Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Himba are Herero-speaking semi-nomadic pastoralists living in north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. Currently numbering an estimated 25,000 people (though no reliable figures exist), their comparative isolation in a harsh and arid region has meant that they have retained traditional social and cultural patterns to a greater extent than Herero peoples elsewhere in Namibia.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Himba migrated along the Kunene River and settled in what is today north-western Namibia and south-western Angola.
The Himba community’s sophisticated cattle herding has led to relative prosperity by regional standards. However, a catastrophic drought from 1979 to 1982 decimated herds and turned many Himba to wage labour, foraging and relief handouts. At the same time the opening of a new front in the war between SWAPO and the South African army restricted mobility and caused many casualties from land-mines. With the end of the war, independent Namibia’s Ministry for Basic Education, Sport and Culture targeted resources to minority communities, including Himba. This has led to improvements in education and healthcare.
In the 1990s, a Namibian government proposal for construction of a dam at Epupa Falls on the Kunene river threatened dry season grazing land and sacred burial sites. Many Himba opposed the plan for these reasons, although some, especially belonging to younger generations, supported the dam proposal out of a desire for more local development and jobs. Subsequently, the Angolan and Namibian governments turned away from the Epupa dam, with an offshore gas-to-power project and a dam site elsewhere on the Kunene receiving more favour. In October 2007, it was confirmed that a smaller dam project may go forward at the so-called Baynes site; this would still affect Himba people, but reportedly on a smaller scale.
Himba face an ongoing struggle to protect their land rights, and their territory has been appropriated by larger ethnic groups for grazing. In Kunene region, there have been reports of mining undertaken on Himba land without community consent. Meanwhile, Himba continue to protest the Baynes hydropower project which, though yet to be built, will be constructed on Himba land and would, Himba argue, lead to significant economic, cultural and spiritual destruction for their community if built.