UNPO Indigenous Overview - Trends in Africa 2011

UNPO Indigenous Overview - Trends in Africa 2011

UNPO report on environmental degradation and resource depletion in Africa and how our Members are affected by this issues



Africa, the second biggest continent with 20% of the world’s surface, is very well endowed with natural resources and hosts an enormous variety in cultures, natural landscapes and wildlife. Yet, Africa’s strongest points are increasingly under threat. With Africa’s population at 1 billion and rapidly expanding, the UN projects that Africa will be growing at double the average worldwide rate between 2010-2050, natural resources are becoming scarce. The amount of arable land is limited, over half of Africa’s land is not suitable for agriculture and this proportion increases when taking into account land that is of only limited use (UNEP Africa Atlas, xi). Erosion and an increasing salinity of the soil further contribute to this problem. Forest are being chopped down by poor subsistence farmers in search for new land and firewood, degrading biodiversity and threatening the survival of unique wildlife. The large scale burning of bio mass fuels, like wood, causes significant air pollution. Moreover, Africa is a dry continent, only Australia is dryer, meaning that fresh water is scarce (Revenga and Cassar n.d.). The lack of clean water further hampers agriculture and at the same time leads to a wide range of diseases caused by bad sanitation, like malaria and yellow fever. Climate change could further decrease the amount of available natural resources in Africa. Changing rainfall patterns directly affect yields, a possible disaster in a continent where the majority of the populations still lives from subsistence farming.


Economic renaissance?

In recent years we saw what might be the beginning of an African economic renaissance, as a lot of African countries saw high economic growth rates. Africa’s re-entry in the world economy is to a large extend a good thing, as improving the continent’s economic development is the only way to reduce grinding poverty. Moreover, Africa’s low level of economic development means that the funds and technology to adapt to climate change are now very limited. However, the African economy is still heavily focussed on exporting unprocessed goods, nowadays ever more often to China and other emerging economies. In practice this means that the economic development in Africa is still frequently marked by the ruthless exploitation of resources like gold, diamonds, coltan and hard wood. Although this kind of economic development makes a small amount of African plutocrats rich, it brings little benefits to the great majority of the continent’s inhabitants. Africa’s modernisation is visible most clearly when looking at its staggering urbanisation rate. By 2025 more than half of the African population will live in cities, with the majority of this new city dwellers living in shanty towns (UN-HABITAT 2006). Urbanisation comes at high costs, not only for many of its inhabitants, but also for nature. Large parts of valuable natural lands have disappeared while the growing amount of cars and industry worsens pollution.


Minorities badly affected

The increasing scarcity of natural resources especially affects minority populations in a negative way. To begin with, minorities often live in far off and less developed areas and environmental degradations hits communities that already live on subsistence level especially hard. Moreover, with central governments stepping up the quest for resources, minorities are regularly forced to comply with the exploitation of the resources in their homeland, while getting nothing in return. With so much money at stake, governments and private businesses are willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control over the regions in question. Minorities perceived as a threat to those in power are frequently the targets of discrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Decisions to exploit resources are often taken without meaningful consultation of the local population, and subsequent projects are often accompanied by abuse and destruction. Minority communities often strongly oppose natural resource development projects on the grounds of the economic devastation that can result. However, these groups face a myriad of obstacles when trying to meaningfully participate in the management of natural resources found in their home communities.




The Batwa in Rwanda number around 30,000, with other Batwa populations residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Burundi. They are originally forest pygmies, living in and off the dense forestry regions in a hunter‐gatherer lifestyle. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Rwandan government undertook its first expulsion of these populations from the forests which were then made into National Parks in order to regulate forest use and generate income from international tourism. Although the Batwa had lived in close harmony with nature in the forests for centuries no plan to integrate them as guides thus providing employment was made or enacted. Many of the expulsions were conducted without notice nor compensation, forcing the Batwa into extreme poverty. Many of the Batwa now beg from their neighbours and in towns in order to survive. In 2003, the Batwa suffered a further setback when it became unconstitutional to call themselves Batwa, or indigenous to Rwanda. This means that targeted programmes to improve their condition in light of the unique nature of their situation and history are blocked from implementation because they are seen as evidence of divisionist ideologies. The latest example of blatant discrimination is the new law that calls for elimination of all thatched homes, which number more than 78,000 and for a large part inhabited by the Batwa. It has been reported that many Badwa had their huts pulled down or their thatch removed by local officials eager to fulfil their mandate, without having been provided with new homes, assistance or replacement roofing. This has left thousands of Badwas without shelter during the rainy season. For the full Universal Periodic Review report from UNPO on Rwanda and the position of the Batwa, click here.




