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How indigenous groups are fighting back against Amazon

The new South African Amazon HQ would destroy a sacred heritage site and create more pollution

By Caterina Fumero

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photos via Flickr

On January 19th 2022, two South African indigenous groups, the Khoi and the San, went to court to stop the construction of the new Amazon Headquarter on a site known as the River Club.

The main concerns with this project regard both the environment and the fact that Amazon would build on sacred land, which is currently on evaluation to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Nothing new so far, it is the umpteenth case of a powerful company that oversteps on local rights flouting potential environmental issues to try to turn a profit.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how nothing has changed, despite the public support of minorities in instances such as BLM protests. I mean, not that one would expect anything less from companies that have a reputation for exploitation of workers, racist workplaces and horrible working conditions.

And yet, Amazon still has the audacity of promoting itself as ’committed to diversity and inclusion and always looking for ways to minimise our impact as we grow‘. But let’s take a step back and see exactly what happened.

In April 2021, Amazon announced it would build a new headquarter in Cape Town, South Africa. The issues with this project are many. Representatives of the Khoi and the San, the earliest inhabitants of South Africa, claimed that the land Amazon is supposed to build on is sacred for their people. The site holds historical importance as it represents the first act of resistance of the native population against European settlers; in fact, in 1510 the Battle of Salt River was fought there, where the Portuguese forces lost and they were forced to retreat to the beach. There were no more encounters with Europeans for another 150 years until the Dutch got to South Africa when the Khoi and the San resisted settlers until they were dispossessed of the land.

So not only is the site sacred to the ancestors, but it is also historically significant for the Khoi and the San as it represents their struggle against colonialism.

To address these issues, though, the LLPT (Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust), the preferred bidder and site’s developer, were so kind as to come up with a plan. The deal is that they can destroy a sacred land but, in return, they will create a cultural and educational centre that would be dedicated to Khoi and San’s history.

Not only is the plan to completely ignore the natives’ voices, but it also completely disregards the environmental issues that this construction might cause. Many experts and environmentalists have stated that building on that site will damage the local environment. It threatens biodiversity because ’the green lung of the city‘ would be destroyed. Moreover, the locals would be at risk since the river’s capacity of absorbing water during storms and floods would be compromised. Trace Venter, spokesperson of the LLPT, replied to the affidavit written to address some of these issues by saying that its account was ’inadmissible or irrelevant’.

This same person commented on the natives’ concern regarding the sacredness of their land by declaring that it’s ’unfortunate that this small but vocal group of people who are unhappy that their opinions were validly dismissed by the competent authorities’.

When asked by several newspapers, Amazon always declined to comment.

Last but not least, through the construction of its headquarters, Amazon is actually fighting against the high rate of unemployment (around 34%), creating ’a significant boost to the Cape Town economy‘, as the mayor’s office claimed. The question is, what kind of jobs and working conditions is Amazon offering?

According to BBC News, Amazon’s warehouse jobs have one of the highest injury rates if compared to competitors.

If we want to analyse the so-called ’diverse and inclusive environment‘, it will come out that at the management level, there is a severe lack of representation of diversity.

Moreover, if this is not enough, an article by The Guardian linked Amazon’s warehouses in some US regions to negative health impacts for local communities.

As Tauriq Jenkins, High Commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, claimed in his interview with the eNCA: ’We need to ask the question who’s actually going to benefit from this development’.

Some components of the native communities were not against Bezos’ project, and the LLPT is clinging to these people to demonstrate that they are actually creating opportunities and jobs to help South Africa.

As Jenkins has declared in an interview with Africanews: ’Going onto someone's sacred terrain and building something on top of it, saying “we're going to offer employment in doing so” is a morose and sick form of arguing the notion of job development (…) You don't employ the descendants of the Khoi Khoi and San… to dig up their ancestors' grave’.

The construction has already started, but the court case of the Khoi and San people against LLPT might create some delays. According to IOL, an LLPT’s lawyer has told the court that, if a delay is officially granted, Amazon would pull out of the project.


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