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Environment

Environmental defenders, not victims: What we can learn from the San people of Southern Africa

The San peoples have lived in “peaceful coexistence” with the environment for 20,000 years. But their traditional knowledge is under threat.

Until recently, Indigenous peoples have often been viewed as the victims of environmental degradation. In reality, they defend some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

At the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, Botswanan campaigner Gakemothoh Satau was among hundreds of Indigenous activists who took to Glasgow’s streets calling for action on climate change.

Satau is a representative of the San peoples, who have lived in Southern Africa in “peaceful coexistence” with the environment for at least 20,000 years, and a member of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC). 

But in recent years, in the name of ‘conservation’, these communities have been thrown off their lands. Vast areas in Botswana have been turned into game reserves, with the San banned from living or hunting on lands they’ve occupied sustainably for millennia.

Facing marginalisation by their government and eviction from their traditional lands, Satau told us how the San are fighting to preserve their identity and their traditional knowledge as the first conservationists. 

The Big Issue: Who are the San Peoples?

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Gakemotho Satau: We have been referred to as Basarwa, ‘Bushmen’, but the San peoples call themselves Khoi, meaning ‘Persons’ or ‘Indigenous Persons’ of Botswana or Southern Africa. We consider ourselves as Indigenous peoples because we have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in the way we live. We are a traditional hunter-gatherer society, and that is what defines us.

People who refer to the San peoples as ‘Stone Age’ or ‘uncivilised’ are gaining comfort from their own ignorance. The San are not primitive. The San bring a wealth of knowledge to the table. The San peoples are conservationists. We believe in abundance, we believe in peaceful coexistence, particularly with the environment. Our wealth is the environment. We can make fire without relying on modern tools. We are herbalists. We can feed ourselves without relying on factory-made goods. We have been dislocated and forced to resettle in inhumane ways and yet we are the ones labelled as uncivilised.

What are the threats facing the San?

We face systematic exclusion in the region. In Botswana, we are socially, culturally, politically and economically marginalised. Our identity in the form of language, cultures and ethics have been compromised. Our people are forced to assimilate in Botswana in order to be accepted as humans in the broader society. We have been living below the poverty line for over half a century, at the hands of the government. We have lost land through forceful eviction, having been resettled for development and conservation areas. 

Environmental groups often support conservation areas, claiming they deter poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Why have they been bad for the San? 

That is the narrative the government has exported to outsiders. It benefits the tourism economy of the nation. Under this arrangement, Indigenous peoples have sacrificed a lot. We have had to give away our cultural rights. 

How would the protection of Indigenous Rights be a good thing for the environment and climate goals?

It will allow for meaningful participation of Indigenous people in conservation decision-making agendas. At the same time, it would allow research into Indigenous knowledge necessary for the issues surrounding climate change mitigation. Indigenous peoples have put humans at the centre of conservation and environmental protection. Our knowledge defines our life, our environment, how we eat and the spiritual component of eating. 

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge has safeguards for environmental protection and resilience to climate vulnerability and mitigation objectives. So the protection of this knowledge is key as it will not only benefit Indigenous peoples but it will benefit the global village.

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