Food-gathering by Damara herders and conservation in arid north-west Namibia

Detail and dogma, data and discourse: food-gathering by Damara herders and conservation in arid north-west Namibia

pp. 63-99 in Homewood, K. (ed.) (2005 ) Rural Resources and Local Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, James Currey and University of Wisconsin Press, Oxford.

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Accepted narratives of people-environment interactions at best are historically, politically and culturally contingent (not to mention gendered), and at worst are exclusionary and repressive. Nevertheless, it is argued here that detail and data might have critical roles to play in ‘unpacking’ dogma and discourse regarding people-environment relationships and trajectories. This chapter explores food-gathering practices among Damara herders in north-west Namibia. Patterns of resource-use are analysed against a number of rather negative assumptions regarding such resource-use including: 1. that Damara people no longer utilise such resources due to erosion of cultural knowledge and practices; and 2. that gathered foods are consumed primarily to offset poverty, particularly during drought. Multi-round household survey data in fact indicate the opposite, i.e. that gathered resources are consumed frequently, are highly regarded, and are sought after as and when they become available. In attempting to ‘unpack’ why misunderstandings exist and sometimes are affirmed in contemporary policy interventions, the following conceptual constraints are noted: 1. an emphasis on the ‘ideal-type’ productive dynamics of forest and temperate environments that hampers understandings of variable productivity and mobile resource-use practices in drylands; 2. an assumption of the ‘patriarchal pastoralist’, such that women’s productive domains (including food-gathering) tend to be overlooked; and 3. a Namibian ethnographic bias that undermines Damara knowledge and expertise in general. Detail and data in this case might assist in raising the visibility of both women and plants in a context of policy and projects that tend to focus on men and animal wildlife.

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