The end of cattle’s paradise


The “worst drought in 40 years” continues 

Angola is greatly affected by the negative impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has observed that “frequency and intensity of droughts has increased in some regions” including in southern Africa since pre-industrial levels due to global warming and that “the frequency and intensity of droughts are projected to increase particularly in the Mediterranean region and southern Africa”.

When Amnesty International visited the Gambos municipality, in Huíla province, southern Angola, in 2018 and 2019, our team found several cases of hunger and starvation among the traditional pastoralist communities. We saw pastoralists families struggling to produce food for themselves. We were told then that the province was facing its worst drought in 40 years.

Three years on, the drought shows no signs of abating.

During 2020 and 2021, Amnesty International visited the Huíla and Cunene provinces and observed that the drought continued to devastate the livelihoods of pastoralists families in southern Angola. The food insecurity situation has been exacerbated by the prolonged drought, which hampered the 2020/2021 rainy season (which runs from November to April). The World Food Program highlighted that data comparison indicates that the lack of rainfall in the period of November 2020 – January 2021 caused the worst drought in the last 40 years. It also observed that as a direct consequence of the drought, malnutrition is peaking, and access to water, sanitation and hygiene is increasingly precarious with negative impacts on local communities’ health and nutrition. In May 2021, the WFP estimated that 6 million people in Angola have insufficient food consumption.

Fleeing hunger

Angolans living on the border with Namibia, namely in the Cunene and Huíla provinces, have been hit very hard by the impacts of the persistent drought which has impacted their access to food. The 2020/2021 low rainfall figures indicate that the situation is not going to improve in the coming months. The prolonged drought has made the lives of the traditional pastoralist communities much harder and many are unable to cope with the resulting hunger. Since the beginning of March 2021, families began to cross the border into Namibia, a desperate measure in search of food, water and essential services, such as health care.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reported that Namibian local authorities had recorded a total of 894 Angolan nationals in the Omusati and Kunene regions by March 2021.  In May 2021, Angolan NGOs reported that over 7,000 Angolans, mainly mothers with their children and youth, had fled to Namibia. At the time of writing, the number of Angolans crossing the border into Namibia continues to increase. The Angolan NGOs are calling them “climate refugees”, because the drought and the lack of resources in southern Angola have pushed them to migrate to Namibia as a desperate measure to survive.

Land occupation

In southern Angola, particularly in Huíla and Cunene provinces, hunger is not only the result of drought. Food insecurity has arisen, in part, from another crucial element: the diversion of communal grazing land to commercial farmers. In 2019, Amnesty International exposed the diversion of communal grazing land by the government to commercial cattle farmers without due process in the Gambos municipality, Huíla province. According to the government, 67% of the grazing land in the Gambos municipality was occupied by commercial cattle farmers, which includes large parts of Vale de Chimbolela, known to pastoralists as “the cradle of cattle”, and Tunda dos Gambos, the customary grazing commons for the region’s pastoralists. In the report The end of cattle’s paradise, Amnesty showed how the occupation of the more fertile land has undermined the economic and social resilience of pastoralist communities, particularly their ability to produce food and survive droughts in southern Angola.

According to local organisations, as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Angola in 2020, the government had other priorities to address and the land diversion and hunger in the southern region remained in the shadow. Throughout 2020, the government did not adopt any sustained measure to protect the pastoralist communities from further land diversion nor make reparations to the communities impacted by the land seizure in Huíla and Cunene provinces.

“How can they occupy the Tunda? Tunda belongs to many people; it belongs to the Mukubai; to the Mahakavona; to those who come from Ombwa; to those who come from Teka… This place belongs to all of us”

Pastoralist in Huíla province, November 2020

New attempts of irregular occupation of communal land

In 2020, the pastoralist communities experienced a few attempts of irregular occupation of their communal grazing land. For instance, a commercial farmer in the Huíla province allegedly forced representatives of a community to sign a document whose content was unknown to them. According to local pastoralist testimonies, one known commercial farmer, with the assistance of his employees, physically forced the community representatives to put their fingerprints on the said document while threatening them with violence. To this date, the community representatives say they have not been informed about the content of the signed document. Local reports say that the document was a land concession which the commercial farmer might use in Court to legalize his illegal land occupation. The community members, however, allege they were not officially notified of any land registration process.

