Surviving ‘Development’: Rural development interventions, protected area management and formal education with the Khwe San in Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

My doctoral dissertation was published in September 2020, available in the Digital Repository of the University of Helsinki (Helda) – Download PDF (11MB)


In the last three decades, southern African governments and non-profit organizations, following the narrative of poverty alleviation and integrated rural development, have initiated a variety of development interventions targeting the hunter-gatherer San people. Despite these interventions, the southern African San groups, like many other Indigenous Peoples, remained economically, politically, and socially marginalized.

In this doctoral dissertation, I have examined how such interventions have impacted on the contemporary livelihoods of a Namibian San group, the Khwe San. Based on a 15-month-long ethnographic field study with the Khwe community living in the eastern part of Bwabwata National Park (BNP), this thesis is compiled of four peer-reviewed articles and a summarizing report. The summary introduces the background and context of the study, outlines its theoretical and methodological framework, and discusses the main findings presented in the four articles.

The study builds on decolonial and post-development research theories and looks at hunters and gatherers through the lens of the ‘foraging mode of thought’ concept. Based on the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework and the notion of community capitals, this study provides a critical analysis of both the practice and impacts of development interventions on local livelihoods and socio-cultural dynamics. The study focuses on three key domains of development interventions affecting contemporary foragers: rural income-generating interventions, protected area management and formal education.

The ethnographic fieldwork in BNP was carried out between 2016 and 2018 and involved data collection through participant observation in various settings, as well as semi-structured interviews with local community members and a wide range of other stakeholders. In addition, a study-area-wide socio-economic census was undertaken, and the participatory photography (PhotoVoice) method was used in the case study community.

This study shows that the contemporary livelihood strategies of the Khwe San people do not currently provide adequate benefits for maintaining a sound livelihood inside the national park. Restrictions due to strictly-imposed biodiversity conservation regulations limit the options for locally available livelihood activities, while community development projects initiated by external actors to date have been unable to alleviate extreme poverty or provide any substantial benefits. Most projects have failed due to dismissing local cultural, social and economic realities and disregarding proper community consultation and involvement in decision-making. The state’s formal education system, as currently practised, suffers from the same neglect of local cultural characteristics. The standardized curriculum and teaching practices, coupled with the negative stereotyping of San children and parents by the educators, are far from providing a safe and effective learning environment.

Despite the above challenges, the findings demonstrate that the social life is still largely governed by principles of egalitarianism, their traditional kinship system, and the practice of sharing. The Khwe San’s traditional knowledge and skills, especially in relation to wild food gathering, still plays an important role in maintaining their livelihoods and contemporary cultural identity. However, Khwe adults and elders regard traditional knowledge far more important than do the youth, and this knowledge transmission is rapidly fading.

The study also analysed exemplary initiatives that have provided some positive contributions to Khwe livelihoods. The Devil’s Claw harvesting collaborative project is a leading example of a culturally-responsive initiative contributing to several domains of local well-being, while the recently-established Biocultural Community Protocol is a model community-led legal instrument encompassing customary laws, institutions and crucial building blocks of local identity.

The study indicates that further diversification of livelihood options is essential, and should be community-led, culturally inclusive and sustainable. The predominantly externally-driven interventions to date have disempowered the Khwe San and ignored the addressing of fundamental human rights issues. The Khwe and other hunter-gatherer communities now find themselves at a critical time and in need of support to self-strengthen their own capabilities and agency in order to realize self-determination and accomplish long-term positive social change for themselves, their communities, and their future generations.