PAFURI, SOUTH AFRICA — PAFURI, South Africa - If Thomas Ndobe, the receptionist at the new Outpost Lodge in Kruger National Park, appears excessively proud showing off the view from this hilltop luxury resort, it's understandable.
Everything the eye can take in from this height - the baobab tree-topped hills, the crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the slow-moving Levuvhu River, and the elephants ambling through the forests - is the property of his tribe, the Makuleke.
"We are at home," Ndobe says.
That's something the Makuleke could not always say.
In 1969, South Africa's apartheid government, looking to expand the then-white playground of Kruger Park, evicted the Makuleke from the land where they had lived - fishing, farming and hunting for more than 200 years - and resettled them outside the park.
Now the Makuleke are back - not to live, but to develop the 60,000-acre expanse into a conservation-minded safari retreat that will preserve the land while creating jobs and prosperity for their poor tribe.
What the Makuleke (pronounced Ma-koo-LAY-kay) achieved here is remarkable. In Africa, the needs of conservationists and the needs of the local populations are frequently at odds. In the name of conservation, dozens of communities have been evicted or overlooked to create parklands in Africa. Little has been done to correct these injustices.
The Makuleke's agreement with Kruger Park is being hailed as model for other poor people who were forcibly removed from their homes to create conservation land. Their story is being studied closely at the World Parks Congress in South Africa, which ends this week. It is the world's largest conservation event bringing together representatives from 170 countries. During the once-a-decade meeting, conservationists and government leaders will discuss not only threats to the earth's protected areas, but also to the people who live in or next to them.
"In less than 150 years, we have created an outstanding legacy of 12 percent of our terrestrial surface under protected areas, but also a number of challenges," said Yolanda Kakabadse, president of the World Conservation Union at the opening of the meeting last week. "Too often, protected areas have alienated people, too many exist as only a line on a map or are encroached for resource exploitation."
"Tourist dollars have often by-passed the people living within and around the protected areas that serve to attract tourist visitation," Kenton Miller, chairman of the congress' international steering committee, said during a speech last week. "While local indigenous peoples may find themselves cut off from places of spiritual value, tour companies gain profits by taking visitors to those same sites."
But finding common ground between parks and local communities is often difficult.
For years, the Makuleke viewed Kruger Park as an enemy. Memories of the apartheid government's decision in 1969 to evict them from their land were fresh in their minds. Retelling the story today still brings tears to the eyes of those who lived through it.
When the government ordered them to move, the Makuleke refused. So one September morning, the South African police force rumbled into the Makuleke villages with a fleet of trucks and loaded 3,000 people on board at gunpoint. Before driving the tribe 30 miles outside the park, the police ordered them to set fire to their homes.
"They gave us the matches," recalls Thahlela Joas Makuleke, chief of the Tsonga-speaking tribe.
After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, the Makuleke used a new law that made it possible for South Africans to reclaim land seized by the apartheid government to recover their property.
Many of the 54,000 land claims registered in South Africa involve conservation land, creating a challenge for the government in striking a balance between redressing apartheid's wrongs and preserving valuable conservation areas. More than 30 groups in South Africa are fighting to reclaim land in conservation areas, about a dozen of those claims in Kruger Park.
In 1998, the Makuleke and Kruger Park officials reached a groundbreaking agreement, returning the land to the Makuleke while keeping it as part of the national park, which is about the size of New Jersey.
This year the Makuleke entered a partnership with developers to create three exclusive lodges on the property similar to the newly opened Outpost, where a one-night stay costs $400 per person. Together, the four lodges will create more than 100 jobs for members of the tribe and pump an estimated $270,000 a year in royalties into the community. After 20 to 30 years, the keys to the lodges will be handed over from the management companies to the tribe to run on its own.
The agreement also allows the Makuleke to sell licenses to hunt elephants and buffalo on their land. (Big-game hunters pay $33,000 each to track down an elephant.) But tribal officials say they will limit hunting licenses this year because it might dissuade tourists from staying at the lodges.
These ambitious tourist plans did not win the support of many tribal elders, who wanted to return to their old villages.
"The people who lived there loved the land from their hearts, and they would love to go back and resettle," says Livingstone Maluleke, a member of the tribe who led the fight for the land to be reclaimed.
But returning to the land was not an option, Maluleke says, because there is little left of their old lives. All that remains of their villages are a few concrete foundations, fence posts and broken bottles.
There are no schools, electricity or running water. On a recent morning, fresh elephant tracks were visible on the land where the chief's house once stood. Nearby there is an enormous baobab tree where the Makuleke once gathered for village meetings and trials. At the base of its thick trunk someone years ago had carved into the bark the name "Makuleke."
"This is where you would testify before elders. If you did something wrong, they would charge you here and fine you maybe a goat. If you didn't have a goat, you would be chained here," said Stanley Maluleke, secretary of the Makuleke royal family.
Today, tribal meetings are held under a fig tree or in a community hall in Ntlaveni, the village created after their removal in 1969. About 15,000 members of the Makuleke tribe live there in simple conical huts set along crooked dirt roads just outside the entrance to Kruger Park. Unemployment is about 50 percent in the village. Barefoot children chase after visitors, begging for change.
Improvements are coming, if slowly. There is a new school, and the tribe is using some of the money it received from its land claim settlement with the park to supply its people with electricity and build classrooms. For the first time, young people here are thinking twice about moving to Johannesburg in search of work, as most rural job-seekers do. Instead, they are choosing to stay in hopes of finding a job on their tribal land.
It seems, says Livingston Maluleke, that much more than the land has been restored to members of the tribe. They have also recovered their pride.
"It is a real pride, a pride that we will never forget. It adds value to the lives of the Makuleke community," he says.