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Future Pasts and a new research project on Etosha-Kunene histories in Namibia

Updated: Mar 10


The Future Pasts project has contributed to a new research grant – one of 19 from more than 170 applications submitted in February 2019 to a new bilateral Humanities funding initiative of Research Councils in the UK and Germany.


The new cross-disciplinary humanities project is called Historicising Natures, Cultures and Laws in the Etosha-Kunene Conservation Territories of Namibia. It is built around international collaborations developed between Bath Spa University, the University of Cologne and the University of Namibia, and has been supported the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) NGO in Namibia. All three of the project researchers – myself, Ute Dieckmann and Selma Lendelvo – are authors of chapters in "Neither Here Nor There": Indigeneity, Marginalisation and Land Rights in Post-Independence Namibia published in 2020 by the LAC's Land, Environment and Development Project.


Our project proposes a multivocal and historical analysis that contributes new thinking on colonialism, indigeneity and ‘natural history’. As clarified in the Project Summary below, our aim is to support laws and praxis in biodiversity conservation to more fully recognise the diversity of pasts, cultures and natures constituting this internationally-valued region.


The project responds in particular to two UN Sustainable Development Goals. SDG15 aims to ‘ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems’ (SDG15.1), in part through protecting globally agreed ‘key biodiversity areas (KBAs)’ – including Etosha National Park and Hobatere in Namibia’s Kunene Region. SDG10 aims for equitable development and reduced inequalities alongside political inclusion irrespective of differences such as sex and ethnicity (SDG10.2).

The shifting boundaries of Game Reserve No. 2 / ENP, 1907–1970 (Source: Dieckmann, U. 2007 Hai||om in the Etosha Region: A History of Colonial Settlement, Ethnicity and Nature Conservation. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, p. 76, reproduced with permission).

The project builds on my prior research in Namibia, most recently through the AHRC-funded project Future Pasts (showcased recently on the AHRC Priority Heritage Blog). The new AHRC-DFG award commits 60% of my time to the project from February 2020 to January 2023. It also pays 100% of the salary costs for one day a week by Co-Investigator Dr Selma Lendelvo at the University of Namibia. Dr Lendelvo visited BSU in July 2019 as a visiting scholar of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts (GALA) and gave a lively seminar on conservancies and conservation policy in Namibia.


Sian Sullivan and Selma Lendelvo during Dr Lendelvo’s visit to Bath Spa University in July 2019.

The partnering Principal Investigator at the University of Cologne is anthropologist Dr Ute Dieckmann, with whom I collaborated recently through a conference panel on ‘Cultural Maps and Hunter-Gatherers’ Being-in-the-World’ at the 12th Conference on Hunter-Gatherer Societies. Together with Welhemina Suro Ganuses, my long-term local collaborator in Namibia, I am currently completing a book chapter entitled 'Densities of meaning in west Namibian landscapes: genealogies, ancestral agencies, and healing' for a volume edited by Ute called Mapping the Ummappable? Cartographic Explorations with Indigenous Peoples in Africa.


Dr Ute Dieckmann presenting her collaborative cultural mapping project for Etosha National Park (Namibia) at the 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, Penang, Malaysia.

Professor John Strachan, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Bath Spa University, has kindly written that:

“Professor Sullivan’s cross-disciplinary project foregrounds the true value of collaboration across political and geographical boundaries, connecting past and present and placing people and the environment at its heart. In line with the combined UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the German Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft initiative, the project highlights the need to continue transnational collaborative research with partners in Europe and around the world. It is through a truly global approach that much of the best research is realised.”

Professor Ian Gadd, Academic Director of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts (GALA), says of the project’s connections with the GALA network that:

“Thanks to Professor Sullivan’s longstanding research ties with Namibia, Bath Spa University has been able to establish strong institutional links with the University of Namibia. Most recently, the University of Namibia joined the Global Academy of Liberal Arts (GALA), which was founded by Bath Spa in 2014. GALA is an international community of diverse, innovative, and socially responsible universities and colleges whose aims are to transform lives and to enhance global understanding through interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching and research. Professor Sullivan’s new AHRC-DFG research project is exactly the kind of vital and important research that GALA is keen to facilitate and support.”

Public Lecture

I will be speaking about my research in a public lecture at the Holburne Museum in Bath at 6.15pm on 25th March.



Project Title and Summary:

Historicising Natures, Cultures and Laws in the Etosha-Kunene Conservation Territories of Namibia: From Deutsch Südwestafrika’s “Game Reserve No. 2” to “Kunene People’s Park”?

How can conservation of biodiversity-rich landscapes come to terms with the past [Vergangenheitsbewältigung], given historical contexts of extreme social exclusion and marginalisation?


How can key biodiversity areas whose global value rests on ahistorical ideas of Nature resist an uncritical presentism, to be better understood as entangled with diverse human histories and values?


How can conservation policy and practice recognise deep cultural and linguistic differences around ‘the nature of nature’?


Our research responds to these questions through a cross-disciplinary humanities programme analysing dynamic dimensions of conservation territories in and beyond the Kunene Region of the former German colony that is now Namibia. Etosha National Park and neighbouring beyond-Etosha conservation designations are home to diverse indigenous and marginalised peoples. Our research team of three women academics in Germany, the UK and Namibia has a combined 50+ years of ethnographic, archival, oral history and livelihoods enquiry in Etosha-Kunene.


We propose a new collaborative three-year programme of six intersecting work packages (WPs):


WP1 on Historicising Socio-ecological Policy in Etosha-Kunene offers a detailed discourse analysis and history of public conservation policy affecting natures and peoples associated with the region, interrogating shifting influences, interests and governance technologies;


WP2 on Comparative Indigenous Perspectives assembles our long-term research in the region into a new comparative analysis of indigenous Khoe, San and Himba-Herero understandings of natures-beyond-the-human, drawing on current theories in the anthropology of nature;


WP3 on Making Identity and Indigeneity in Etosha-Kunene explores how indigenous identities are made, focusing especially on how distinct and intersecting ‘Khoe’ and ‘San’ identities have been present(ed) in ethnographic, linguistic, conservation and legal discourse;


WP4 on Spatialising Coloniality in Etosha-Kunene (re)traces the thought and practices of selected colonial European actors from the mid-1800s, bringing their written narratives into conversation with indigenous interlocutors inhabiting the same places and spaces (see WP2);


WP5 on Collecting, Curating and Returning Etosha-Kunene Natures investigates how the natures of Etosha-Kunene have been both represented and shaped by natural history collections of specimen-artefacts assembled by the European actors we study in WP4;


WP6 focuses on public engagements, via a mobile exhibition, a website, a series of workshops and filmed documentations to share and further explore issues arising in WPs 1-5.


In sum, we offer a multivocal and radically historicised analysis of Etosha-Kunene that contributes new thinking on coloniality, indigeneity and ‘natural history’. Our aim is to support conservation laws and praxis to more fully recognise the diversity of pasts, cultures and natures constituting this internationally-valued region.


Boundaries of current tourism concessions, surrounding communal area conservancies and state protected areas in southern Kunene Region, west Namibia. Source: Jeff Muntifering, 2 October 2019.



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© 2015-2019 by Future Pasts. Background image: grassland, Erongo Region, west Namibia, April 2008.