo National Park in Uganda in the mid-late 1960s (Turnbull 1972, 1978; Heine 198), Etosha National Park in Namibia in 1954 (Dieckmann 2007; Hitchcock 2015), and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana in the 1990s and early 2000s (Hitchcock 2002; Hitchcock, Sapignoli, and Babchuk 2011; Sapignoli 2012).

Southern African countries have been hailed world leaders in community-based approaches to wildlife conservation and development.  In the past in Africa, state policies relating to conservation focused on (1) removing people from protected areas, and (2) passing legislation that criminalized subsistence hunting, resulting in arrests of people for alleged poaching or entering parks and game reserves.  The results of these policies were conflicts between local communities, the state, and conservation organizations. Beginning in the 1980s, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and other southern African countries began allowing communities to benefit from the use of wildlife resources and from tourism.  

Analyses of some of the effects of the establishment of protected areas (national parks, game reserves, and monuments) and conservation-related resettlement reveal that social, economic, and environmental impacts on local people are significant (Oliver-Smith 2009, 2010). The analyses also indicated that it takes significant time, effort, and resources for the resettlement-affected population to re-establish themselves, if they are indeed able to do so (Cernea 1997; Scudder 2005).

Resettlement, relocation, and displacement do not consist only of a physical transfer to a new location; a whole a series of changes occur that affects the ways of life of individuals, families, and communities. To paraphrase Robert Gordon (2009:41), “(Re)settlement involves not only physical movement but also a psychic domain: angst and other anxieties must be allayed for (re)settlers to be settled.” Given the complexity of resettlement, it is useful to take to take a human rights-based approach to the issue of resettlement.   

Indigenous peoples have all too often faced colonial agencies or international institutions using legal principles to divest them of their land; these come under the “doctrine of discovery”, the expropriation principle, the declaration of eminent domain or the defining of the land as terrus nullus (empty land). Indigenous people are seeking Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) from states and transnational corporations in an effort to become full participants in the planning and decision-making processes related to development. A basic legal principle cited by indigenous support organizations involves protections of people from being deprived of their property without just and fair compensation and at least restoration or better yet enhancement of their standards of living.

Although the issue of displacement of peoples has been a major subject of discussion internationally for the past several decades, there are relatively few comprehensive legal instruments that deal directly with resettlement. The United Nations has a set of guiding principles (United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement) which have been helpful in providing a set of standards for organizations working with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Other organizations have also developed resettlement guidelines, including the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Once lauded as a leader in issues revolving around resettlement, environmental impact assessment, and indigenous peoples, the World Bank has sought recently to water down its social and environmental safeguards.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were scattered groups of Tshwa San lived in the area of what is now the Hwange National Park Area (see Davison 1977, 1983: Appendix 3). Tshwa lived close to some of the pans that dotted the area part of the year, from which they ranged out in search of wild plants and animals. There were at least three patterns of settlement: (1) residential mobility from one place to another in the sandy areas (2) a bifurcated pattern, with people living on pans in the dry season and moving away from them in the wet season, and (3) people living in long-term settlements near rivers. These rivers included the Inkawani River, the Gwaai River, and Amanzanyama (Nata) River. Later on, these rivers became important as boundary markers, as did some of the major pans in the area such as Dzivanini on the Botswana-Zimbabwe border (Hitchcock, Begbie-Clench, and Murwira 2014).

Hwange, formerly Wankie Game Reserve, is the largest national park in Zimbabwe. Founded originally as a game reserve in 1927, it became a national park on 29 January, 1950. Hwange National Park is located on the northwestern border of Zimbabwe (19°00'S, 26°30' E).The park covers an area of 14,651 km2 (5,652 mi2).  In the early part of the 20th century, the depletion of wildlife fueled concerns in the government of what was then Southern Rhodesia that the resource potential of the region would be lost unless steps were taken to stop the killing of wild animals.  One way to deal with the problem, it was decided, was to utilize the 'royal game' principle of the Ndebele chiefs and to declare wildlife species as state property.  It was made illegal for individuals to kill game even if it invaded their fields or threatened their lives.  As one Tshwa put it, "The Europeans became the gamekeepers, and the Africans became the poachers" (see also Marks 1984; MacKenzie 1988).

In the period between 1890 and 1923, the Department of Agriculture oversaw the administration of game in Southern Rhodesia. The Game and Fish Preservation Act of 1929 saw the formal establishment of several game reserves and national parks in the country. In the late 1920s, when the western part of Zimbabwe was declared a game reserve (Wankie), the Tshwa San were told that they had to resettle in places outside of the reserve. Between 1928 and 1932, patrols were undertaken by game reserve authorities who sometimes arrested people for poaching. Tshwa families moved to places north of the reserve, some crossed the border into Botswana, while the majority of the Tshwa were relocated in Tsholotsho District to the south of the park. This was one of the first major relocations of indigenous peoples from a protected area in southern Africa.

