Bushmen Driven From Ancestral Lands in Botswana

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2003
Few are left of the many San who once roamed southern Africa, for a period believed to go back at least 20,000 years. Their sad fate has recently been brought starkly to mind by a furore that has erupted over the removal of two small remaining communities from Botswana's sprawling Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

San, or Bushmen, are collectively known as Basarwa in Botswana. The two affected tribes, which at last government count in 2001 came to 1,645 individuals, are called the Gana and the Gwi.

The Botswana government's explanation for moving them is that it wishes to ensure the park's integrity as a nature reserve, and that it wishes to integrate the San into the country's social and economic life.

The removals started in 1997, and most of the community has since been relocated to settlements outside the park. In exchange for their traditional hunting-gathering existence, the Botswana government says they have been granted title deeds to the land apportioned to them, and they have been given goats and cattle.

An extensive explanatory document from the Botswana government says the uprooted San are provided with schools, water supplies, and health services. A fund has been set up to provide them with training and start-up facilities for small-scale enterprises. The intention, the government says, is to bring their standard of living "up to the level obtaining in the rest of the country as well as to avoid land-use conflicts in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, such as allowing permanent settlement, growing of crops and rearing of livestock inside the reserve which is not compatible with preserving wildlife resources."

The government said it wanted to integrate the communities into "the mainstream society without any detriment to their unique culture and tradition".

Strident Opposition

But the Botswana action has drawn strident opposition from Survival International, a UK-based organization supporting tribal communities and their rights to their land and to decide their own future. Survival says all the government's actions have made clear its contempt for the San and its tendency to regard them as inferior. It quotes a San woman as having told the organization: "They treat us like this because of our race. The government knows we are very small people and there is no way we can cry for help."

Survival has organized petitions in several parts of the world against the removal of the San and handed these to Botswana's embassies in the United States, Japan, Europe and Africa.

The San relocation case has featured in newspapers and on BBC television.

In a report released in August last year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the dispossession of their land and prejudicial actions against the San.

There have been several court actions. One such case opposing their exclusion from the park has misfired. Now a second, brought in the name of a few San steadfastly refusing to move out of the park, is headed for Botswana's high court.

Another court case, brought by the state against 13 San accused of exceeding hunting quotas, has been withdrawn.

Diamond Prospecting

At the center of the dispute is the question whether the San are being moved from their ancestral land for purposes not of restoring the park's integrity as a nature reserve but rather to clear the way for diamond-prospecting companies.

The accusation has drawn a furious reaction, with a warning of legal action from De Beers, one of the diamond companies which has been involved in prospecting in the area.

The Survival International campaign has involved a publicity stunt in which a De Beers advertisement outside its new flagship store in London featuring super model Imam was pasted over with a picture of a San woman and the slogan: "Bushmen aren't forever."

In answer to the De Beers threat, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said: "Survival has been threatened many times by companies and governments which put profits before tribal peoples' rights. However, we have not the slightest intention of betraying the responsibility which, for many years, so many Gana an Gwi Bushmen have asked us to shoulder.

"The Bushmen have asked us to help them get their ancestral land back, and the campaign will now be stepped up until they are back living on it without fear of further harassment." The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank based in Washington, D.C., has also been drawn into the issue with accusations from Survival International that it funded diamond exploration in the park without consulting indigenous communities about the project.

Survival International has produced government maps on its Web site which it says are evidence of how the game reserve has been divided into concessions for mining companies.

But the Botswana government has strenuously denied that diamond concessions are the reason for the San's removal. It says exploration for minerals in the park began in the 1960s, but the only kimberlite (volcanic pipes often bearing diamonds) discovered was found to be not commercially viable.

Botswana President Festus Mogae has said: "There is neither any actual mining nor any plan for future mining inside the reserve."

The Botswana government has issued a statement that gives the assurance that "there is no mining or any plans for future mining anywhere inside the CKGR."

Destruction of Water Pump

Survival International accuses the Botswana authorities of harassment of the San, saying they have been "tortured, beaten up or arrested for supposedly over-hunting, or hunting without correct licenses." It charges that the harassment intensified last year, with the destruction of the Bushmen's water pump in the park and the draining of their existing water supplies into the desert, as well as the banning of hunting and gathering.

Corry said: "The Gana and the Gwi are amongst the last Bushmen who depend on hunting. Unless the Botswana government allows them back on their land and lifts the hunting ban, they will be responsible for the destruction of the Gana and the Gwi as peoples."

The Botswana government's statement says: "At no stage during the relocation exercise did government or its public officers involved in the relocation use force, coerce people residing in the game reserve, or threaten any of them in any way. The emphasis has always been persuasion and voluntary relocation."

In answer to the accusation of destroying the San's water pump and draining their water reserves, it says the few people remaining in the park made the provision of services unsustainable and unaffordable and these were therefore terminated.

The government said that many San had been "engaged in income-generating projects which enable them to live sustainable and self-reliant livelihoods, and not perpetually to depend on government handouts."

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