Angola’s disappearing livelihoods for pastoralists in the Gambos

By Camile Cortez and David Matsinhe, Amnesty International Southern Africa

The Gambos municipality, or “the cattle paradise” as it is commonly known, in southern Angola, is home to a large community of pastoralists. For centuries, people here have been reliant on the common grazing land to feed their cattle and produce their own food. Access to sufficient and good quality grazing land is essential for the pastoralists to ensure the good health of their cattle and a steady and sufficient supply of milk for local consumption.

The 3928km2 of grazing land in this area was all theirs to graze their cattle until the arrival of commercial ranchers. Beginning with around two decades ago, the Angolan authorities have diverted 67% of this land for commercial ranches leaving local pastoralists with only 33% of the land. The fact that the Gambos is now facing a devastating drought and the shrinking of grazing land for the pastoralists does not help the situation.

As the catastrophic effects of climate change become increasingly apparent across the world, the now-scorched dry earth in parts of southern Angola has been devastating the lives of pastoralists and their cattle for at least four years. According to the local communities, every year drought in southern Angola has been increasing, spelling disaster for their livelihoods. Beyond the Gambos which is located in the Huila province, in Cunene and Namibe provinces, pastoralist families depend on subsistence farming and livestock as well for daily survival. Where both cattle rearing and agriculture are largely rain dependent, a drought can have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of communities in the region. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 2.3 million people are affected by the drought in southern Angola, and are now facing food insecurity and a nutritional crisis.

During our recent visit in March 2019, we found people in the Gambos municipality of the Huíla province suffering due to the water and food crisis. Meanwhile, Angola’s President João Lourenço was telling the Portuguese Broadcasting Corporation, RTP in an interview broadcast earlier this year that ‘it cannot be said that there is hunger in Angola’.

The president’s declaration was contrary to the reality on the ground — we saw both people and their cattle having to make do with very limited food and water. We saw a mother, who would have otherwise been engaged in farming, desperately collecting firewood to sell to raise funds to buy food for her children. We saw a father, despairing as he was unable to provide for his family due to the impact of the drought on cattle-rearing.

Of the more than 2.3 million people that UNICEF cited as facing food insecurity in southern Angola, nearly 500,000 were children under the age of five. We saw how, in desperation, families were resorting to desperate methods to stay alive; eating one meal a day, or eating wild leaves and fruits which, according to them, also caused diarrhea among children. The UN estimates that 70 and 80 percent of the population in Huíla and Cunene provinces are facing worrying levels of malnutrition.

This drought has impacted other areas of life as well. There have been widespread school dropouts in Cunene, Huila and Namibe provinces. According to UNICEF, in Cunene province alone, the drought has forced 614 out of 887 primary schools — nearly 70 percent — to temporarily suspend classes, leaving approximately 150,000 children without access to education.

In the Gambos we met women like Kakalelo, who no longer allow their children to go to school fearing they might faint during their walkthere and never return. Kakalelo, and the women in her family, just like many in the region, have seen their workloads increase as they search for alternative sources of food and income, in addition to their regular domestic responsibilities.

The drought has also driven families to abandon their homes in search of water and greener pastures to ensure their own, and their cattle’s, survival. On 18 March, a group of 87 starving people from the Mucubais ethnic group, arrived in the town of Chiange, the seat of the Gambos municipality government, in Huíla province. They had walked 44 kilometres, a journey that took them three days.

According to the local community testimonies, of the 87 people, 79 were women and children who had come from Fimo and Tyitongotongo villages, southwest of Gambos. In their testimonies, they said that back in the villages they had left their elderly who, because of old age, hunger and weakness, could not come along. Government officials in Chiange, told them there they were not able to provide any support. The Chiange’s communities provided them with some food before their return to their villages.

Government response

The situation of the communities in those provinces, especially in the rural areas, is critical, deteriorating and shows no signs of improvement. On 29 May 2019, UNICEF released its first report exposing the alarming number of people facing food insecurity and nutrition crisis in Southern Angola. The Angolan Government then changed its narrative and has declared the “adoption of urgent measures” to help the communities to cope with the food and water crisis. The Government also declared the implementation of long-term measures to increase communities’ resilience to drought as priority. These measures are still to arrive in Huila, our sources told us.

In May 2019, the United Nations estimated that about $14.25 million USD is needed to address the emergency situation in southern Angola. The UN currently only has $6.4 million USD — around 45% of the estimated needs.

Southern Angola is dry and experiences low rainfall. As a result, cyclical droughts are typical in this region, and the current drought certainly does not come as a surprise. But this makes the authorities lack of planning — and action — even more shocking. Unless drastic and urgent measures are taken, the situation will continue to deteriorate until the rains arrive, if they do, at the end of October.

The government and the international community in this regard must ensure that people’s lives are saved. Food and water must be provided to these communities. And going forward, strategies must be put in place to protect people’s rights to food, water and life. Only by providing effective long-term support will their vulnerability to future droughts and famine be reduced.

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