By Shinovene Immanuel & Lugeretzia Kooper, The Namibian
Around 1,200 villagers in the Zambezi region face eviction because of a decades-old dispute over an area reserved for wild animals.
The area, near the Chobe River, is home to the Salambala Conservancy, around 50 kilometres south-east of Katima Mulilo. The conservancy has 18 villages with close to 9,000 people.
There is, however, a land dispute which could affect as many as 1,200 people who were told to move from a forest meant for wild animals. The villagers claim they have been staying in the area for more than 60 years.
Lawyer Mercy Kuzeeko from law firm Dr Weder, Kauta & Hoveka Inc filed court papers on 5 July 2019, giving the villagers 60 days to vacate the land. Kuzeeko, who represented the Salambala Conservancy, said in the court application that the villagers illegally occupied the land and resisted removal, despite orders by the conservancy which manages the area.
She said the villagers do not have permission from the conservancy to occupy the land. “The plaintiff [Salambala Conservancy] is the custodian of the above (mentioned) area, with an obligation to conserve its wildlife,” she stated.
Kuzeeko said the conservancy is supposed to conserve, protect and sustainably manage game and other wildlife resources, adding that only members of the conservancy are entitled to benefit from the area. Kuzeeko added that the resistance to move by the villagers in question has frustrated the conservancy.
“More in particular, cutting down trees and overgrazing,” she added. Kuzeeko did not respond to questions sent to her last week.
Lawyer Richard Metcalfe from Metcalfe Attorneys, who represents the 1 200 villagers, shot back at the conservancy in an 8 October 2019 letter, rejecting the eviction order and poking holes in the legality of the conservancy.
He said the people the conservancy wants to evict include women and children whose families have lived in the area from 1972 to 1992.
“This is long before the Salambala Conservancy was proclaimed in 1998. Such settlement took place with authorisation of chief Joshua Maiba Moraliswani, who passed away in 1996,” Metcalfe wrote. He said previous attempts to remove the villagers were abandoned in 1998.
“[They] have been residing in their villages, until misplaced attempts to evict them were again instituted in 2018,” the lawyer added.
The conservancy, which sits on 930 hectares, has won praise around the world for its conservation efforts, which include using e-bikes to patrol and protect wildlife in the area.
It is one of the first communal conservancies to be proclaimed in Namibia almost three decades ago, and is used as a passage for wildlife such as elephants and lions. According to the conservancy consortium website, www.nacso.org.na, Salambala is named after “lovers Sala and Bala, whose illicit relationship resulted in them being banished to the forest”.
‘This is Our Home’
The Salambala Conservancy established a core wildlife area around most of the Salambala forest to grow its wildlife population. The core area would also serve to help tourism businesses to benefit from the wildlife moving through the forest, which was zoned exclusively for wildlife and tourism, and closed to livestock grazing.
This did not go down well with villagers who claim to be victimised. Some have refused to move.
A 2012 report by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) quoted a farmer in the disputed core wildlife area in the Salambala Conservancy as saying “God stopped making land!”.
“The meaning of this statement is twofold: he believes that there is no other land available for him, and that the conservancy members have to make do with the status quo, and stop fighting for change,” the report said. The conservancy is one of Namibia’s best tropical areas.
“The southern part (approximately half) of Salambala is situated in a low-lying swampland, especially wet near the Botswana border, and the northern parts consist of forested veld.
“Immediately across the border in Botswana is the Chobe National Park, one of the most well-known wildlife areas in the world. Since the border is unfenced – the Chobe River is the border – Chobe’s wildlife have free access to Salambala,” the report found.
The Namibian visited three homesteads last week to understand the concerns of the villagers who face eviction. One of the villagers is 94-year-old Rosina Nawende Chali, who has been living in the area since 1975. She said the Masubia Traditional Authority under chief Joshua Maiba Moraliswani II allocated them the land.
“I do not feel well. This is our home. We have nowhere to go,” Chali lamented. She said they are being harassed every day.
“We can’t even plough because they are in our fields, claiming it is their land,” Chali added. She then appealed to the conservancy bosses to stop encroaching on their land. “At the moment, many of us do not have fields to plough because they have built their camps in our fields,” she noted.
Chali said concerns over human-wildlife conflict is not new to them since they have been living with these animals for decades, and have coping mechanisms to minimise incidents. She pleaded with the government to engage them, and come up with ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the area.
Another affected villager is 62-year-old Rosemary Masiziani, who has been living in the Salambala area since 12 April 1976. She said the death of their village headman made things worse since it allowed the conservancy to chase them from the village. “As a result, we moved to a flood-prone area, where we cannot even plough. Our animals are dying because of the lack of grazing,” she continued.
Masiziani said they often go back to the area where they were removed from to check on their homes and visit family graves. “However, this has resulted in the conservancy opening a case of trespassing against us, and we were arrested,” she stated.
Masiziani added that “it is sad because our family members are buried on that land. We are now not even allowed to visit our relatives’ graves”.
For Mary Munihango (49), being chased from her village is terrifying. “I cannot even think of a place where I can take my family because there is nowhere to go; this is our home,” she said. Munihango has lived at the village since she was six.
She stressed that the conservancy has no right to “chase us from our land; they have done nothing to develop this area”.
“Since the conservancy was established in 1998, they did nothing. We don’t have schools, water, or electricity. All that they have brought since it was established was disturbance, and families are being divided because of them,” she said.
Salambala Conservancy chairperson Daniel Mwinga told The Namibian this week that he cannot respond in detail on the matter unless the leadership of the conservancy meets to discuss and agrees on what they need to say to the media. But he said the area the villagers occupy is a breeding area for wildlife.
He added that the villagers “just started building, and brought their cattle into the core area without consulting us”.