Car Recycling: an often-overlooked way to decrease your vehicle’s environmental impact

Contributed by Gabe Vargas, Masters student at University of California, San Diego 

For many in the Global North, our personal impact on the environment is inexorably connected to cars.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and everyday passenger cars account for a majority of the sector’s emissions. 

What you might not know, is that the environmental impact of cars doesn’t just come from driving them.  The industrial processes that bookend a car’s lifespan—its manufacture at the plant, and its disposal —have a disproportionate impact on the environment, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.  

While we can decrease our miles traveled along the margin, it will be a long time before the built environment in countries like the US renders cars unnecessary.  But, we can mitigate the impact of other sources of our cars’ pollution by recycling them.  

Why recycle cars? 

Automotive recycling has several key environmental benefits.  It diverts waste from landfills—importantly, both a large quantity of waste (10-12 million vehicles a year, according to Argonne National Laboratory, a leading institution researching car material recovery), and a disproportionate share of the hazardous waste that poisons our land and our communities’ water supplies.  It allows parts to be reused  further reducing environmental impact.  It also decreases the demand for mining, preventing significant environmental damage associated with resource extraction.  And it substantially decreases the carbon footprint associated with making new cars.  

According to SellMax in San Jose,  every year, car recyclers in the US and Canada produce sufficient steel to make 12,000,000 cars, recover parts that would have taken the energy equivalent of over 85,000,000 barrels of oil to replace, salvage 100,800,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel, 45,000,000 gallons of washer fluid, and 8,000,000 gallons of engine coolant.  That’s a lot of hazardous liquids that could have otherwise ended up in American watersheds. 

What can be saved? 

The Backbone: Iron and steel 

Iron and steel can be recovered from the cars’ frame—a significant fact, since these metals can make up over 60% of cars’ mass

By 2010, according to  Argonne National Laboratory, recovery of ferrous metals (iron and steel), from car recycling, constituted the largest source of scrap for the iron and steel industry.  Producing recycled steel uses 74 percent less energy than steel made from scratch (remember this energy would still come from burning fossil fuels).  

The Hidden Hazard: Tires 

Few symbols of decaying cars are more emblematic or familiar than a tire fire—after all, one has featured prominently in the opening sequence of the popular cartoon The Simpsons for decades.  And this fascination is somewhat justified—as a report by the municipal government of Lehigh County, PA summarizes, tire fires are incredibly dangerous They burn incredibly hot and produce toxic gases. , When put out with water, they leave behind a toxic slurry that contaminates groundwater and farmland. 

When not ablaze, abandoned tires still threaten public health.  When holding water, they provide habitats for mosquitos that carry West Nile Virus, Zika, and other diseases. 

Once recycled, tires have many uses. They can be made into new roads, clean-burning fuel to replace dirty oils, and incorporated into liners for garden beds. 

The Classic: Aluminum 

Few materials for recycling are as familiar to the everyday consumer as aluminum.  And there’s a reason that the image of tossing cans into blue bins has become so intimately linked with the process of recycling itself: aluminum recycling is one of the most efficient landfill-diverting processes.  

According to a 2010 literature review by Subodh Dasand their team from the technical publication Light Metal Age, the recycling process converts up to 99% of aluminum into usable products. (a far higher rate than many other materials—and it can be repeated almost indefinitely).  This results in less material entering landfills, and less aluminum being mined—which is extraordinarily important, given that aluminum mining largely occurs in destructive open pit mines. These mines devastate ecosystems, poison water sources for generations to come, and contribute to major human rights violations.   

Aluminum recycling also saves enormous amounts of energy.  According to the same review in Light Metal Age, recycling post-consumer aluminum saves up to 95% of the energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from mining, refining, and smelting aluminum by 95% as well.  This is even more important than it sounds, because, as the Environmental Protection Agency reports, aluminum smelting releases large quantities of incredibly strong, long-lived greenhouse gasses known as perfluorocarbons.  Each pound of these compounds released into the atmosphere  has the same impact as releasing 9,200 pounds of carbon dioxide—and will remain in the atmosphere for over 10,000 years. 

Aluminum was one of the first and most important metals to be recycled from cars.  As early as the 1980s, SAE International, a leading professional organization for engineers predicted that automotive recycling projects focused on reclaiming aluminum from car frames would come a critical means of “decreasing disposal problems” associated with environmental contamination from used cars while “lower[ing] demands on material resources” to produce new vehicles.   

Most aluminum in cars are now recycled, providing a significant boon to the environment. 