As a result of the establishment of the protected status of Hwange and hunting legislation, local people were required to cease their subsistence hunting activities.  Police patrols were carried out to seek "ivory poachers" (Davison 1977:5 6).  The game ranger who was appointed to oversee the Hwange areain 1928, Ted Davison, undertook trips into the region to assess its status and to tell Bushmen and other residents that they were breaking the law (Davison 1977:17 24).  These efforts were not easy, as noted by Davison, who said, "Bushmen who knew the area kept their secrets, refusing to divulge any information at all   probably because they felt this might lead to the arrest of relatives engaged in poaching" (Davison 1977:16).  One his tasks, according to Davison, was to warn people that the area was now a game reserve and that they were not allowed to live there (Davison 1977:20).   

In recent years, there have been serious conflicts between alleged poachers and Department on National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWLM) game scouts. In June of 1980, for example, a firefight broke out in southern Hwange between a group of Kalanga and Tshwa and several Zimbabwe game scouts; 5 Zimbabweans were killed, as were 4 of the alleged poachers.  In another incident that occurred in September, 2013, over 100 elephants and dozens of other animals died as a result of cyanide poisoning. 20 people have been arrested for their involvement in this activity.


Another of the countries in southern Africa where conservation-related resettlement has taken place is the Republic of Namibia. In 1954, several hundred Hai//om San were required to leave Etosha National Park and move to commercial farms and other places outside of the park (Dieckmann 2007).

The Nature Conservation section 0f the South West African government in the early 1950s decided to move the estimated 400 to 500 Hai//om-people living in what was then Game Reserve No. 2 (now Etosha National Park) to alternative places. This was considered necessary because it was argued they begged from tourists and disturbed game and tourists at water-holes. Some Hai//om trekked of their own accord to Owambo or took jobs on farms bordering Etosha in what are now the Kunene and Otjozondjupa Regions.

In the 1960s, European farmers, aided by some Hai//om who knew Etosha intimately, engaged in hunting in the south eastern section of the park (Berry 1997:4). Etosha's Chief Nature Conservator, Peter Stark, countered this effectively by rounding up the poachers, prosecuting the leaders, and taking the Hai//om aides into service in Etosha as trackers.

In 2007, the Namibian government again sought to relocate additional Hai//om outside of Etosha in some farms south of the national park. As of 2014, some 500 people had been resettled on the farms (Dieckmann et al 2014; Hitchcock 2015). The government of Namibia has been monitoring the progress of the Hai//om resettlement as part of its efforts to promote development for ‘historically disadvantaged populations.’


The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the second largest protected area in Africa. Established in 1961 on the recommendation of a Bechuanaland Protectorate administrative officer and anthropologist, George Silberbauer, the boundaries of the reserve were gazetted in 1961 under the Protectorate’s Fauna Conservation Proclamation (Bechuanaland Protectorate 1961).      

As the Bushman Survey Officer for the Protectorate, George Silberbauer was fully aware that the boundaries were artificial and that people recognized land outside the reserve as theirs for their use. By the 1980s, however, government was becoming concerned about the concentration of people around !Xade in the Central Kalahari, which had over 1,200 people it in by 1983.  After holding a CKGR Commission, the government opted to encourage people to move out of the reserve ‘in order to facilitate their development’ (Sapignoli 2012).    

The first set of removals of the residents from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve took place in May-June 1997. This displacement exercise saw 1,739 people moved to New Xade and 500 people moved to Kaudwane in the northern Kweneng District for a total of 1,739 people (Ikeya 2001:188). Five hundred people remained in the Central Kalahari at that time. People’s homes, livestock, and other goods were loaded on the trucks, as were their domestic animals. Then the people themselves got on the trucks. Families ended up being split, with some people going to New Xade in the west while  others went to Kaudwane in the southeast.     

The second set of removals from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve were carried out in May-June, 2002.  Approximately 500 people were moved to three resettlement sites: New Xade, Kaudwane, and Xere in Central District. All of the water points and tanks that were being used by people in the reserve were destroyed by government officials. When the move was completed, there were only 17 people left in the reserve, some of them at Metseamonong.     

The involuntary relocation of the residents of the reserve was challenged in the High Court of Botswana, and, after the longest and most expensive court case in Botswana history, the San and Bakgalagadi who challenged the government won the case, giving them the right to return to the reserve. 

Currently, there are approximately 3,000 or more people residing in the 3 resettlement sites outside of the reserve: New Xade in Ghanzi District (1,269 people), Kaudwane in Kweneng District (1,084 people), and Xere in Central District (343 people) (data from the 2011 Botswana Census). In the Central Kalahari today there are some 450 people in 5 communities. Only one of these places, Mothomelo, has water, a result of drilling by an NGO after the winning of a second CKGR court case in the Botswana Court of Appeal in January, 2011.

