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WP2. Comparative Indigenous Perspectives in Etosha-Kunene

While WP1 analyses official environmental policies for Etosha-Kunene conservation territories, WP2 addresses indigenous perspectives for these same areas, focusing especially on experiences and narratives of mobility and place. In WP2 we acknowledge Article 13.1 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which states that,

Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations
their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures,
and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

Whilst sensitive to ethical and intellectual property dimensions of UNDRIP Article 13.1, in WP2 we aim for an iterative process of documenting and communicating knowledges regarding place, in combination with indigenous philosophies of ‘nature’ associated with Etosha-Kunene conservation territories.

For WP2 we deploy two main research methods:

  1. on-site oral history as a means of ‘cultural landscape mapping’, through walking and working with especially elderly members of Haiǁom, Damara / ǂNūkhoen, ǁUbun and Himba-Herero to collate and document childhood memories of places of past significance.
    This dimension of our research builds on and combines preliminary work with Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples in Etosha-Kunene: especially Etosha Haiǁom and Damara / ǂNūkhoen and ǁUbun to the west of Etosha.

    This cultural mapping research praxis involves ‘walking the tracks of the past even in the present’ to draw out ‘the erasure of earlier histories in assessments of the present’ and fill ‘the present with the traces of earlier interactions and events’ (Tsing 2014: 13; also Ingold & Vergunst 2008). As such, it can revitalise knowledges, practices and experiences occluded in formal territorial designations associated with species and habitat protection (de Certeau 2010: 24; Tsing 2005: 81);


  2. paying ethnographic attention to differing ways of knowing the beyond-human entities comprising Etosha-Kunene natures. Our intention here is to more fully recognise and understand the possibility of heterodox understandings of natures-beyond-the-human and the complexity conferred by specific situated interactions of human / beyond-human agencies. For preliminary explorations and proof of concept, see Sullivan (2017) and Hannis & Sullivan (2018) with Kaoko ǂNūkhoen and ǁUbun, also Widlok (2018) with Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoansi.

    Here we affirm the cultural and historical particularity of natural history observation and objectification (explored in WP5) so as to be alert to the possibility of varied ontological differences in knowing Etosha-Kunene natures that may have relevance for both conservation and livelihoods (cf. Marks 1984; Kohn 2013). As part of this exploration we seek to facilitate small group discussions involving varied participants, where perspectives and realities might be shared and better understood. 


Proposed milestones, outputs and personnel:
This work package will be conducted by the full academic team and again will be an iterative process throughout the duration of the project. We have also costed in specialist cartographic assistance to help us create online interactive maps, as well as printed maps, for data emerging from the on-site oral histories / cultural landscapes mapping dimension of this WP. Our primary outputs will be:


  1. a series of interactive online and printed maps;

  2. peer reviewed articles focusing, for example, on:
    i. deep mapping of remembered places and spaces of mobility for indigenous Haiǁom, Dama / ǂNūkhoen, ǁUbun and Himba-Herero – target journal Cultural Geography;
    ii. juxtaposition of ontological tendencies regarding human-with-beyond-human-natures – target journal Environmental Humanities.

Outputs to date

We have published two chapters exploring and theorising indigenous perspectives and ontologies in the open access volume Negotiating  Climate Change in Crisis, edited by Steffen Böhm and Sian Sullivan (Cambridge: Open Books, 2021):

1. ch. 14: Dieckmann, U. 2021 On climate and the risk of onto-epistemological chainsaw massacres, pp. 189-206.

Abstract. On behalf of a Danish organisation (Charapa Consult), in 2012 the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek undertook a research study on climate change and indigenous people in Namibia. Charapa Consult had itself been commissioned by the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development to undertake a regional research project in Africa, and parallel studies for Asia and Latin America had also been commissioned. As a researcher involved in the Namibia study, in this essay I critically assess its methodological challenges and dilemmas in relation to the global framework within which it was conducted. I place special emphasis on the predicament of short-term ‘participatory’ research with indigenous communities on climate change. I also outline the challenges arising from the necessity of squeezing indigenous environmental knowledge and experience into internationally acknowledged scientific frameworks, an approach which implies a subordination of indigenous peoples’ ontologies to western ontologies. The compartmentalising necessitated by such a methodology risks the loss of the most important aspects of indigenous ecological knowledge related to climate change.


2. ch. 3: Sullivan, S. 2021 On climate change ontologies and the spirit(s) of oil, pp. 25-36. 

Abstract. The last major UNFCCC COP Agreement—the so-called Paris Agreement of COP21 in 2015—emphasised international cooperation through market-based instruments. International carbon trading was insisted on, so as to (seemingly) allow mitigation, rather than reduction/cessation, of emissions from industrial production. Repeated utterances of the positive impacts of carbon markets in terms of reducing emissions and speeding the transition to a low-carbon economy, however, were also met with equally repetitive and forceful claims that carbon markets have failed. The polarised disagreement between these positions and the numbers supporting them demonstrates that climate management and carbon markets are not merely technical problems that can be fixed by measurement, modelling and technocratic solutions. They are political problems representing highly divergent values and worldviews. This essay asks questions about how anthropogenic climate change is understood, and which responses are promoted as appropriate for this systemic predicament. It argues that ontological dimensions are at play here, arising from different ways of seeing and knowing the world.


