Botswana. Bushmen: in search of the lost land.

Ten years after a historic verdict, which, in theory, allowed the Bushmen of the Kalahari reserve to return to their land and to their ancestral life-style, the Botswana government continues to put prohibited measures in place in order to stop them from doing so.

 The African sunlight is intense and the old hunter squints to see the slight traces left by the animal he is chasing in the desert. Small signs of footprints on dry land, split branches of  bushes … small tracks, which little experienced eyes might miss, but which are essential to the hunter to find his prey.

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As his ancestors did a long time ago, the hunter knows that there is animal and plant life in the desert and even water. He is a Bushman, and this desert, the Kalahari, is his home. He is following the trails of an eland, the world’s largest antelope. A long time ago he would have got prepared to nock a poisoned arrow on to the bowstring, but today hunting is prohibited in the Kalahari reserve.

Ten years after the  sentence

 Ten years ago last December, the San people also called Bushmen, forced out of the Kalahari desert by Botswana’s government, won a landmark legal victory as the country’s high court ruled they had been illegally removed and should be allowed to return to their land. A sentence that gave hope to these people living in the Kalahari, a 50,000 square km National Park created in 1961 to protect the wildlife as well as the 5,000 Bushmen who depended on it. In the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the reserve.
Soon after, government ministers went into the reserve to tell the Bushmen living there that they would have to leave.

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Basically all the Bushmen were forced out and, between 1997 and 2005, moved to government-built resettlement camps on the border of the reserve, where, according to authorities, they would get better health and school services. The Gaborone government also said the restriction of people on the land was intended to preserve the wildlife and the ecosystems of the vast reserve. The Bushmen were banned from hunting and they were introduced to lives of boredom, depression, alcoholism or diseases such as AIDS. These hunter-gatherer people were cut off from everything that had meaning for them, all their indicators of happiness plummeted.

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The ancestral lands of the bushmen lie in the middle of the world’s richest diamond field and they believe they were relocated to make way for a multimillion dollar mining project.
In 2002, a group of 374 Bushmen led by Roy Sesana filed a lawsuit against the Government. Although the Bushmen are Botswana’s poorest citizens, the case became the longest and most expensive in the country’s history. Four years later, on 13 December 2006 the Bushmen won an historic victory. The judges ruled that their eviction by the government was ‘unlawful and unconstitutional’, and that they have the right to live inside the reserve, on their ancestral land. The Supreme Court also ruled that the Bushmen have the right to hunt and gather in the reserve, and should not have to apply for permits to enter it. Although the government quickly announced that it would not appeal the judgment, since then it has done everything it could to obstruct it, including cementing over their water boreholes, in order to make the Bushmen’s return impossible. They had to use rain water, and eat the melons that grew in the desert to survive. But the most shameful matter was that, while the government was preventing the Bushmen’s access to water by capping their boreholes and by banning them from drilling more, it gave permission for the digging of new water wells for the exclusive use of wild animals and allowed Wilderness Safaris, a private company,  to build the luxury Kalahari Plains Camp.

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NGOs such as Survival and the UN itself, have denounced the abuses suffered by the  Kalahari Bushmen in Botswana. Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, argued that ‘the denial of services to those who live in the reserve at present does not appear to be in keeping with the spirit and underlying logic of the (High Court) decision, nor with the relevant international human rights standards’.
Mr. Anaya also recommended in his report that, ‘the government should reactivate the boreholes or otherwise secure access to water for inhabitants of the reserve as a matter of urgent priority’.

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The UN Special Rapporteur also stated that, ‘the government’s position that habitation of the reserve by communities is incompatible with the reserve’s conservation objectives and status appears to be inconsistent with its decision to permit Gem Diamonds/Gope Exploration Company (Pty) Ltd. to conduct mining activities within the reserve, an operation that is planned to last several decades and could involve an influx of 500-1200 people to the site, according to the mining company’. The  Ghaghoo open diamond pit opened in 2014 in the southeast of the reserve and it is expected to fetch 4,900 million dollars. As of 31 December 2015, nearly 330 thousand tonnes of ore had been treated, with over 90 thousand carats recovered. Gem Diamonds won’t be the only company exploiting the diamond fields in the Kalahari reserve as Petra Diamonds is also considering the exploitation of the resources in this place, and it has identified Gope and Kukama as priority areas of interest.

Court case: still open

In 2013, the Bushmen again returned to the court to demand free access to the reserve, abolishing the government’s one-month permit policy. The case was dismissed for technical reasons, with permission given by the court to re-file with a new application. The Botswana  government, in a move aimed at putting all possible obstacles to hamper the Bushmen’s action prevented British attorney Gordon Bennett from entering Botswana, where he was due to represent Kalahari Bushmen at an important High Court hearing about the tribe’s access to their ancestral land. Mr Bennett was put on a ‘visa list’.

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The final blow came in January 2014, when a ban came into effect prohibiting all hunting in the southern African country. The new law was announced by the Minister of Wildlife, Environment and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama (brother of the president, Ian Khama). While the ban was welcomed by wildlife conservationists, it affected the hunting tourism but most of all, it effectively ended thousands of years of the San culture. The San groups, in fact,  have lived as hunters and gatherers in countries across southern Africa for over 20,000 years.
Tourism is the second most important source of income for Botswana after diamonds. The Kalahari and the Okavango delta are increasingly destinations for luxury tourism. The saddest thing is to see how images of Bushmen hunters are unashamedly used in brochures by Botswana’s Tourism Board to promote tourism to the country. Tourists are openly encouraged to enjoy a ‘Bushman experience’, taking trips with Bushmen to learn about their hunting, while the government prevents them from practicing their traditional  occupation and denies them access to water and their ancestral lands.
There are 100,000 Bushmen in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The San people of southern Africa are likely to be one the oldest and one of the most marginalized population of humans on earth, and if the governments which are supposed to, won’t protect them, not only their culture, but the entire population will be wiped out.

Jordi Canal-Soler


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