Diamond giant De Beers had joined hands with the upmarket retailer Louis Vuitton to open a chain of exclusive jewellery shops operating under the De Beers-LV brand, but celebrities and socialites were jeered by protesters as they arrived to celebrate the opening of De Beers-LV’s flagship shop in London last month.
The protesters had braved the rain to demonstrate against the “forced” eviction of 2 000 San from Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The protest was organised by Survival International, perhaps the most powerful European lobbyist for the rights of tribal and indigenous peoples. It claims that De Beers is in an unholy alliance with the Botswana government and has had a hand in the Kalahari evictions.
This demonstration was the latest chapter in a high-profile campaign Survival International has waged. But Survival’s involvement may well have done more harm than good.
This is the opinion of Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Centre for Human Rights and the spokesperson for the coalition of NGOs representing the Kalahari evictees. Last week they blamed Survival for the collapse of negotiations that had offered the best chance for the San to remain on their ancestral land.
Survival’s director general, Stephen Corry, dismisses these claims. Though “dismayed” by Ditshwanelo’s criticism, he explained that “Ditshwanelo have long sought to control all campaigning on the central Kalahari”. In any case, there was “no evidence that negotiations were achieving anything”.
I first visited the Central Kalahari Game Reserve a decade ago to conduct a survey in Xade, the reserve’s largest settlement. Things had clearly changed a great deal since the 1960s. Then the San depended almost entirely on hunting and gathering and the government had little immediate influence on their day-to-day lives.
Unlike the rest of the Kalahari, the central desert has no permanent surface water. In the brief wet seasons shallow pans fill with rain and the desert bursts into life. The dry seasons are an altogether different story. After the pans dry up, the grass fades to a dull khaki and the great herds of game trek northwards in search of water beyond the reserve’s boundaries.
During the dry season, the hunter-gatherer San who congregated at the pans would split into small family groups and disperse to exploit scarce natural resources more efficiently.
Then an anthropologist installed a borehole pump at Xade in 1969 and life in the central Kalahari changed forever. The year-round availability of clean water at Xade enticed many San from their dry-season camps and within 15 years Xade’s population swelled from a single extended family to more than 1 000 people. In 1982 the government built a school and a health centre to service the needs of this remote community. With access to a seemingly limitless supply of water, the people of Xade began to cultivate crops and brought goats, dogs, donkeys and horses into the reserve. By 1984 most hunters had discarded their traditional bows and arrows in favour of hunting on horseback with spears and dogs.
The government considered the San to be part of the problem and placed additional curbs on San hunting and began an informal programme to encourage them to leave the reserve.
The situation was brought to Survival International’s attention. Its high-profile campaign, however, kicked off only a decade later in 1997, when the Botswana government started to move people from Xade to newly constructed resettlement centres just beyond the reserve’s borders.
The government claimed that these relocations would facilitate the Kalahari people’s continued access to development support and essential services. It also claimed it would help secure the Central Kalahari Game Reserve’s status as a conservation area.
Local NGOs and San community organisations argued that the government should provide essential services to people in the reserve because alienating them from their land would do nothing to facilitate their economic or social development.
Though the government still insists that the “assisted relocations” were voluntary, many of those relocated say they left unwillingly. They allege that where inflated compensation offers failed to entice them, officials threatened them with arrest. Within a year Xade lay deserted, its inhabitants billeted in two adequately serviced, yet otherwise bleak, resettlement areas.
Assisted by Glyn Williams, a South African lawyer, a coalition of local organisations led by Ditshwanelo formed a negotiating team to oppose the relocations. Confronted by an obdurate government, however, they made little progress. But the people in the resettlement areas did. They registered their discontent by voting with their feet and returning to the reserve.
As the new millennium dawned, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was home again to close to 700 San and Bakgalagadi. Confronted by this show of determination, the government softened its stance and opened discussions with the negotiating team and the Kalahari community leaders on the reserve’s future.
On the strength of these discussions, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks prepared a management plan for the central Kalahari that would allow the San and Bakgalagadi to retain access to and rights over natural resources in the areas they traditionally occupied.
The government gazetted a new set of regulations for game reserves that paved the way for the plan’s implementation and the European Commission positioned itself to fund the process. A copy of the plan was leaked to the press, which proclaimed it a “stunning victory” for the San.
Though not a party to the negotiations, nor privy to the plan’s contents, Survival director general Stephen Corry branded it a “slap in the face” and declared negotiations to be a flawed strategy. He opposed the plan because it did not grant the San exclusive title to the reserve in accordance with the International Labour Organisation’s convention on the rights of indigenous people (ILO 169), a legal instrument so inappropriate to Africa that no African government has considered ratifying it.
To many Africans the idea of privileging any group in perpetuity on the basis of its ancestry or ethnicity sounds suspiciously like the doctrine that underlaid apartheid. Moreover,
it is understood to contravene constitutional provisions asserting the equality of all people.
Unperturbed by such legal subtleties, Survival declared the resettlement programme “a racist crime against humanity”.
Confronted by these allegations, many in Botswana began to suspect that Survival had a hidden agenda.
Few in Botswana are not proud of their country’s governance record and many had expressed sympathy for the San cause. But as Survival intensified its campaign this sympathy melted.
As the Botswana president’s office grew increasingly preoccupied with rebutting Survival’s allegations, those in government opposed to any form of compromise gained the upper hand.
In September last year the government ended negotiations and discarded its innovative management plan in favour of one that excluded the San from all but a tiny portion of the central Kalahari. Within a few months the last water points in the reserve were dismantled. Without water all but a handful of those living in the reserve moved to the resettlement areas.
Apparently confounded by the intractability of the Botswana government, Survival has now trained its guns on Botswana’s diamond industry. Diamonds are, after all, the lifeblood of Botswana’s economy.
Survival points to a diamond prospect in the central Kalahari as the real reason behind the relocations and has identified De Beers as the main villain in this drama. Surprisingly, Survival has done this in full knowledge of the fact that the negotiating team, the diamond watchdog Global Witness and European Parliament MP Glennys Kinnock are satisfied that there is no connection between diamonds and the relocations.
De Beers is in an awkward position. It has invested considerable resources in cleaning up the diamond industry through the implementation of the Kimberly Process and obviously would hate to see its efforts undone by events in the central Kalahari, yet it has appeared reluctant publicly to pressure the Botswana government to change its policy in the central Kalahari. This may suggest that De Beers indeed has something to hide, but a more plausible explanation is that it does not feel that it is appropriate to meddle in Botswana’s domestic policy.
Few would disagree that rights groups play a vital role in monitoring and curbing the excesses of governments and multinationals. Survival’s intervention in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, however, reminds us that though the intentions of these organisations may well be beyond reproach, their actions are not and should be subject to the same level of critical scrutiny as the actions of governments and big businesses.
The San would likely be far better off today had Survival thrown its weight behind the negotiating team and had moderated its position accordingly.
James Suzman is an anthropologist at the African studies centre of Cambridge University. He led the largest research programme into the human rights status of the San and has been involved in the issue since 1991