Other materials 

As noted in a 2006 journal article by  Muhamad Z. b. M. Sama and  Gordon N. Blount, many other materials can also be economically recycled from cars—including resins, foam, glass, copper, and rare earth metals in catalytic converters.  All of these require tremendous amounts of energy and pollution to produce, and are not biodegradable—that is, when placed in landfills, they will not decompose.  

Despite their polluting effect, we’ll have to keep living with cars for a while. But at least we can provide a future for our rivers and atmosphere with auto recycling until they are obsolete.

Repost: Enforcing Ecological Catastrophe at All Costs

By Andrea Brock

Original post accessible here.

Image: Dannenröder Forest occupation pictured in August 2020. Credit: Leonhard Lenz

After an activist is hospitalized in Germany following police action, Andrea Brock reflects on the criminalization of, and violence against, environmental defenders in Europe by state and private actors.

Read full blog

Repost: Eco-Social Steps to Resilience

Authors: Rosa Martínez Rodríguez and Yayo Herrero

Original article posted in Green European Journal, and available at this link.

As the world reels from the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, discussion turned to rebuilding Europe’s economy with the EU clinching a deal on a coronavirus recovery fund after marathon negotiations this July. In this interview, Rosa Martínez spoke to activist and anthropologist Yayo Herrero about how to approach reconstruction in an eco-social way. In forging societies that are resilient to shocks, whether caused by pandemics or climate change, the challenge will be breaking with capitalist logic to propose solutions that prioritise wellbeing while factoring in ecological limits.

Read full interview

From bombs to biodiversity: why we need a conceptual shift in security

By Cebuan Bliss

Photo credits: James Calalang

The Copenhagen School’s concept of securitisation is a response to their dissatisfaction with traditional, narrow definitions of military security which were prevalent during the Cold War. They argue for a broadening of the concept of security and established a new framework for analysis, one which considers issues of increasing prominence, including economic and societal security, and the environment (Buzan et al., 1998). Thus, it is a useful framework with which to comprehend the threat of biodiversity loss to human security.

Read full blog post

Biodiversity and the blind spot of nature conservation policy

By Esther Turnhout, Wageningen University

The IPBES Global Assessment has made clear that the causes of biodiversity loss are located outside of protected areas, yet this remains the focus of much of conservation policy. Addressing this blind spot is challenging, but necessary for effective and just biodiversity governance and nature conservation.

Read full essay

The Conservation Revolution: A Dialogue

Following the recent publication of our new book The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature beyond the Anthropocene, we have invited a range of readers to respond with their own thoughts on the book and the proposals it advances. These responses are collected below, under this blog post. If you would like to include your own response in this exchange please contact Bram or Rob.


Branding indigenous peoples in tourism and beyond

By Stasja Koot

Throughout the years, much has been written about the image of ‘indigenous’[1] peoples as ‘authentic’ people of nature (Garland and Gordon 1999, Carrier and West 2004, Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, Koot 2017a, Hüncke and Koot 2012, Gordon and Douglas 2000, Fennell 2008, Sylvain 2014, Butler and Hinch 2007, Carr, Ruhanen and Whitford 2016). This image is often presented as if these people are still living in tune with nature, while often they have become marginalised under colonialism and past and present processes of the spread of neoliberal capitalism, including the rise of global cultural or indigenous tourism. In today’s sustainability discourse, indigenous people are often characterised as the authentic ‘natural ecologists’ or the wise protectors of the land. As such, they can function as an example for non-indigenous people who can begin to live in harmony with nature just like them (Fennell 2008, Koot 2017b). In marketing campaigns, they are often ‘naturalised’ for tourist consumption and are shown in photographs, for example, in traditional dress with the local flora and fauna (Chambers 2000). And consumers, such as Western tourists, see the progress of modernity as a state that depends on modernity’s own inauthenticity, which creates the belief that authenticity is always elsewhere: in the past or in the ‘simpler’, ‘purer’ cultures far away (MacCannell 1976). Thus, driven by consumer culture, “the 21st century is an age that hungers for anything that feels authentic” (Banet-Weiser 2012, 3), and today, branding reflects and affects our cultural and social relations on a daily basis. Marketers acknowledge the power of authenticity as an essential aspect of branding. This is an area where we, ‘the inauthentic’, search for genuine affects, ideas, and emotions in our consumer culture (Banet-Weiser 2012).

