Angola’s San Community under Threat from Burning Forests
In many parts of Angola the end of the cooler, dry season known as ‘cacimbo’ is traditionally the right time for burning brush. Fire clears the land ready for planting ahead of the rainy season, produces the charcoal on which many families still depend for their cooking fuel, and sends wildlife into the path of hunters.
But unregulated and uncontrolled, this practise is one of the major factors leading to widespread deforestation in the most remote southeastern corner of Angola, where hundreds of kilometres of virgin forest are on fire, threatening the very existence of the San people.
The San, dubbed “Bushmen” by the European colonizers of the region, are the descendants of some of the most ancient peoples on Earth. Their forefathers have roamed the southern African forests for tens of thousands of years. To this day the San communities follow their ancestors’ tradition of living in harmony with Mother Earth. They are renowned for what Survival International calls “their intimate knowledge of the natural world and the delicate balance they have maintained for millennia with the environment”. They hunt with bows and arrows, gather the fruits of the earth and take only what is necessary to sustain life. Their way of life was once denigrated as primitive – nowadays it’s recognized as ecologically-aware. However, their continued existence is threatened by deforestation.
Some 12,000 San inhabit Kuando-Kubango, the country’s second largest province. Just like their ancestors over the centuries, today’s San eschew the settled agricultural or industrial lifestyles of their fellow Angolans, choosing to live semi-nomadic lives alongside but apart from their Bantu neighbours, foraging deep into the forests.
In Kuando-Kubango their natural habitat is being reduced to scorched earth. In the Ntope area the trees are gone. The Maboque is a tree that only grows in the tropical areas of southern Africa. Elephant and other herbivores such as impala and kudu eat its leaves, while apes and humans alike take nourishment from the bittersweet yellow fruit the trees produce at the end of the rainy season.
This area once rich with native Maboque trees is now a wasteland. There are a few scattered, improvised dwellings but they appear deserted until we are alerted to human presence by a hoarse voice, begging us for water. We have found Mutango, weakened by hunger, barely able to stir. The rest of the family are out, ranging far and wide, searching for food.
They pride themselves on their self-sufficiency: bush meat, maboque fruit and wild berries providing a large part of their children’s diet. Today the signs of malnourishment are all around. The few adults we meet are weak and frail, barely able to build their customary shelters, formed from branches and foliage.
“The trees have been cut down and everything burned to the ground,” they tell us. “We can’t hunt because the wildlife fled the fires; there’s no fruit, no honey, even roots are hard to find”. And they add: “We have never had any assistance in the way of food or medication”.
You don’t have to go far to find out why the situation has become so acute: while it’s not unusual for local Bantu communities to use slash-and-burn to obtain charcoal for fuel and to prepare the land for agriculture, they do so without any regulation, systematically clearing everything in their path.
And although the province is served by the mighty Zambezi river, with 77 identified hydrographic basins – a huge potential for irrigation – the settled communities survive by means of small-scale subsistence farming, dependent on the rains. When the rains fail, their harvests are depleted or ruined, forcing them to extend the range of the areas they cultivate.
According to the head of the Mbakita NGO, Pascoal Baptistiny, the main factors contributing to the decline (and potential extinction) of the San community in Kuando-Kubango are drought, slash-and-burn, restricted access to their former hunting grounds thanks to the enclosure of forested land into private estates by corrupt officials (including three former provincial governors) and clear-cutting by lumber companies.
China’s voracious appetite for timber has brought numerous foreign-owned lumber companies into the region. Such Chinese companies use local license-holders as legal fronts in a race to extract maximum advantage of the province’s old-growth forest. It has led to uncontrolled deforestation of large swathes of the countryside.
Regulating the lumber industry is the role of government, which could take immediate steps to review and reorganize the licensing of provincial, national and foreign interests in the lumber industry to prevent clear-cutting and demand a re-planting programme for the future. This would also be a first step to combatting the corruption which has seen licenses granted to provincial and central officials as well as their families, interested only in maximising their short-term financial gain.
The government also needs to take action to ensure the rights of the San people are respected and protected. For example, a “basic basket” of goods is distributed to other communities when times are hard – but not to the San.
According to Pascoal Baptistiny, there has been a lack of political will to do anything to help the San, who are increasingly leaving the province and migrating into Namibia and Zambia, because the Angolan government has yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 (the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention).
Convention 169 recognizes the need for special protection of minority indigenous peoples “who are unable to enjoy their fundamental human rights to the same degree as the rest of the population of the States in which they live…”. He says: “Until and unless this Convention is ratified by the Angolan government, in terms of advocacy we have no legal instrument on which to rely to defend their community.”
Maka Angola’s legal expert Rui Verde concurs that ILO Convention 169 is an important and fundamental legal instrument to ensure government protection and respect for Angola’s different ethnicities and cultures as well as their rights to the land and natural resources which allow for their self-determination.
Since the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola’s government has made it a priority to seek foreign investment to rebuild the country, diversify the economy and provide employment but they have failed in the process to consult local communities or devise appropriate environmental controls.
At a time of increasing concern over climate crisis, isn’t there a need to mobilize all sectors of Angolan society to take part in a national dialogue at every level to find solutions that will protect the environment for future generations? And shouldn’t the reliance of rural communities on slash-and-burn clearance of the patrimony of our forest lands be high on that agenda?
Given the lack of help in the past, it was a welcome surprise to hear the new Governor of Kuando-Kubango, Júlio Bessa, promise prompt action when he called us to discuss about the forest clearances and the plight of the San. He took on board the concerns expressed and agreed to send a mission into the areas we had visited to offer some support to the affected communities. He also demonstrated that he is open to dialogue with all concerned – villagers, San people and the local NGOs – to tackle the issue of the burning forests. Angola needs the same willingness to listen and act from its national government.
After the Portuguese version of this article was first published, governor Júlio Bessa backtracked on his pleasantries and willingness to engage in dialogue. He called us “stupid” on National Radio of Angola, the government’s mouthpiece. Governor Bessa called out our “stupidity” for not understanding that the San are a nomadic population, and that “they are exactly like the Indians of the Amazon [Forest], who also walk around naked”, and must be left on their own. “These people must not be used to prove that Angola has that many poor people. This is stupid. I repeat it is a stupidity, and it has irritated me a little”, said the governor who also called our reporting as “shameful”. He concluded that the San people “know how to survive on their own.”