Nature conservation may appear as an innocuous subject to the well-intentioned mind. In his historical PhD thesis, defended in Zürich, Luregn Lenggenhager adds to the growing literature that tells otherwise. He does so by treating a very specific and telling case – the story of the area which up to recently was called the Caprivi Strip, a narrow territory of Namibia projecting eastwards between Angola and Botswana and bordering on the Zambezi River. The area now forms the Zambezia and part of the Kavango East regions of Namibia.
On account of this peculiar geographical set-up along with its proverbial remoteness, the Caprivi underwent an experience that differed markedly from the rest of Namibia, after South Africa had officially taken over under a League of Nations C Mandate in 1921. At various times, the region was administered directly from Pretoria or jointly with Bechuanaland (Botswana). Lack of accessibility gave occasion to repeated pronouncements about the Caprivi’s low potential. This went along with projections about abundant wild life and scenic beauty, which were reciprocated by similar images of a harmonious precolonial past among at least some of the local population. This did not impede forays into prospecting and closer assessment of possible ways to put the Caprivi to profitable use.
Things began to change dramatically with the accession to power of the National Party in South Africa after 1948. For Namibia, a blueprint for Apartheid and the creation of ethnic homeland was conceived in the Odendaal Plan, which was implemented from the late 1960s onwards. It is one of the merits of Lenggenhager’s account to provide a thorough analysis of this process which clearly goes beyond issues directly involving Caprivi.
With the beginning of the Namibian liberation struggle in 1966, the role and importance of Caprivi changed decisively, on account of its proximity to Zambia which made it a preferred entry point for guerrilla fighters returning form exile. For the following 25 years up to Namibian independence in 1990, Caprivi became a heavily militarised region. At this point, the area was divided into a western part which was virtually depopulated and completely reserved for military use and the eastern part where a considerable South African military establishment was based.
As Lenggenhager demonstrates in detail, the South African security establishment evolved an intricate combination of military measures to use the Caprivi as a base for military operations and moves towards nature conservation, where wildlife was given particular importance. Seemingly innocuous and benign operations, such as counting animals and tracking their movements, turn out to be at the same time devices for controlling territories and their inhabitants. When the war intensified during the 1970s and 1980s, legitimation for the South African presence also grew in importance. Thus, the claim of contributing towards „development“ gained in prominence and was enmeshed with the objectives of military control and conservation. In this context, mapping for instance was and remains of central importance, now enhanced further through GPS technology. Knowledge of territory was vital for the establishment of routes and corridors, through which animals could pass and be surveyed, but which were also used to monitor the movement of people, above all liberation fighters who might infiltrate from neighbouring independent African countries. These activities were intertwined with the maintenance of an almost romantic image of pristine beauty and wildlife in the Caprivi, which was also enjoyed by the small community of higher ranking South African soldiers who converged in the regional centre of Katima Mulilo.
These uses by the colonial power need to be counterposed to the situation of the autochthonous population. Lenggenhager takes a critical attitude to the idea of chiefs as main guardians of nature and above all, wildlife. Yet quite apart from such images of pristine harmony before the advent of colonialism, Lenggenhager not only shows the privileged position of chiefs in accessing large game, as well as their ambivalent role both under South African rule and in independent Namibia, but also the consequence for people at large at being excluded from natural resources upon which their livelihoods had been based, namely, game, rivers for fish, and also land for agriculture. The author notes a change in the attitude of the South African military in its turn to more systematic control along with efforts at „developing“ the region, which centred precisely on wildlife and „nature“. Whereas initially, the autochthonous population had been conceptualised as somehow a part of „nature“, in later stages they were considered as beyond an understanding for the concerns of conservation. This formed and still forms the basis for involving local communities in conservancies in terms of a monetary venture, since on that account only they are deemed to be motivated to move along the aims of preserving nature. In concrete terms, under South African rule this has meant mostly menial and poorly paid jobs for locals as guards and game wardens, whereas after independence limited upward mobility seems to have occurred as well.
As Lenggenhager demonstrates, basic structures and attitudes of conservation have been carried over into independent Namibia. Such continuity is justified by the ostensible needs for nature preservation. This concerns the positioning of local communities and also, as the author shows in harrowing detail, the military approach in particular to the defence of wildlife. Undoubtedly, important changes have also occurred. Not least, these include large-scale cross-border „peace parks“ that have been created in various parts of southern Africa. Caprivi forms part of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area that also stretches through portions of Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. As Lenggenhager stresses, in these areas up-end tourism has resulted in huge differentials between luxury lodges which attract the clientele needed to make this kind of economic strategy viable, and the conditions in which local people live. Also because of poverty, poaching appears as a viable option for a number of people, and they are met with savage repression couched in military terms which include open pleas for the intentional killing of poachers. Such sentiments are also articulated among groups of white South Africans, thus perpetuating Apartheid attitudes in quite specific ways.
The book gives an impressive, if also depressing account of a colonial and postcolonial trajectory that points over and above its considerable direct significance for the research area to wider issues, both in regional terms and more generally of the persistence of not only colonial but also warlike conditions and attitudes. However, two admittedly contradictory lines of questioning remain open. On a broader scope, the exclusion of the „poor“ as much as of the colonised from vital resources they were customarily using for substance, has been a hallmark of rising capitalism all over Western Europe. E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters may well be the finest relevant research. What happened and still happens in the Caprivi may therefore be factored into the wider issue of global enclosure. Again, one may well wonder about viable alternatives to fight rampant commercial game poaching in southern Africa, a problem that will not go away by rightly denouncing unacceptable methods employed.
While the book is basically well written, and the wide-ranging introduction provides a superb and readable overview of the relevant research issues and debates, there are also frequent pitfalls where closer copy editing would have been urgently needed. Still, this is an illuminating read far beyond the narrow regional concerns that may be seen implied in the book’s title.