Indigenous tourism, based on branding indigenous people, thus creates an important contradiction in which Western ideals about nature and the people living there are enacted through the free market, creating products based on the tourists’ consumptive needs. In this way, tourists spread ‘inauthentic’ capitalist values and the market system, instead of supporting authentic indigenous practices (Carrier and West 2004, Koot 2016). In fact, ethnic commodities are contradictory in the sense that, seen from the conventional assumptions about value and price, the appeal of such commodities lies in the idea that they resist the rationality of such ordinary economics.

The Bushman brand in tourism

One example of such ‘branded’ indigenous people are the Bushmen (or San)[2] of southern Africa. They are often still considered part and parcel of nature, an image that can be viewed in the wider context of romanticism about Africa. The tourist sector in southern Africa has typical branding strategies that tap into the image of a wild Africa and portray the continent as spectacular, thriving with wildlife, and sparsely populated by some western explorers and exotic people (Ellis 1994). To give just one example of a text by a tour operator: the Bushmen “have much to offer our modern ways of living in terms of a sustainable existence with nature” (NAAT 2019).

In my research over the years I have investigated the marketing of this touristic image and shown some of the Bushmen’s responses to such marketing. I found that their ‘authentic’ image itself has now become a financial asset in tourism and therefore can be considered a brand: the ‘Bushman brand’. In the end, a brand can be regarded as “a process of attaching an idea to a product” (Walker 2006), which is exactly what the Bushman image has turned into: a product with (romantic) ideas attached to it. Even broader, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a brand as “a particular identity or image regarded as an asset” (Oxford Dictionaries 2019). Seen as such, static representations of indigenous identities, based on the authentic image, are brands in today’s neoliberal political economy; in tourism especially, the Bushmen’s image is commodified within the free market system as a particular product with financial value, and as such can be regarded an asset based on the many ideas attached to it. However, in this process it is often assumed that Bushmen “do not participate in visual discourse, they are always represented as different and other: a silent minority who show no resistance to the identity which has been historically created for them” (Bester and Buntman 1999, 58). Although I do not deny power relations through branding (Koot 2016), to consider Bushmen a ‘silent minority who show no resistance’ does not do justice to reality. In fact, in many cases they have shown agency to engage with contemporary (tourism) projects, and with the Bushman brand, for their own benefit (Koot 2017a, Koot 2018).

Bushmen responses

Commodification does not necessarily mean that those who commodify their identities and/or image will always remain victims of market forces, although it might appear this way at first. Numerous examples show that indigenous groups set up their own entrepreneurial activities based on their authentic ethnicity. In this, there is a good level of tactical and critical consciousness (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). As such, various groups of Bushmen have shown to use the Bushman brand to their advantage. For example, the ≠Khomani Bushmen in South Africa have shown themselves in the media as the authentic people of the Northern Cape Province to successfully gain back land (see, e.g. Koot and Büscher 2019). Today, some of them perpetuate the usage of the Bushman brand, mostly in tourism. For example, the first thing that catches one’s eye when arriving in their reclaimed land are the craft makers along the road side where they sell souvenirs to tourists, dressed up ‘traditionally’ at their road stalls, or stalletjies in Afrikaans. However, commercial operators of course also benefit from this brand and throughout history more powerful parties have created this brand in the first place (Koot 2016). Commercialised usage of the brand is widespread and highly supported by consultants, private enterprises and NGOs[3], often promoted as a ‘competitive advantage’ in neoliberal development strategies. For example, the NGO the African Safari Lodge Foundation (ASLF) believes that the ≠Khomani need their “own brand identity” to be able to survive in today’s competitive tourism industry (ASLF 2011, 3), and a marketing company has supported the ≠Khomani in acquiring (free of charge) their own website ( Notably, the company supported the ≠Khomani in developing “their new identity” (FOTK 2015), although it remains unclear what exactly they mean by this. Becoming a ≠Khomani brand, it seems, means that the Bushmen are becoming part of the neoliberal capitalist system predominantly as a brand, and not as ‘authentic’ hunter-gatherers.

≠Khomani ‘stalletjies’ in the Northern Cape, South Africa

Further North, in the Namibian Nyae Nyae Conservancy, a Tourism Development Plan was developed by consultants to prepare for funding (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009). They wrote about the local Ju/’hoansi Bushmen as

universally known to be ancestors of “the world’s first people” and continue to live in harmony with the environment […] It is recommended that the above message be provided to visitors entering the area through the design and construction of regional gateway points (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009, 88).