As the government fails to demarcate rural communal lands and issue communal tittle deeds for occupation, possession and right of use, the pastoralist communities will remain vulnerable to irregular occupation of their communal lands and to physical and psychological harm.

“I asked: why should we sign this document? They said we should sign in order to clarify everything. Then he grabs my wrist and says, ‘sign!’ I told him I didn’t agree with what he was doing to me.”

Pastoralist in Huíla province, November 2020

Our culture is at risk

Southern Angola has a unique anthropological wealth. Ethnic groups, such as Bantu and pre-Bantu, have lived there for centuries. To illustrate this ethnic diversity, local NGOs detail that among the pre-Bantu there are different groups such as Khoi-San or !Xhu, Kwisi, Kwepe, Vatwa. Among the Bantu communities are the Vahelelo, which includes Kuvale, Hakavona, Tyavikwa, Vandzimba, Himba, and many other ethnic groups.

Older people in the traditional communities are considered living libraries and repositories of ancient and unique knowledge, values and principles. They are responsible for transmitting their wisdom and tradition to younger generations, including how to survive in the local climatic and geographic conditions.

Older people are increasingly threatened by the ongoing drought and diversion of their traditional land by the government for commercial farmers. Local NGOs report that the migration of youth and families to urban areas, and to Namibia, is causing the process of “human desertification” of the rural areas in southern Angola.  Older people and their ancient knowledge are left behind. Often unable to walk long distances to search for water or food, they are at risk of malnutrition.

Without older people, not only are the pastoralists left with fewer resources from which to draw on for their resilience, but the whole culture of the pastoralists is under threat of extinction. The continued omission and failure by the government of Angola to protect those traditional communities have thus contributed to this silent process of cultural extinction and “human desertification”.

“The occupation of communal lands fragmented the social fabric of the rural areas in our region, greatly weakened family cohesion and divided families. The strongest people who could actually produce (food) left.”

Pastoralist in Huíla province, November 2020

Government failures

While Angolan laws – including the Constitution, land law, and environmental law – protect rural communal lands, such as the Gambos communal grazing lands, as non-grantable lands, the government is failing in its duty. The diversion of communal grazing land for commercial livestock farming in the Gambos represents the government’s failure to uphold its own laws and international human rights obligations.

In failing to treat customary lands, such as Tunda dos Gambos and Vale de Chimbolela as non-grantable communal grazing lands, enabling commercial ranchers to occupy these lands, as well as in not providing any schemes to mitigate the impact of the commercial farming activities on the right to food, the Angolan government has failed in its national, regional and international obligations to take all necessary steps to protect the pastoralists’ right to food in the Gambos.

While Amnesty International acknowledges Angola’s commitment to combat climate change and protect its communities from its impacts, particularly most recently through Angola’s ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2020, submission of its nationally determined contribution (NDC) in May 2021 and the President’s visit to Cunene province in July 2021, Angola must adopt urgent and effective climate adaptation measures to improve the resilience of traditional communities in southern Angola who are undergoing the adverse effects of severe drought.

The living conditions among the pastoralists are becoming increasingly precarious and unbearable; the pastoralists’ rights to food, right to an adequate standard of living, access to livelihoods and the right to take part in cultural life through cultural preservation are greatly impacted. The devastating drought has worsened the family livelihood situation. As the crisis continues in the region, an increasing number of pastoralist families seek refuge in Namibia.

Take action

Urge Angolan authorities to protect the rights of pastoralist communities

In southern Angola, the food insecurity has been exacerbated by the prolonged drought. Pastoralist communities face hunger and a water crisis as the government fails to protect their rights. #DroughtinAngola