For the last decade or so, the Basarwa minority group in Botswana has been locked in hard-fought legal battles with the government over access to their ancestral lands. The long-marginalised Basarwa people (also known as Bushmen and San) have been in and out of court contesting their eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in central Botswana, and claim the government has been using strategies of intimidation, arbitrary detention and violence to keep people off the land. Accusations have also been circulating about the state’s reasons for wanting to clear the reserve, raising complex questions regarding the tensions between development and minority rights.
In Botswana’s early years of independence, the Basarwa were free to occupy the CKGR. During the presidency of Quett Masire from 1990 to 1998, however, protection of the Basarwa’s rights began to decline, and in three big clearances – in 1997, 2002 and 2005 – virtually all the Basarwa were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.
Having seen their homes dismantled, school and health posts closed, water supplies destroyed, and loved ones threatened, the Basarwa took the government to court in 2002 in an effort to secure the right to return to the CKGR. They met with some success, but were prevented from hunting and made to request one-month permits to enter the land.
In 2006, a Botswanan court ruled that the government’s refusal to allow the Basarwa into the CKGR without a permit was unconstitutional. But following this, new barriers were erected making Basarwa life in the CKGR difficult. For example, a law was passed prohibiting the Basarwa from using boreholes in the reserve and preventing them from drilling new ones. This meant they had to travel up to 30 miles outside the reserve to access water.
Regarding this issue, the Basarwa once again challenged the government through legal measures. This initially failed – with their request to access a borehole they had previously used being denied in July 2010 – but eventually bore fruit as, in January 2011, the High Court honoured their appeal and ordered the government allow them access to the borehole.
Another hurdle to their survival in the CKGR still remained, however, as the Basarwa were still required to get permits to hunt in the reserve. This policy has prevailed though the Botswana High Court did rule that a refusal to issue permits was unlawful.
Recently, the plight of the Basarwa may have even increased. “There have been numerous cases of arrests and intimidation over the past year”, Rachel Stenham, of minority-rights group Survival International, told Think Africa Press. “The government is using tactics to once again uproot the Bushmen from their ancestral land.”
A member of the Basarwa explained to Survival International: “Police are given guns to go out and hunt and arrest Bushmen gathering bush food. The Bushmen of the CKGR cannot eat, cannot drink. How will they survive without food?”
“Are Basarwa not Batswana?” asked minority spokesperson Jumanda Gakelebone.
The government justifies the relocation of the Basarwa by claiming it serves a multitude of interests. On the one hand, the restriction of people on the land is said to be a measure to preserve the wildlife and the ecosystems of the CKGR. On the other, the government has suggested the resettlement could contribute to the ‘development’ of the Basarwa people.
Both arguments, however, have strong critics. The environmental concerns seem at odds the Basarwa’s history on the land. The group has occupied the region for centuries, and as hunter-gatherers move around to conserve their habitat. Roy Sesana, who was part of the team that took the government to court in 2002, expressed his disbelief at this explanation. “We the Basarwa are the great ecologists, we depend on nature and therefore we cannot destroy our means of sustenance; today the existence of game in abundance illustrates this”, he said.
The proposal that resettlement will help 'develop' the Basarwa has also been criticised. The implicit paternalism in the suggestion aside, the camps Basarwa have been moved to (such as those at New Xade and Kaudwane) have exposed the community to unprecedented dangers by which they were previously unaffected. There have already been outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, increasing dependence on government benefits, and a rise in alcoholism, prostitution and suicide. Additionally, while the desire to incorporate all socio-economic groups into a nation-state is understandable, minority rights are threatened when ‘integration’ is equated with ‘assimilation’.
Contrary to the official line, a number of analysts believe the government may have ulterior motives they are less open to expressing. Botswana’s economy is heavily reliant on diamonds and tourism, both of which have significance, or potential significance, within the CKGR.
Regarding diamonds, the government has strongly denied suggestions the Basarwa were moved to make way for mining. In 2005, for example, officials said, “there is no mining nor any plans for future mining anywhere inside the CKGR”. However, in May 2007, Gem Diamonds bought an exploration interest in the Gope (land previously owned by the Basarwa) for $34 million. Gem Diamonds proudly announced the acquisition of land in Gope as “an attractive asset that will add significant value to its shareholders”. They estimated resources at 79 million tonnes, with an approximate value of $121 per carat.
Stenham from Survival International explained the consequences and contradictions of this deal. “There are only a relatively small number of Bushmen living and hunting within the reserve, a huge area”, she said. “But now there is a large diamond mine being constructed within the reserve. Surely that will have a much greater effect on the game than a few hunters using traditional methods to kill meat for their family.”
Regarding tourism, in 2008 the government signed a lease with Wilderness Holdings, a tourist company that has since been operating within the reserve. President Ian Khama owns shares in Linyanti Investments, a subsidiary of Wilderness Holdings, while the president’s nephew, Marcus Patrick Khama ter Haar, and personal lawyer, Parks Baedzi Tafa, sit on the Wilderness Holdings’ board of directors. At the company’s lucrative tourist lodge, visitors can enjoy use of a luxury swimming pool and buy fake Basarwa items as part of a ‘tribal experience’. Basarwa themselves meanwhile struggle to access food and water.
Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, summed up the paradoxical situation, saying, “It’s worth noting that foreign tourists can spend three times longer in Botswana with no visa or permit than the original inhabitants of the country can spend in their homeland – even with a permit, which by law they don’t need. All this amounts to much more than just harassment.”
Regardless of the government’s original reasons for wanting to resettle the Basarwa, it seems clear that especially now economic interests are involved, it may be harder than ever for the Basarwa to reclaim their rights to their homeland. But, as Stenham points out, “The Bushmen have shown incredible resistance to being uprooted from their ancestral land. They will continue to resist no matter how hard the struggle, and Survival International will continue to defend their rights”. With new legal challenges pending, hopefully one day their doggedness will be vindicated.
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