Thursday, January 21, 2021

“The Okavango; Whose Delta is it?”

This was a topic of discussion at the launch of the Okavango Delta Management Plan celebrations, organised by the UB-BIOKANGO Project in Maun.
It was a rare moment where ordinary folks mingled with Members of Parliament, Ministers, Councillors, Dikgosi, academics and top civil servants in a fairly relaxed setting and people generally aired their views; raw and unguarded. The loudest and seemingly convincing echoes argued that the question “Whose Delta is it” was not particularly useful. They argued that rather the question should ask “Who is benefiting from the Delta?”

Though it would be interesting to analyse the different opinions and views that arose that evening, I would like to air my own views on this important subject of “Whose Delta is it?”
The Okavango Delta expands an area of 12000 Km2 in North West Botswana and delivers on average 15 billion cubic meters of water every year. 95% of that water is lost through evaporation.

A population of 120,000 people, consisting of largely Bayei, Hambukushu, Herero, Batawana, Basarwa, Bakgalagadi, and others are found in villages that lie on the fringes of the Delta. It is estimated that 100,000 tourists pass through the Delta every year and tourism is the main economic activity in the area. The main land use in the Delta is, of cause, wildlife management in the form of Moremi Game Reserve and the Wildlife Management Areas surrounding the reserve.

First and foremost, I need to point out that the question “Whose Delta is it? can be answered from many dimensions, and that all answers are “in the eye of the beholder, correct”. These vary from a stakeholder analysis, – power, authority, influence, investment (monetary & non monetary) ÔÇô to legal ownership and indeed to benefit accrual. Perception of ownership however, emanate from the interpretation that different actors give to the interaction that they or others have with the Delta.

For starters my view is that the question beckons for ownership from some legal framework. If we take this route, then we can follow the trail of the state of being an owner, what it means and what it translates into. Ownership in this regard refers to the state of being the owner of a thing and having the legal right to the possession of such a thing. Furthermore, there is then the dimension of the relationship between the owner and the thing possessed, such as the rights the owner has over the possession: is it possession with the right to transfer part or all possession to others? Similarly, does the owner have control over the thing possessed?

The concept of ownership has existed for thousands of years and in all cultures. Over the millennia, however, and across cultures what is considered eligible to be a possession and how that possession is regarded culturally is very different. In our contemporary society, ownership is the key building block in the development of the capitalist socio-economic system founded in western democracies. A case in point is the ownership of land and resources therein that were considered Common Pool Resources (CPR) in Tswana culture, as opposed to the misplaced interpretation by Eurocentric views that such land and resources therein were in fact Open Access Resources (OAR), hence the scramble for Africa that continues to date.

The process and mechanics of land ownership in the modern legal regime are fairly complex since one can gain, transfer and lose ownership of land in a number of ways. To acquire land one can purchase it with money, trade it for other property, receive it as a gift, steal it, find it, make it or homestead it. One can transfer or lose ownership of land by selling it for money, exchanging it for other property, giving it as a gift, being robbed of it, misplacing it, or having it stripped from one’s ownership through legal means such as eviction, foreclosure and seizure. Ownership is self-propagating in that if an object is owned by someone, any additional goods produced by using that object will also be owned by the same person or entity.

During the British colonial administration, the Okavango Delta was recognized as Batawana Reserve and it was all Tribal land. That translated into ownership by the Morafe and management through the Kgosi. After independence, the Delta was “annexed” by the government and part of it became State Land whilst the other part remained “Tribal land” though administered by a government body called the Land Board. All decisions with regard to the management of the Delta have henceforth been taken by the government, “in consultation” with the Morafe. These include, amongst others, the management take over of Moremi Game Reserve from a Maun based local NGO to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in 1978, subsequent expansion of the Reserve (one in 1978 and the other in 1992), and establishment of the Okavango Was (also gazette in 1992). These WMAs were divided further into concessions and leased out directly to private tourism companies and others were allocated to communities for CBNRM (Community Based National Resource Management) projects. The government also “fenced in” the Delta with the southern and northern buffalo fences to keep cattle out as the Delta was declared a cattle free zone. The other major decision worth mentioning is that in 2003 government took and executed the decision to eradicate Tsetse fly in the Delta using aerial spraying of organo-chemicals, despite resistance from the tourism companies.

So if we can gauge ownership of the Okavango Delta by the rights exercised on its management and control, then the Botswana government tops all claimants. The government has also increased the “ownership” base of the Delta to the international arena by transferring some user rights to foreign tourism companies (and, by default, to international tourists) who now lay a big claim on the Delta by virtue of the large monetary investments (and returns) they have made in it. The government has gone further to register the Delta with the RAMSAR Convention, subjecting it to even more international claimants. In the wholesome, the strength of claim made by the original peoples of the Okavango has waned. This position was epitomized at the debate when Dr Masundire, chair of the debate called on Mr. Motsamai Mpho “a son of the Delta” to comment on the debate. Motsamai Mpho calmly retorted “I have no comment; I know nothing about the Delta”. Similarly, Kgosi Molosiwa of Sankuyo in his closing remarks at the debate declared that “the Delta belongs to those who shall remain behind when it dries”.

*Lefatshe I. Magole works for the Harry Oppenheimer Research Centre in Maun

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