Fight for Okavango Delta – Khama caught in the cross fire

12 Jan 2015

President Lt Gen Khama is in the cross fire as the country’s following unconfirmed reports that government is planning to evict livestock farmers from the Ngamiland to make way for tourism investors. The reports come in the wake of a lobby by powerful tourism interests, including Wilderness Safaris that government shouldcome up with a long-term strategy that will solve the livestock-wildlife conflict in the district and that, that strategy must be in the interest of the Okavango Delta. President Khama is a shareholder in Wilderness Safaris.

Tourism investors in the Ngamiland District are unhappy with the cattle/wildlife cordon fence which they claim blocks the wildlife migratory routes in the area. They further claim that when the farmers deplete grazing in the communal areas they turn to driving their cattle through the worn-out fence into the delta putting a strain on the fragile Okavango District. The Okavango Delta, one of the most iconic natural areas on the planet, was recently listed as 1,000th World Heritage site. The delta sustains the populations of some of the most threatened large mammals such as the Cheetah, the White and Black Rhinoceros, the Wild Dog and the Lion. It harbours 24 species of globally-threatened birds and is key to the survival of Botswana’s 130,000 elephants – the largest population of the species in the world.

Ngamiland cattle farmers on the other hand are under pressure for more land because the district’s cattle population has grown to 400,000 - way beyond the district stocking limit of 300,000. This is partly because the farmers have not been able to sell their cattle to the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) following recurrent outbreaks of Foot and Mouth Disease in the area. Sources in the Agriculture sector told Sunday Standard over the festive season that the relocation is in two phases. The first relocation involves moving livestock in Maun and surrounding areas to areas south of the Makalamabedi Foot and Mouth cordon fence. The relocation will move cattle in the Okavango constituency to north of the Kuke cordon fence, in the Gantsi region. It is understood that there are plans by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism to hold joint consultative meetings with farmers and traditional authorities in the district.

Information gathered thus far indicates that the government is treading with caution as the issue is ‘a sensitive matter.’ Government sources say, it intends to use the alleged perennial outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the region as a smokescreen for the envisaged massive relocation of livestock from Ngamiland. The Ngamiland tribal leadership has expressed concern that government seem determined to ensure that tourism interests are protected at the expense of cattle farmers. They told Sunday Standard that wildlife authorities have long insisted that cattle should be moved out of the Wildlife Management Areas, and that those that remained will be killed and their owners would not be compensated.

They argued that they cannot engage in arable farming because of wild animals which roam freely and damage their crops in the process, so they rely of cattle farming. Batawana Senior Chief Representative Kgosi Charles Letsholathebe said it is highly unlikely that government might make conclusions without them knowing, as that would be sidelining and undermining them. “Following incidents of non consultation on the part of government, we then stressed to them that all decisions that are of concern to morafe should be discussed with the tribal leadership first. We are our people’s mouthpiece, and so it would be quite a blow, should we be sidelined,” he said.

A representative of the Haina Veldt Farmers association Keloitsang Ledimo said the decision would “be very unfair, should the allegations be true.” “In his State of the Nation Address, the president even assured us that there has been an overall improvement of the FMD situation, and so we are surprised to hear the latest news which we are yet to follow up. Most of the areas here have been declared FMD free Zones, and we were beginning to pin our hopes on the government to service the remaining zones so that the disease may be done with”, said Ledimo. Member of Parliament for Okavango Bagalatia Arone also believes that government plans to evict farmers from Ngamiland District. “It is also my considered view that the government intends to do that; the challenge is how to go about it because it is a sensitive matter,” he said. Arone said a former Cabinet Minister once confided in him that the “Americans had recommended that Ngamiland be declared wildlife area only and that they would fund economic activities in that area.” Arone said the Former Minister told him that at the time, the Botswana Government rejected the offer on the basis that “cattle are to Batswana what the Dollar is to the Americans.”

He said he had requested Minister of Agriculture Christian De Graaf to hold a joint strategy with his counterparts at Tourism Ministry Tshekedi Khama but his plea fell on deaf ears. Contacted for comment, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Marcus Chimbombi dismissed the allegations as baseless. “I’m not aware of that, but what I can tell you is that there is no truth in that,” he said. The tourism industry which is controlled by powerful business interests has become a lightning rod of controversy, and President Khama has always suffered the worst of it. A recent decision to ban trophy hunting in Botswana was criticised as a move by the president to push his business interests. Tour operators claimed that the unholy trinity of President Ian Khama, Wilderness Safaris and National Geographic Derrick Joubert conspired to ban trophy hunting in Botswana.

The conspiracy theory was backed by the web of business interests and social ties connecting President Khama, Joubert and Wilderness Safaris. President Khama is a shareholder in Wilderness Safaris and a friend to Joubert, the National Geographic Filmmaker. Joubert on the other hand also has a business relationship with Wilderness Safaris. His company Great Plains was at the time the decision to ban trophy hunting, marketed by Wilderness Safaris. Both Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains have not invested in photographic safaris. Khama also found himself on the receiving end when it emerged that Wilderness Safaris has invested in the Central Kgalagadi Game reserve when Basarwa were forcefully relocated allegedly to make way for mining and tourism interests.

Tourism is the backbone of Ngamiland region and one of the highest contributors to Botswana’s gross domestic product (GDP). Due to its geographical position, Maun which is the capital of tourism, is also headquarters to many safaris and numerous air charter operations that run trips into the Okavango Delta. Reports indicate that the administrative capital of North West District had the highest aircraft movement in the third quarter of 2013, with 15 304 movements which made up 61.5 percent of all the movements in the quarter. According to Statistics Botswana, value added by trade, hotels and restaurants to the GDP, in the third quarter of 2013 was P4, 703.40 compared to P4, 565.60 in the second quarter of the same year. The gross value of the same sector which Maun is dominant in also contributed a gross value added to GDP of 14.5 percent compared to 13.9 percent in the second quarter. This shows that the two constituencies will play a pivotal role in determining who controls the second contributor to the country’s economy after mining.