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Wetland areas located in the global south have become important sites of programmes for economic development, particularly agricultural production, and international tourism. Wetlands are attractive because of their rich natural resources such as permanent water supply, wildlife, riverine and forest products.
However, modern state institutions, policies and other regulatory measures developed by governments to direct economic programmes in wetland areas have disrupted long established the customary and usufructuary access to land and environmental livelihood resources that form the bases of the socioeconomic practices and cultural identities of the indigenous and other communities that reside within.
The Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world, situated in Ngamiland District, Botswana, provides an illustrative case study to review how policy and regulatory instruments have modified the access to and utilization of resources for subsistence by the indigenous Basarwa people and other minority ethnic communities settled in the delta.
The Basarwa, the oldest surviving indigenous inhabitants of Botswana have been increasingly pressured to abandon their semi-nomadic natural resource-based subsistence cultures and traditional knowledge and opt for a sedentary rural existence. In Moremi Game Reserve, there were forced removals, without compensation for the loss of user rights or ancestral land when the reserve was established.
Increasing demands for economic development in the Okavango Delta has intensified over resource competition between different positioned land users and interest groups, most notably for water resources. The successful international marketing of the Okavango Delta as a major nature and wildlife tourist destination has been accompanied by an increasing commoditisation and privatisation of choice wetland and adjacent sandveld areas.
These alienations, together with the burgeoning tourist market have induced scarcities of natural livelihood resources in the subsistence economies of delta communities. Another competitive land use activity similarly increasing pressure on natural resources is beef production, for which compliance with European Union import regulations has necessitated the erection of veterinary fences cordoning off wide expanses of the Okavango Delta since the 1980s.
Policy and regulatory instruments continue to modify and deny access to subsistence livelihood resources in the Okavango Delta. Regulatory measures, including alienations of land for protected areas and the gross encroachments of veterinary fences, have engendered resentments, antagonisms, and resistance to change among local communities.
State policy and regulatory instruments, including protected area alienations and concessions, have altered, or denied the access to land and natural livelihood resources of the indigenous Basarwa and minority subsistence-oriented communities in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Institutional interventions officially sanctioned barriers to customary and usufructuary rights and access, and the non-recognition of historically embedded traditional land uses have decimated already marginalized resource-based subsistence livelihoods and precipitated intergroup conflicts over preferential rights and access to resources and opportunities, notably wildlife, non-timber veld products, agriculture, and community-based tourism schemes. Such outcomes, moreover, will have consequences for the longer-term sustainability of the Okavango Delta both as a socioeconomic resource base and as a natural ecosystem.