Cabinda is a small territory of 7,283 square kilometres in west central Africa with a population of about 300,000. It borders the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Republic of Congo to the north, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) to the east and south. A narrow strip of DR Congo territory along the north bank of the Congo River separates Cabinda from the Angolan province of Zaire. More than 20,000 Cabinda people live in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Republic of Congo. Much of Cabinda is covered by rainforest. Most of the local population lives from subsistence agriculture and hunting or fishing. Timber cultivation is also a source of revenue for some. The vast majority of the wealth produced in Cabinda comes from petroleum. The revenues flow however to the Angolan government, not to Cabinda itself. Meanwhile the Cabindans have to deal with oil spills, like that of 2008 by Chevron. For further information on Cabinda, please click here.




The Maasai people are an indigenous ethnic group in Africa who reside in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They live a semi-nomadic lifestyle and range from Lake Turkana to Ngorongoro. There are an estimated 900,000 Maasai total, with approximately 430,000 in Tanzania, though an actual approximation of the population is difficult due to their semi-nomadic nature and the remote location of their villages. The population is currently in decline. Traditionally the Maasai are nomadic cattle herders with grazing lands spanning from central Kenya into Tanzania. The young Maasai men tend the herds and live in small camps, moving frequently in the constant search for water and good grazing lands. They often travel into towns and cities to purchase goods and supplies and to sell their cattle at regional markets. However, as both government and private interests have appropriated land that the Maasai need for pasture - often in the name of conservation - , the reduction in available grazing land has brought increasing poverty to the Maasai pastoralists. In many cases, the lions that are protected in these national parks stray away from them and kill Maasai cattle. Many young Maasai have started to move to the cities in order to find new sources of income. For more information on the Maasai look here.




Ogaden, also known as Western Somali Region or Ogadenia, is the eastern most region of Ethiopia and borders Djibouti to the north, Kenya to the south west and Somaliland/Somalia to the north, east and south respectively. The capital of the region has been Jijiga since 1994. The region has an estimated population of around 4,439,147 people (Central Statistics Agency of Ethiopia), with nearly 98% of the population Muslim. Demographically the region is dominated by ethnic Somalis who constitute around 95% of the entire population. Due to years of war and neglect at the hands of the Ethiopian government, the quality of life in the Ogaden region is not good. Only 38% of the population has access to safe drinking water. The region is largely dependent on agriculture and the increasing scarcity of land has led to tensions between the inhabitants of region and the local and national governments, with the latter often discriminating against the Ogaden. The discovery of natural resources in the area, most notably natural gas, has added further tensions. Despite being arguably the richest region in terms of natural resources, Ogaden remains the poorest and most underdeveloped, with the government showing no desire to invest in the region. For more information about the Ogaden click here.




The Ogoni people are an indigenous group from the Niger Delta region in southeast Nigeria. In 1957 the Shell oil company struck oil in Ogoniland, which set in motion a process that dramatically affected not only the Ogoni society, but Nigeria as a whole. Today, oil accounts for over 90% of Nigeria’s export earnings and some 80% of government revenue, controlling the entire Nigerian economy and creating enormous wealth for those in power. The land of the Niger Delta is the source of over 90% of Nigeria’s oil, but the Ogoni have not seen any positive results from this fact. In Ogoni land, large areas of fresh and salt water resources as fishing grounds have been rendered useless by oil spills. Moreover The Niger River Delta is losing 400 hectares of land a year to erosion by activities such as construction, dredging and mining for sand, and harvesting corals (Hinrichsen 2007). Because of this food is becoming increasingly expensive for the Ogoni. For more information on the Ogoni, click here.




The country of the Oromo, called Biyya-Oromo (Oromo country) or Oromia (Oromiya), was one of the free nations in the Horn of Africa until its colonization and occupation by Abyssinia at the end of the nineteenth century. In the east it is bordered by Somalia, Afar lands and Djibouti, in the West by Sudan, in the South by Somalia, Kenya and others and in the North by Amhara and Tigre land or Abyssinia proper. The land area is about 600,000 square kilometres. Numbering around 30 million, the Oromo people are one of the most numerous ethnic groups in Africa and are the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia. Notwithstanding their numerical pre-eminence, the Oromo are marginalised by the government, which is dominated by people from the Amhara ethnic group.

