Do People Have a place living in National Parks?

In recent years many new national parks have been created both in Africa and around the world. This is a problem!

There is no question that governments and citizens should promote conservation efforts protecting endangered fauna and flora (by putting aside generally large tracts of land), which is essentially what a national park is.

Yet the creation of national parks historically and still does lead to a clash of interests between humans and nature. And unusually this does not necessarily involve the destruction of protected areas in the interests of lucrative mining or drilling rights.

National parks in Southern Africa are traditionally seen to exclude people. All people. Not even those people who lived on the land for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In a previous article I suggested that if governments were serious about conservation efforts, they would even protect sought-after areas. This leads to an inevitable clash of people interests and nature interests over what areas should be declared conservation land.

For example: a high rainfall area with good soil and rolling hills has as much potential to support large numbers of endemic game as high yielding agriculture.

I however did not address the which people get evicted from national park land and who gets to stay.

In Namibia and South Africa, the Apartheid Regime with its forced removals paved the way for people-less national parks. Creating South Africa’s famous Kruger National Part led to the removal of 1500 Makuleke people from their traditional land in north Kruger in 1969. Even earlier, in 1954, the area now known as Etosha National Park used to be inhabited by the both Ovambo people in the north and Hallom Bushmen in the south. After having always lived in that area, these people were evicted from the park in and many were left landless.

Conservationists also suggest that people living in the newly proclaimed Dorob National Park, such as the Topnaar people native to the Kuiseb River, should no longer be allowed to live in the park on the assumption that their presence and their livestock would endanger wild animals living in the Namib Desert. Yet the Topnaar people have always lived in the Kuiseb  valley and their livestock survive off the water and vegetation in the river – much longer than any government decreed the area a National Park.


Above: The small settlement at Homeb along the Kuiseb River in the Dorob National Park is home to people and domestic livestock.

It also appears government is often at odd with the local or original inhabitants of the parks. The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon rainforest is a UNESCO Biosphere site and is claimed to be the world’s largest biodiversity hotspot. It is also host to three Native American tribes. And significant oil reserves.

When controversy arose in 2007 around the construction of oil roads in the territory, it seemed corporate pressure forced the Ecuadorian government to cave into corporate pressure instead of attending to the Ecuadorian Indians. President Correa said he would leave the 850 million barrels of crude in Yasuni untouched if the rest of the world would compensate for the financial loss his country would endure by keeping the drilling rigs at bay. The response has so far been unpromising and according to National Geographic’s report on Yasuni this year, the Ecuadorian government’s patience is wearing thin. This month violent clashes and reprisals between indigenous forest peoples were reported for the first time. The violence is reportedly directed at people seen to be assisting the oil drillers.

National parks or private game reserves for wild fauna and flora could also be seen as reserving land to the advantage of one people over another. In effect it seems scarily similar to the reservation of land for Native Americans in the USA or the Apartheid Group Areas Act of 1950s South Africa. In fact the official beneficiaries of these reserves are the animals and plants – but since when do wild animals deal in dollars, tenders or land ownership?

Etosha and Kruger are enormous tourist attractions and provide income for government and nature conservation efforts. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, many privately owned game reserves and lodges have sprung up that tap into South Africa’s unique and lucrative market that promotes wild animals and nature. Yet it also allows the owner of the land unprecedented power in dictating which people and how many people can live in a specific area.

Land is arguably the biggest bargaining chip of restitution, compensation and historical memory in post-Apartheid Namibia and South Africa. Clashes over land were seen as the main source of armed struggle, particularly in Namibia.

So the creation of reserves, whether they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of local fauna and flora, is an increasingly important issue in deciding what will become of the land, the people that run it and the animals that live on it.

Restitution may be the answer. The Makuleke won back their land north of the Kruger and decided to invest in a series of lodges that aided both their community and conservation efforts. When the Bafokeng people regained ownership of their ancestral land in the North West Province, they did not turn the place into an enormous game reserve. Instead they tapped into the platinum wealth under feet and enriched themselves with relative success.

In the end it appears the fate of the land is in the hands of the people that hold sway – and it is their choice as to how they conserve of exploit their surroundings. As resources, by which I’m generally referring to minerals, oil and precious metals, become scarcer, clashes of interests between people are likely to become more frequent. The question of who rightfully holds sway over the land, conservation area or not, will need to be answered.

Also governments are being forced to make tough decisions regarding their commitment to promoting the land rights of all their people or guarantee of tenders, tourism and taxable income provided by National Parks and private game reserves.