Police in the Kunene region have been besieged with land disputes, particularly between community conservancies and traditional leaders.
This, the region’s police chief James Nderura said, is due to the fact that conservancies have seemingly taken custodianship of the land, which is supposed to be the role of traditional authorities.
The hotspots include the Ehirovipuka, Otjindjerese, Otjerunda, Omakanga, Omatendeka, Puros and Sesfontein areas, where both conservancies and traditional authorities co-exist amidst simmering tensions.
Nderura ventilated this assessment during an interview with New Era recently.
The discussion also looked at crimes that have gripped the region, and how they are combating them.
“We have serious challenges when it comes to land-related disputes between traditional authorities or leaders, and conservancies in the region. The conservancies are acting as custodians of the land, but the law is clear that this is the role of traditional authorities. For us as the police, our role is to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand by keeping law and order,” the regional commander said.
Kunene, where the second-largest elephant population outside the Etosha National Park is found, has also been a hive for poaching activities.
However, Nderura said through concerted efforts, they have brought poaching activities close to zero, particularly on endangered species.
“We have an operation that has been running since 2014. It is called ‘Save our Rhino’.
It is run in the Sesfontein and Palmwag concession areas. Over the last four years, it [poaching] went down completely. We have never had an incident in those areas.
It started off very high but now, speaking of the last two years, no poaching was done, especially on rhinos. But for other small things like lions, here and there, it is there”, he said.
On the opposing end was conservationist John Kasaona, who said there is no blurred line between the roles of conservancies and traditional leaders.
“First, you must ask yourself what a conservancy is, and who created it. It is the communities, traditional leaders who created conservancies. Those laws regulating conservancies were put in place by communities and farmers themselves. So, the ultimate decision-makers are the communities and traditional leaders where these conservancies operate. Conservancies are accountable to them. It is not self-created,” Kasaona noted.
He said the role of conservancies is simple: “It is to conserve and turn these resources into economic assets.”
He added that traditional leaders must at all times remember that they are the owners of the land, not the other way around.
“Even at household level, there are arguments. But that doesn’t mean we can’t co-exist,” he added.
Communal conservancies are community-based institutions that obtain conditional rights to use the wildlife occurring within a self-defined area.
They are self-governed, democratic entities managed by committees that are elected by their members.
To date, 86 conservancies have been gazetted, in line with requirements of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
Nderura’s comments come at a time when communities in Kunene are divided over an initiative to establish a wildlife conservation park, which will see large tracts of communal land falling into private hands and conservancies.
At the moment, some communities and conservancies in the region have unreservedly rejected the planned park, which seeks to protect certain portions of communal land where wild animals roam freely.
The land in question will, however, not be fenced off, but will have unique demarcations which will set it apart through a system called zonation.
Those propagating for the park say it will create employment, be managed by the locals, and generate revenue for community projects.
Documents reviewed by New Era show that the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) organisation is facilitating the project to be funded by foreign investors.
They are supported by factions from the affected villages and conservancies.
The park’s draft management plan was developed by the Ehirovipuka and Omatendeka conservancies and their traditional authorities under the umbrella of the Kunene Regional Conservancy Association.
The IRDNC provided technical assistance. The area will be known as Ombonde People’s Park (OPP).
It first came to life in 2016, and extends to approximately 114 000 hectares. The sought-after area is seen as an important biodiversity area with largely undisturbed wildlife habitat.
The envisaged park will share borders with the #Khoadi-//Hoas Conservancy and the Hobatere tourism concession area to the east, Etendeka tourism concession area on the south, to the west on Anabeb conservancy, and to the north on the multiple use zones of the Ehirovipuka and Omatendeka conservancies.
“The park consolidates the core wildlife areas of Ehirovipuka and Omatendeka conservancies into a protected area that will link other important wildlife areas and protected areas to ensure landscape level protection for key species such as black rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, lion, black-faced impala, mountain zebra and others”, reads a section of the draft proposed management plan.
The OPP, its advocates say, serves as a corridor for wildlife populations from the Etosha National Park, the Hobatere tourism concession area through to Etendeka, the Palmwag concession areas and the Skeleton Coast Park.
Surrounding conservancies such as #Khoadi-//Hoas, Torra, Anabeb and Sesfontein also form part of the park’s agenda.
For some quarters of the Ehirovipuka conservancy, what appears to be a bona fide project on paper has ulterior motives. Proper consultations were also not done to take them into confidence, they firmly hold.
According to them, the little grazing and ancestral land that they are left with is under threat, New Era reported earlier this year.
During a recent visit to Kunene, it was clear that the status quo remains firmly intact, as opposition to the park’s establishment continues growing.
“The Ombonde proposed park will be regarded as Erindi in the making, which means our land is being sold to foreigners under the table… the whole nation is fighting to regain their ancestral land. Thus, we do not want to give away the little land we have been left with by our forefathers,” the community said in a petition dated 17 June 2021.
Moreover, residents of the Ehirovipuka conservancy share a border with the notorious veterinary cordon fence (VCF), also known as the red line, which divides the north from the south.
Should the OPP become a reality, they added, future farming generations will have no grazing areas left.
Earlier this year, Kasaona, who is also IRDNC’s boss, maintained that the development is beyond reproach and seeks to unchain the communities from the jaws of poverty, a view he holds and advocates to this day.
“How have the consultations been selective? We have been consulting since 2016. We have held several meetings with traditional leaders and community members, where constituency councillors and the police were present. We are in the second phase, and will continue to consult,” he said at the time.
Ultimately, the affected communities will have the last say.
“The people’s park will belong to the community. The money generated from the park will go to the community. We are not forcing the communities to accept the park. If they say ‘yes’, we will continue. If they say ‘no’, we will move on to other areas like Otjinungua, where communities are interested in such initiatives,” Kasaona stated last week.
He also dismissed claims that the envisaged park will encroach on grazing land, saying it will be established where people hardly settle or graze their animals.
“We are not fencing off the land. We are just saying there is an opportunity that can advance our people. Currently, tourists just drive through that area, free of charge. What we want to do is to at least charge a fee that we give back to the community as they don’t benefit anything at the moment,” he reasoned.