The Ethiopian government has recently begun offering large tracts of land for long term lease to private and government backed investors. Ethiopia has already committed to handing over 1.7 million of the 2.7 million hectares of arable land to foreign investors. Fertile land has been forcibly taken from indigenous subsistence farmers like the Oromo, not for the development of a needed infrastructure, but for lease to private foreign companies, where neither the profits nor the majority of the produce will be shared with the communities. In all cases, the farmers and indigenous people receive little or no compensation for their land. Ethiopia’s population is badly in need of food aid. But its government is offering large swaths of its most fertile land to rich countries and wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations. Large-scale industrial agriculture not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, intensive water use, and large‐scale transport, storage and distribution which together turned landscapes into enormous mono‐cultural plantations. In various instances, informants told that foreign companies that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were not being charged for water. In a country where 85% of the population relies as a means of subsistence on what is obtained from agriculture, the relation of land to man is crucial. The current land grabbing creates political instability, fuels conflict, uproots the indigenous peoples and results food insecurity. For more information on the Oromo click here.




Somaliland is a state that is situated in the Horn of Africa and shares its borders with Djibouti to the west, Ethiopia to the south, to the north the Gulf of Aden, and Somalia to the east. Somaliland encompasses a total area of 137,600 square km, with a coastline of 850 km. The population is estimated at 3.5 million. With neighbouring Somalia in a state of chaos, Somaliland is remarkably quiet and well functioning. Somaliland’s government has for example successfully battled pirates operating in the region with a local indigenous unrecognised coastguard force. The region’s main source of income comes from the export of livestock to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf States. The country’s subsistence farmers cultivate primarily Sorghum and Maize, but the increasingly erratic rainfall is putting the yields under pressure. The traditional practice of livestock exports is not feasible any more as a strong contributor to economic stability either, as it no longer sufficiently supports the growing population. Saudi Arabia’s ban on the import of Somaliland livestock, following its claim that it is contaminated, has greatly affected the region. Somaliland finds itself relying on money sent by relatives and members of the Diaspora who fled the country during the 1980’s civil war. For more information on Somaliland click here.


Southern Cameroons


Southern Cameroons is the territory bounded to the west and northwest by Nigeria, east by the Republic of Cameroun and south by the Atlantic Ocean. Originally governed from British ruled Nigeria, the area was incorporated into French speaking Cameroon in 1961, against the wish of the Southern Cameroonians. The population of Southern Cameroons is around five million. In the coastal region farming, fishing and hunting denominates the life of the inhabitants. Southern Cameroons is blessed with abundant resources and produces natural rubber, palm fruits, bananas, tea and pepper. On top of that some oilfields are located offshore. The revenues that this resources generate flow however for a large part into the coffers of the government of Cameroun and never reach the Southern Cameroonians. For more information on Southern Cameroons and its struggle for autonomy click here.




The Vhavenda people are an indigenous group located on the North and West of Makhado in the Limpopo province of South Africa and number about 720,000. The Vhavenda are one of many tribal groups within South Africa, and despite their language being recognised as one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, their main aim is to establish their traditional leaders as the local authority of their territory. The Vhavenda have experienced a number of issues with the development of natural resources on their lands. Sacred sites of the Vhavenda remain unprotected from development; their holy forests have been exploited by the government without any form of consultation with the Vhavenda people. Furthermore, the land claims process in South Africa has been biased, excluding thousands of indigenous peoples. For more information on the Vhavenda click here.




Zanzibar is an autonomous state off the coast of Tanzania and has been a member of UNPO since August 1991. Zanzibar represents a UNPO success story in its efforts to build peace in a state which was prone to intense violence surrounding its elections. In 2009, following yet another outbreak of political violence, the leaders of Zanzibar’s two major parties (CCM and CUF) met to discuss how they could avoid future political turmoil. Following this meeting, the two parties introduced a national unity motion, which would introduce a system of proportional representation into the previously winner-take-all system. On 31 July 2010 this proposal was passed by a peaceful popular referendum. The most important economic activities of Zanzibar are fishing and agriculture, making up for more than 55% of GDP. These traditional ways of living are under threat. Water pollution and the degradation of aquatic ecosystems has led to fishing being less profitable. Land degradation and deforestation threat the existence of the farmers. Traditionally an important producer of clove and other spices, Zanzibar has seen its production decline. For more information on Zanzibar click here.

About UNPO


The UNPO is an international, nonviolent, and democratic membership organisation established in 1991. Its members are indigenous peoples, minorities, and territories who have joined to protect and promote their human rights through nonviolent solutions.


Contact information


Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization

Avenue Louise 52, B-1050, Brussels, Belgium

Telephone: +32(0)251 31459

Fax: +32(0)251 31495