We have also finalised three book chapters that address these concerns, in a volume edited by Ute Dieckmann called Mapping the Unmappable? Cartographic Explorations with Indigenous Peoples in Africa. Bielefeld: Transcript. DOI: 10.14361/9783839452417-006:

1. Introduction: Cartographic explorations with indigenous peoples in Africa (pp. 9-48), by Ute Dieckmann

2. Haiǁom in Etosha: Cultural maps and being-in-relations (pp. 93-137), by Ute Dieckmann
This chapter introduces a cultural mapping project in the Etosha National Park in Namibia. It was undertaken with a group of (former) hunter-gatherers, Haiǁom, who have lived in the area of the Etosha National Park for time immemorial. millennium. The Haiǁom have been evicted from their ancestral land (including the famous Etosha National Park). The Haiǁom maps were developed for the documentation of cultural heritage of the Haiǁom within the National Park, and for use in tourism, as the existence and history of the former inhabitants had been erased for the sake of Etosha as an African “untamed wilderness”. This chapter critically assesses the Haiǁom maps in retrospect with regard to both academic discussions on relational ontologies and loosely connected fields of enquiry, and to prior research on Haiǁom-being-in-relations and being-in-Etosha. The concerns raised also pertain to many other (African) cultural mapping projects for which a call is made for researchers working with indigenous communities in mapping projects to continuously reflect on their own ontological bias and stresses the risk of (unintentionally) reinforcing the primacy of western ontology. A new approach is proposed for coming closer to indigenous epistemology and ontology.

3. Densities of meaning in west Namibian landscapes: genealogies, ancestral agencies, and healing (pp. 139-191), by Sian Sullivan and Welhemina Suro Ganuses
This chapter introduces a historical cultural mapping project in west Namibia documenting childhood memories of former dwelling places, particularly in Sesfontein and Purros conservancies and the Palmwag tourism concession. The research draws into focus past practices of dwelling, mobility, livelihood and environmental perception amongst Khoe-speaking peoples (of ǁKhao-a, !Narenin and ǁUbu !haoti or lineages) who lived as hunter-harvesters and small stock pastoralists throughout the wider west Namibian landscape. A combination of factors cleared people from these lands, causing disruption to cultural, family and individual identities. Using an array of research methods – from recorded oral histories and musics associated with remembered sites, to logging mapped coordinates and associated information on google maps – the project aims to (re)inscribe layers of cultural significance now occluded from maps of the area. The paper focuses on three dimensions that are hard to make visible using conventional cartographic techniques: 1. the rhizomatically interwoven relationships between people, places and ancestors that on-site oral histories draw into focus as densely connected through past mobilities and genealogies; 2. the greeting practice tsē-khom that foregrounds the agentic presence of known ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead associated with specific places and land areas; and 3. the remembered significance of |gais praise songs and arus healing dances linked with former living sites (ǁan-ǁhuib).















Cover image shows cousins Noag Ganaseb and Franz ǁHoëb revisiting places in the westward reaches of the Hoanib River where they used to live. Here they are close to ǁOeb, now the site of a high-end eco-tourism lodge called Hoanib Camp, located on the south side of the bend in the Hoanib River just to the right of centre in this image. When Franz, Noag and their families lived in this area they would alternate between harvesting !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) from their !nara plants near the waterhole of Auses / !Uiǁgams, and walking southwards to Kai-as and the !Uniab River where different foods as well as !nara could be found. In the 1950s the coastal dunes were opened for diamond mining. Then in 1971 the lower Hoanib was gazetted as part of the Skeleton Coast National Park. As these areas became opened for industry and conservation, they became closed to habitation by those who once lived there.

Photo: Sian Sullivan, November 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using three 10 x 10 km aerial images from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek, July 2017, as part of a series of images for the exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia



De Certeau, M. 2010 Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. by B. Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hannis, M. & Sullivan, S. 2018 Relationality, reciprocity and flourishing in an African landscape, pp. 279-296 in Hartman, L.M. (ed.) That All May Flourish: Comparative Religious Environmental Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ingold, T. & Vergunst, J.L. 2008 Ways of Walking. London: Routledge.

Kohn, E. 2013 How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology of Nature Beyond the Human. Berkeley: California University Press.

Marks, S. 1984 The Imperial Lion: Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management in Central Africa. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242.

Tsing, A.L. 2005 Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, A.L. 2014 Wreckage and recovery: four papers exploring the nature of nature. AURA Working Papers vol. 2 (Arhus University), pp. 2-15.
Widlok, T. 2018 Lions and flies forager-animal situations, pp. 203-220 in Breyer, T. & Widlok, T. (eds.) The Situationality of Human-animal Relations. New York: Columbia UP.


Palmwag mapping.jpg
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