The demand for tourism land in the Okavango Delta has over the years generated much interest in the local media. It is anticipated that the rising tourism investments in the wetlands will bring economic opportunities to impoverished communities. But with the investments come the threat of communities being pushed out of their ancestral lands and environmental harm to the wetlands.
The case of British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson
Recently, a saga involving the allocation of land in the Okavango Delta to the British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson for tourism development captured the attention of Batswana. The issue generated equally divided interest from the nation with many asserting the government must jump at the once in a lifetime opportunity of having Sir Branson invest in the Okavango Delta. But to the Okavango Delta communities, rich investors like Branson are often seen as a problem as opposed to an opportunity.
Tawana Land Board (TLB) members land in hot water for foiling plans to allocate Branson land
Four Tawana Land Board (TLB) Members; Tebogo Boalotswe, Onkgomoditse Gabokakangwe, Selinah Phorano and Mpho Mothoka were served with letters of termination accused of refusing to approve the allocation of land to the British billionaire. They allegedly sabotaged a process that would have approved Lone Tree, Karakao Island, Khwai North Flood Plains and Chiefs Island West for the tourism land bank.
All four have appealed against the move to terminate their contracts. Former Land Minister Maele, under whose administration the drama unfolded, has since been dropped from his ministerial job by new President, Mokgweetsi Masisi. The Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama has confirmed that Sir Branson did apply for a tourism concession in the Okavango Delta.
Khama revealed that Sir Branson’s application was still under consideration pending the advertisement of four lodge sites, which were recently demarcated by the Botswana Tourism Organisation. Khama said Branson applied through the Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC) for land in the Okavango Delta. The BITC’s mandate is to drive Botswana’s economic growth through investment promotion and attraction; export promotion and development; and the management of the national brand. Khama said the request would be processed following the Tawana Land Board’s approval of the transfer of the sites.
Government “Tourism Land Bank” initiative unpopular with Batawana
In 2014, all prime tourism concession areas in Botswana including the Okavango Delta were transferred from Tawana Land Board to the Ministry of Lands through a Ministerial Directive to create what has come to be known as the Tourism Land Bank. The Land Bank was set up by the government to facilitate the development of the tourism sector through the maintenance of an adequate and constant supply of land for tourism activities.
To set up the bank, chunks of tourism sites were identified, some of which were previously used for hunting safaris in tribal areas and administered by various land boards. Khama said Moremi Game Reserve is not included in the tourism land bank and needs the land board’s approval in order to be transferred, which he said they are still awaiting.
The land bank issue is unpopular in Ngamiland. Leburu Molatedi is the Southern Africa regional representative of International Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC.) IPACC is a network of 150 indigenous Organisations in African countries which promote the recognition of and respect for indigenous people in Africa. Molatedi has said that the indigenous communities of the Okavango Delta who include Basarwa, Hambukushu and Wayeyi fear the introduction of the land bank means they will lose access to their land.
World Heritage Committee (WHC) group has reservations about “Tourism Land Bank” initiative
Molatedi noted that the government introducing the tourism land bank has changed the operations of the Community Based Natural Resources Management Programme. The land bank gives the Botswana Tourism Organisation powers to enter in to lease agreements with tour operators in community concessions. In the previous dispensation, communities through their trusts entered into those agreements directly with the tour operators. Now communities are concerned they will be denied access to river reeds, fish and other veldt products they need for their survival and livelihoods.
The delta was listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. However, according to Molatedi, the World Heritage Committee (WHC) group, which decides on the places to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, has reservations about the tourism land bank as it poses a threat to the communities’ livelihood. Molatedi said the WHC, which ensures the agreements of the world heritage convention are followed, has advised Botswana to improve its consultations with the delta communities to find a solution to their problems.
Batawana Paramount Chief, Tawana Moremi wants a piece
Meanwhile, Minister Khama said his ministry would give a lodge plot in the Okavango Delta to Batawana to set up a community trust. He said however, they would not give Batawana Paramount Chief, Tawana Moremi a tourism plot as Moremi wanted.
“He came to us saying he wants to be allocated a plot in Moremi Game Reserve. But we can only help the community, not him as an individual.”
Kgosi Moremi has in the past maintained that the Chiefs Island is his personal property. He contended that it was traditionally his forefathers’ hunting ground. Minister Khama said there was documentation to prove that Batawana gave Moremi Game Reserve, which they formed as a tribal territory in 1960, to the government. However, Keith Diako of the Batawana Advisory Committee said that the tribe is still contesting the ownership of Moremi Game Reserve and Maun Educational Park.
“We are happy that the ministry has promised us land but that does not mean we are dropping our case to fight for ownership of the two properties.”