This recommendation resembles an amusement park for tourists, something that was long ago already described by the famous Ju/’hoansi filmmaker and activist John Marshall as a “plastic Stone Age” (1984), in which tourists enter a geographical area where one can gaze at wildlife and ‘authentic’ Bushmen. Such commodification at times leads to uncomfortable situations, as an employee of an NGO that operates in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy explained:

Within the Conservancy [Ju/’hoansi] people think every tourist that comes, they should make money out of it. They’re starting to make their culture become like a whole business thing […] If anybody wants to take a picture it’s money, money, money, money.

And it is exactly this discomfort that demonstrates the contradiction described above: once Bushmen start to adapt to neoliberal capitalism and capitalise on their own brand, the values and ideas on which the brand is built make the people ‘inauthentic’. On the one hand, the capitalist value of profit maximisation is continually promoted in tourism, based on the economic idea that individuals want to gain financial benefits. On the other hand, this can ‘make their culture become like a whole business thing’ (‘inauthentic’), based on the idea that they should stay authentic and not hanker for money.

But just as with the ≠Khomani and their stalletjies, the Ju/’hoansi also want to benefit from the Bushman brand, as the self-made logo meant to attract tourists near the settlement of Mountain Post, inhabited by Ju/’hoansi, shows:

Self-made marketing by the Ju/’hoansi of Mountain Post, Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Namibia

The global indigenous brand beyond tourism

The idea that a particular group of indigenous people can be seen as a brand, or defines itself as a brand, is certainly not unique to the Bushmen of southern Africa or to tourism only. Recently, the Maasai of Kenya started a legal procedure to protect their ‘cultural heritage’ legally, which has been used by more than 1,000 companies, including Calvin Klein, Jaguar Land Rover, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, while a group of aboriginal Australians are struggling to create protocols that oblige companies who use their images or ancestral lands for marketing or other commercial purposes to pay a fee to them (Pilling 2018). And in the U.S., native Americans performing at Euro-Disney at a ‘Wild West Show’ do not view tourist performances as perpetuating the image of a ‘native savage’. Such performances can create a sense of taking back ownership of native representation through their participation, providing them a chance for cultural exchange, education, cultural pride, and accomplishment (Scarangella 2005).

Maasai imagery for branding Luis Vuitton clothing

In all these cases, the indigenous people have not only been exploited under colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, they have also actively responded to and tried to benefit from it. It seems as if indigenous people’s first response to the encroachment of the capitalist world is to selectively transform the usage of commodities for themselves. Therefore, they often have not merely entered the capitalist world economy as passive objects of exploitation; they are also active agents continually engaging in their environment (Sahlins 1992). If they embrace their image as people of nature, indigenous people can use their agency creatively; they commodify their own ‘spectacularisation’ as people of nature (cf. Igoe 2017). It is important to be wary though, that such agency and engagement are derived based on a conformation with dominant values in contemporary society and that they often do not have many other choices.


[1] I am aware of the contentious character of the term ‘indigenous’, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog to elaborate on this in detail.

[2] Both ‘Bushmen’ and ‘San’ are debatable terms. I prefer the use of ‘Bushmen’ instead of ‘San’, because most of the indigenous people whom I worked with in southern Africa—practical and as a researcher—told me they preferred this term. I am aware, however, of the colonial, patronising and derogatory connotations that the term ‘Bushmen’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘San’ too) can have (see, e.g. Gordon & Douglas 2000).

[3] For a debate on private sector-community tourism, the usage of the brand and the consequences of this usage in the South African Northern Cape Province, between myself and Keyan Tomaselli, please check out Koot (2016), Tomaselli (2017) and Koot (2017c).

ASLF. 2011. Khomani San, Northern Cape. African Safari Lodge Foundation (Newsletter). 3-4.

Banet-Weiser, S. 2012. AuthenticTM: The politics of ambivalence in a brand culture. New York: NYU Press.

Bester, R. & B. Buntman (1999) Bushman(ia) and photographic intervention. African Arts, 32, 50-59 + 93-94.

Butler, R. & T. Hinch. 2007. Introduction: Revisiting common ground. In Tourism and indigenous peoples: Issues and implications, 1-12. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Carr, A., L. Ruhanen & M. Whitford (2016) Indigenous peoples and tourism: the challenges and opportunities for sustainable tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24, 1067-1079.

Carrier, J. & P. West (2004) Ecotourism and authenticity: Getting Away from It All? Current anthropology, 45, 483-498.

