Changes rural society in Namibia and in use of marula (Sclerocarya birrea), an indigenous fruit tree: Political ecology of semi-natural vegetation

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Semi-artificial vegetation areas consisting of doum palms and marula (Sclerocarya birrea) indigenous fruit trees have been formed in rural societies in northern Namibia. The marula fruit contains a lot of sweet juice and is used by Ovambo agro-pastoralists for eating and brewing local liquor. This paper clarifies the changes in use of marula trees related to socio-economic changes in rural villages in Namibia, and examines the modern role of the marula tree. Then it considers the influence of recent changes in marula use on the semi-artificial vegetation. The data were obtained from fieldwork over 23 months (total) in a village in northern Namibia. Large socio-economic changes have taken place since independence in 1990, not only in urban areas but also in rural areas of Namibia. Before independence, the Republic of South Africa illegally governed Namibia and introduced an apartheid policy. The colonial government established local organization as 'traditional government' in the rural areas of northern Namibia, and they managed the usufruct of land and natural resources. Local people couldn't own those resources and could not inherit the usufruct. After the late 1980s, however, local people on their own constructed fences surrounding land that was allocated to them, and they can inherit the usufruct of land and natural resources. This initiative by the local people was caused by fact that the power of the 'traditional government' has been weakened with the construction of a new national administration and other destabilizing factors such as a land shortage. Another socio-economic change is the increasing economic disparity among households, with higher income employees working in urban areas after the repeal of apartheid. These people tend to invest money in livestock, so that the gap in livestock ownership has increased. Ovambo society traditionally involved reciprocal help among neighboring households, called esipa Iyothingo in the local language, meaning 'neck-born'. This conveys the idea that neighbors should help each other and that people should share milk and meat when livestock are slaughtered, which constitutes an important food source. However, livestock owners are mainly high-income households, and only a few wealthy people now make gifts of the products from their livestock, so the reciprocity has become weakened. Under such circumstances, the marula plays a role in maintaining and creating social relationships within the village through the process of production and consumption of marula liquor. Ovambo people frequently brew local marula liquor, through collective and reciprocal work, from February to April, which is called the 'season of marula', in which women from different households work together to squeeze the fruit in preparing the liquor. The reason for doing the work collectively is thought to be a continuation of the pre-independence custom of management and a way of mitigating arising disparities in the number of marula trees per household resulting from fence construction. In the process of consumption, villagers share with friends and relatives, and often make gifts of it. Some villagers now give marula liquor in return for collective work or in return for livestock products. Roles of marula use have changed with socio-economic changes in Ovarnbo society. The collective work for brewing marula liquor become more important as an opportunity for maintaining and creating social relationships because they haven't had other collective work in recent years. In addition to this, the marula liquor underpins the loose reciprocity of social relationships that have been weakened by the factors such as economic disparities and unequal opportunities to access natural resources in the village. These results show that the role of marula is different among households and this condition has emerged in relation to recent social changes within rural society. Subsequently, this condition influences the dynamics of semi-artificial vegetation. Thus, the perspective of political ecology is more significant for considering the recent change in relationship between people and vegetation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalJapanese Journal of Human Geography
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development


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