Situations facing the people eof the Central Kalahari and the resettlement sites vary considerably, as noted by Ikeya (2001, 2003, 2012, 2015; Hitchcock, Sapignoli, and Babchuk 2011; Sapignoli 2012, 2015). There are many different position son the ways in which the Botswana government handled the resettlement and the legal cases arising from it. Nearly everyone to whom we have spoken, however, has said that the Botswana government is violating the rights of the people in the Central Kalahari by refusing to allow them access to water, health services, medicines, and development assistance that other people in Botswana get.      

The government of Botswana has a Remote Area Development Programme in the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development which works with people living outside of gazetted (government-recognized) villages in the country. Botswana does not accept the concept of indigenous peoples, saying all citizens of the country are indigenous. Unlike the San and Bakgalagadi, who see themselves as indigenous peoples, the Botswana government instead focuses on Remote Area Dwellers(RADS). It has put an affirmative action program in place to assist people from remote areas that was established in 2012. Botswana also has a social safety net system which provides food, employment, and other goods to people defined as ‘destitutes’ (those without the means to sustain themselves), though such assistance is not available to the people inside the Central Kalahari.

Resolving the Conflicts

Some of the ways to ensure that people are not affected negatively by conservation and development projects include careful monitoring, the design and implementation of benefit-sharing programs, setting up and running development funds, ensuring the exploitation of natural resources in a sustainable manner, capacity-building of local institutions such as community trusts, and the reconstruction of project-affected people’s livelihoods at levels that are either equivalent to or better than they were prior to relocation. International best practice in the area of development-related and conservation-related resettlement calls for improvement on the livelihoods and well-being of project-affected peoples.    

Efforts are being made at the regional and international levels to coordinate the various non-government organizations and councils through the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)... Local non-government organizations such as First People of the Kalahari, the Botswana Khwedom Council (BKC), Kuru Development Trust (KDT), and the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) are working with San and other peoples in southern Africa. In some cases, they coordinate their efforts with legal non-government organizations such as the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia, Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Center for Human Rights, and the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) in South Africa. The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) helps facilitate the efforts of the African community-based organizations.

The International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) was established in 1996 as the indigenous caucus to ensure indigenous participation in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Coordination, advocacy, and capacity-building are some of the activities of the IIFB. One of the success stories has been the integration of indigenous knowledge in the activities of the Convention, access to genetic resources, fair and equitable benefit sharing, and the protection of intellectual and genetic property rights. Particular concerns include sustainable use of resources, climate change adaptations, and protection of biodiversity as outlined at the 12th Conference of the Parties held in South Korea from 6-17 October, 2014. IIFB insisted that the CBD use the term indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in its future work.

Genocide in Africa

As noted at the outset of this paper, Central African states have witnessed massive human rights violations that could be described as either physical or cultural genocide or both.  A substantial proportion of the casualties of internal conflicts in Africa are civilian non-combatants, some of them members of minority groups victimized by majorities and by nation-states and those who work for them.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a central concern of a substantial number of indigenous people is physical security.     

Violence is sometimes an outgrowth of the establishment of development projects and the relocation of people.  Involuntary resettlement and loss of land access have had the effect of increasing internal social tensions, some of which are exhibited in high rates of social conflict, competition, and suicide among local people. Conservation related resettlement in Central and Souter Africa has led to the destruction of livelihoods, the loss of access to resources, and social disruption.

Genocides of African indigenous peoples in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have occurred in a number of different contexts. These contexts include ones in which there is competition over resources and land between states, private companies, and indigenous peoples. Genocides have taken place in Africa since the early part of the 20th century, when the first genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples occurred at the hands of German forces who targeted Herero and Nama (19004-1907). Other genocide include the destruction of Batwa (‘Pygmy’) populations in Central Africa and their removal from protected areas, resettlement of the Eyle in Somalia in the 1980s, the actions taken by the Zimbabwe state against the Ndebele, Kalanga and Tshwa in the 1981-1988 period in western Zimbabwe known as Gukurahundi (‘sweeping away of the chaff’) the mass murders of Batwa in Rwanda in 1994, the genocide of the people of Darfur by the government of Sudan and its Janjaweed allies in the period from 2003 to the present and the attacks on the Nuba by the government of Sudan that are on-going currently.

While few of these genocides were directly conservation-related, the forced displacement and destruction of indigenous people and local communities have had substantial effects on the well-being and long-term survival of sizable numbers of human beings. Impunity for major human rights violations (be they crimes against humanity or genocide) is something that must not be allowed to happen. The international community, states, non-governments organizations, and local communities must stand up to the violence and push for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. The only way that peace can prevail is if everyone pulls together in efforts to promote human rights and social justice.


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