Chambers, E. 2000. Native tours: the anthropology of travel and tourism. Illinois: Waveland Press.

Comaroff, J. L. & J. Comaroff. 2009. Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ellis, S. (1994) Of elephants and men: politics and nature conservation in South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, 53-69.

Fennell, D. A. (2008) Ecotourism and the myth of indigenous stewardship. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16, 129-149.

FOTK. 2015. Friends of the Khomani San,, retrieved 21 August 2015.

Garland, E. & R. J. Gordon (1999) The Authentic (In)Authentic: Bushman Anthro‐Tourism. Visual Anthropology, 12, 267-287.

Gordon, R. J. & S. S. Douglas. 2000. The Bushman myth: the making of a Namibian underclass. Boulder: Westview Press.

Humphrey, E. & T. Wassenaar. 2009. Tourism development plan: Nyae Nyae & N≠a-Jaqna Conservancies. Windhoek: Yetu Consulting Services and African Wilderness Restoration.

Hüncke, A. & S. Koot (2012) The presentation of Bushmen in cultural tourism: tourists’ images of Bushmen and the tourism provider’s presentation of (Hai//om) Bushmen at Treesleeper Camp, Namibia. Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies, 26, 671-689.

Igoe, J. 2017. The Nature of Spectacle: On Images, Money, and Conserving Capitalism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Koot, S. (2016) Contradictions of Capitalism in the Kalahari: Indigenous Bushmen, their Brand and Baasskap in Tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28, 1211-1226.

—. 2017a. Cultural ecotourism as an indigenous modernity: Namibian Bushmen and two contradictions of capitalism. In Handbook of Environmental Anthropology, eds. H. Kopnina & E. Shoreman-Ouimet, 315-326. New York: Routledge.

— (2017b) Old Wine in a New Bottle: Seeking Sustainability among the Earth Keepers. Current anthropology, 58, 685-686.

— (2017c) Poor picking: A response to Tomaselli and a plea for critical research in a neo-liberal times. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1197-1200.

— (2018) The Bushman Brand in Southern African Tourism: An Indigenous Modernity in a Neoliberal Political Economy. Senri Ethnological Studies, 99, 231-250.

Koot, S. & B. Büscher (2019) Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 45, 357-374.

MacCannell, D. 1976. The tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Marshall, J. (1984) Death blow to the Bushmen. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 8, 13-16.

NAAT. 2019. Nomad Africa Adventure Tours: Bushmen – San People,, retrieved 4 September 2019.

Oxford Dictionaries. 2019. Oxford Dictionaries,, retrieved 4 September 2019.

Pilling, D. 2018. Warrior Tribe Enlists Lawyers in Battle for Maasai ‘Brand’. Financial Times 19 January.

Sahlins, M. (1992) The economics of develop-man in the Pacific. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 12-25.

Scarangella, L. (2005) Fieldwork at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Anthropology News, 46, 17-19.

Sylvain, R. (2014) Essentialism and the Indigenous Politics of Recognition in Southern Africa. American Anthropologist, 116, 251-264.

Tomaselli, K. (2017) Picking on the poor: The contradictions of theory and neoliberal critique. A response to Stasja Koot’s paper on the contradictions of capitalism for indigenous tourism in the South African Kalahari. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1182-1196.

Walker, R. 2006. The Brand Underground. New York Times 30 July.

Land matters in contemporary southern Africa

Authors: Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock

A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).

The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.

Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?

So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.

A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).

Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas

Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).

Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).

Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).

The recent (part) special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2), for which we have been guest editors, addresses the above issues in more detail. The editorial ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’ (Koot, Hitchcock and Gressier, 2019) introduces the above topics and some of the case studies mentioned in this blog. It is clear that land remains politically highly sensitive in southern Africa, and the questions of who belongs to the land, and how this belonging is articulated, seems to be more relevant than ever.


Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Du Plessis, E. ‘AfriForum’s Own Farm Murder Stats Don’t Support Their Claims’, News24, 7 May 2018, available at, retrieved 21 July 2019.

Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).

McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).

Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.

Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.

Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111

Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55

Namibian Sun, ‘Shifeta Fights for San Rights’, Windhoek, 26 September 2016, available at, retrieved 21 July 2019

Njwambe, A., Cocks, M. and Vetter, S., ‘Ekhayeni: Rural-Urban Migration, Belonging and Landscapes of Home in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Nkosi, M. ‘Is South Africa’s Land Reform an Election Gimmick?’, BBC News, London, 11 August 2018, available at, retrieved 20 August 2018.

Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.

Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).