NAMIBIA’s Veterinary Cordon Fence (VCF), also known as Redline, is an animal disease control mechanism that protects Namibia’s beef-exporting industry from animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease and lung disease.
Over the years, Namibia’s beef export industry has built a reputation as an industry committed to high standards. This has enabled Namibia to export meat to countries in the European Union and other countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), Norway and South Africa.
In 2020, Namibia became the first African country to export red meat to the United States (USA).
In the 2017/18 financial year, Namibia’s agricultural exports contributed N $ 5.77 billion to the Namibian economy.
Of that amount, N $ 3.4 billion came from beef exports, while the remainder came from exports of sheep and goats, charcoal, grapes and trophy hunting.
Clearly, beef exports play an important role in Namibian agriculture and tough disease control measures are critical to sustaining the Namibian beef export industry.
THE RED LINE
The history of the Redline, however, is a controversy that dates back to the early years of German colonial rule over Namibia.
In 1896, Namibia suffered a severe rinderpest (rinderpest) outbreak, which had devastating effects on cattle breeding. It is estimated that the Ovaherero communities lost up to half of their cattle herds by this time. German settlers, who at that time mainly lived in the central and southern part of Namibia, also suffered heavy losses.
In order to protect the German herds from future epidemics, a veterinary cordon fence was introduced in 1897, which resulted in Namibia being divided into a northern and a southern part. The fence became known as the redline because it was printed on cards in red ink.
The fence spans the central north of Namibia from the Atlantic to Botswana.
In German South West Africa, too, the redline soon became a political border.
The area south of the redline became known as the area inside the police zone, while the area north of the redline became known as the area outside the police zone.
This implied that the area inside the police zone was directly under the ruling control of the German colonial state, while the area outside the police zone was ruled indirectly through a system of appointed traditional authorities.
In fact, this border separated the Namibians living in the north from the white settlement areas in the south, although not all indigenous groups in South West Africa lived north of the police zone.
Under South Africa’s apartheid rule in Namibia, the redline served not only as a veterinary control, but also acted as a physical barrier restricting the movement of black Namibians north of the line to south of the line.
Over the years the fence has become an unwelcome reminder of Namibia’s colonial and apartheid past.
With Namibia’s independence in 1990 and the increase in beef exports to international markets since then, many Namibian herders have voiced their dissatisfaction with the continued existence of the redline, arguing that they are denying them the same economic opportunities as the herdsmen who live south of the country fence .
Recently, the redline has also become the focus of a legal challenge against the Namibian government.
The Mayor of Windhoek, who is the plaintiff on this matter, complains that the government’s rules and regulations for the veterinary barrier fence are not legally sanctioned, that they discriminate against a certain segment of the Namibian population and against both Article 8 and Article 10 violate the Namibian constitution, which protects the dignity and equality of all Namibians.
EFFORTS TO REMOVE THE REDLINE
The government is aware of the political, economic and legal challenges associated with the status of the redline and has held several discussions with stakeholders about its abolition since independence – mostly without success.
The main reason for this is that the import of animals and animal products from Namibia carries certain risks for the host country.
The introduction of animal diseases could have negative effects on the health of humans, animals and the environment in the host country.
Therefore, countries usually prefer to import animals and animal products from countries with a similar or better animal health status.
In addition, exports are negotiated on a bilateral level between exporters and importers, so that there is often no uniform set of rules for animal health issues.
Another problem affecting the northern regions of Namibia is the difficulty of controlling animal diseases on the Angolan border.
Although proposals to move the fence to the Angolan border have been considered in the past, it remains impractical due to the constant movement of family cattle across the Namibian-Angolan border.
Building a new fence at the border would also be very expensive.
To add to the complexity, Namibia continues to experience sporadic foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in its northern parish areas, meaning the beef export industry could be seriously at risk if the fence is not kept intact.
As at the state conference in 1991, the abolition of the redline was also one of the focal points of the discussion at the second state conference in 2018.
Resolutions of the 2018 conference included the establishment of a corporation to purchase livestock from the northern communal farmers to give them a route to markets beyond the veterinary barriers, renovation and upgrading of slaughterhouses in common areas to Class A slaughterhouses for meat to make the region suitable for export, and the procurement of the products of the northern municipal farmers through the public procurement system.
Although these decisions are all concrete proposals to help herders north of the Redline, it is unclear whether progress has been made in implementation since 2018.
THE WAY FORWARD
The Namibian government is playing a vital role in both eliminating the redline and protecting the Namibian meat export industry. It has a duty to adhere to the principles of the Namibian constitution and to remove the fence, which for many Namibians remains a symbol of the colonial and apartheid history of Namibia.
At the same time, however, the redline helps keep the cattle south of the fence disease free, which enables Namibia to export its meat and generate income for the country.
This protection is at the expense of the herdsmen north of the fence, who do not enjoy the same protection as their compatriots in the south because they cannot export their products in order to generate income.
The reality at the moment is that meat exports still play an important role in Namibia’s agricultural sector and must therefore continue to be protected by the government. Without the veterinary barriers, Namibia risks losing not only its international reputation as a world-class meat exporter, but also much-needed foreign currency to support the Namibian agricultural sector, which has seen a steady decline in investment and growth since independence.
Much time has been spent discussing the future of the Redline since independence, but little has been done to create real and equal opportunities for herders north of the Redline.
The resolutions of the 2018 land conference would be positive steps to improve the situation for herders north of the Redline.
However, a significant amount of commitment, coordination and investment in both capital and human resources is required to realize better opportunities for everyone in the Namibian agricultural sector.
– This column was created with the support of Bread for the World and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.