The struggle for indigenous peoples' land rights: the case of Namibia

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The enclosure of commons is a historical event not limited to homelands of developed nations. Instead it also characterized their colonialization of other nations. Obtaining additional land was one of the motives of colonialism, but – for indigenous peoples – it meant more than the loss of tangible resources. This chapter, based on fieldwork with the Namibian San, indicates that the enclosure of land led to a loss of social relations that had sustained their culture and identity. Despite the fact that most San live in circumstances far different from their hunter-gatherer days, they are compelled to choose between identities defined by others, in which they are seen as either ‘backward’ or living ‘in harmony with nature’. In order to reclaim land rights from states, the San are obligated to portray themselves as an essentialized, cohesive indigenous group.
The critical analysis of Namibia's land reform undertaken in this chapter reveals a contradiction: on the one hand, one can observe growing international recognition of the land rights of indigenous peoples; on the other the enclosure of their land continues nationally. Namibia is one of the world's newest nations and, in its focus on creating a unified state, its multilayered German and South African colonial past looms large. For example, colonial tribal chieftaincy rule marginalized San hunter-gatherer bands. Today, the San are Namibia's poorest, most vulnerable group, living as scattered itinerant labourers, often on the outskirts of cities or settlements, and their communities are rife with social and health problems.
The fieldwork described in this chapter indicates that there is little reason for optimism about their sustainability, and a key reason is the long shadow cast by colonialism. It transformed land use from a practice that regulated social organization through property relations into one in which property boundaries affirm political-economic power structures.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIndigenous Peoples, Consent and Benefit Sharing
Subtitle of host publicationLessons Learned from San Hoodia Case
EditorsRachel Wynberg, Doris Schroeder, Roger Chennells
Place of PublicationDordrecht
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9789048131228
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2009


  • ancestral land rights
  • indigenous peoples
  • indigenous rights
  • Namibia


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