/ 30 May 2008

Botswana’s Bushmen in lodge controversy

A planned lodge development at the settlement of Molapo in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) has become a source of controversy.

Tourists who frequent the 40-room lodge’s luxury accommodation will enjoy the sights of the Kalahari. The outlook for indigenous Bushmen from the reserve is less positive, however.

Botswana’s government is denying the Bushmen — also referred to as the San or Basarwa — the right to reopen a borehole in the vicinity of the development, a move rights activists allege is part of a sustained campaign to keep Bushmen out of their ancestral land in the CKGR to allow for mining.

Large-scale relocations of the Bushmen took place in 1997, 2002 and 2005 according to Survival International, a London-based organisation fighting for the rights of indigenous people.

A site at Gope, about 100km from Molapo, was initially to be developed by diamond giant De Beers, which is headquartered in South Africa; London-listed Gem Diamonds bought the Gope deposit from De Beers in 2007.

Preparations for the lodge come after a drawn-out legal battle between the government and the Bushmen over their removal from the reserve. A 2006 ruling by the High Court gave the land back to the Bushmen. However, only those who were named in the case have been allowed to return to the CKGR; others have to apply for permits, which are often refused.

Survival International puts the number of Bushmen who have gone back to the reserve since 2006 at about 1 000. Some remain in the resettlement camps where they were moved by the government — New !Xade to the west of the CKGR, and Kaqudwane to the south. Others have moved from the camps to towns.

In total there are believed to be about 48 000 Bushmen scattered around Botswana, and 100 000 in the Southern African region as a whole.

Hard life

Life outside the reserve has often proved disastrous for the Bushmen, says Mike de Jongh, a professor in anthropology at the University of South Africa. ”They are especially vulnerable in towns, where they fall prey to alcohol abuse and are exposed to HIV/Aids,” he says.

Survival International paints a similar picture.

”They cannot hunt or gather at the resettlement camps and they have become almost completely dependent on government handouts. With nothing to do and without their former self-reliance, many have become depressed, and alcoholism is rife. They are exposed to diseases,” says Miriam Ross, a press officer at the organisation.

With the 2006 court decision failing to stipulate that water had to be supplied to the Bushmen, the government defends its decision not to allow the borehole to be reopened. The facility was sealed in 2002.

”The people who returned to the game reserve have been informed and they know that the government does not provide services and is not obliged to provide services inside the game reserve, and as such are at liberty to make their own arrangements to bring into the game reserve unlimited amounts of water for domestic use,” says Clifford Maribe, director of communications in Botswana’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

”Those who say the government is denying the Basarwa water to drive them out of the game reserve are simply using the water issue as an emotive rallying point to mislead and deceive the public, and attempt to portray the government in a negative light.”

As Ross points out, however, the government did provide services ahead of the evictions in 2002.

”The most significant of these was the provision of water. Water was pumped from a borehole at the Bushman community of Mothomelo [the borehole sealed in 2002], and transported to the other communities in the reserve. During the 2002 evictions, the service was terminated, the Bushmen’s stores of water poured into the sand, and the pump at Mothomelo dismantled,” she says.

Mothomelo lies between Molapo and Gope.

In April this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) criticised Botswana’s government for not allowing certain Bushmen to return.

The UNHRC has also berated the government for denying Bushmen the right to hunt in the reserve, even though they have used the land for this purpose for thousands of years.

From 1979 until the 1990s, special game licences were issued to the Bushmen, allowing them to hunt with traditional weapons. These licences are not provided any more: the Bushmen now have to go through a complicated process to apply for other permits, which the government is refusing to issue, says Survival International. Bushmen caught hunting without licences are arrested, making some fearful of returning to the CKGR.


The tender for the planned lodge development at Molapo was put out by the government and awarded to the Safari Adventure Company, a subsidiary of Wilderness Safaris, a South African business.

”The reason we exist is to protect pristine wilderness areas and the flora and fauna — or biodiversity — that they support. We believe that in protecting these areas, and including the local communities in this process, we will make a difference to Africa and ultimately the world,” Wilderness Safaris claims on its website. ”In short, we believe that the world’s wilderness areas will save humankind.”

Keith Vincent of Wilderness Safaris denies that the circumstances surrounding the new lodge jar with the company’s stance on local communities.

”This [the land and water dispute] is an issue between the people of Botswana and the government … It is not my job to interfere in issues between the government and the Botswana people,” he says.

”Wilderness Safaris has a good record working with the local communities. In Botswana we employ 800 people. We also send people to a training school. Wherever we have lodges and camps, the local people have a choice to carry on with their traditional lifestyles or to live in a world where they can get jobs and education.”

But for Survival International director Stephen Corry, it is difficult to view lodge developments and the government’s stance on water in isolation of each other.

”The government’s plan to build tourist lodges in the reserve makes its denial of water to the Bushmen seem crueller than ever. Some tourists thinking of visiting are bound to change their minds when they hear what happened to the Bushmen there,” he is quoted as saying in an April 21 press release.

Wilderness Safaris might find it difficult to distance itself from the fray if the lodge tender itself proves questionable.

De Jongh argues that the development requires a green light from the Bushmen. ”Legally the local people had to be consulted before any tender was put out as the land belongs to them, according to the court order.”

Furthermore, says Survival International’s Ross, ”The International Labour Organisation Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples [ILO 169] recognises tribal peoples’ right to land ownership, and to make decisions about projects that affect them. Botswana has not signed up to ILO 169; nevertheless the convention is increasingly becoming the benchmark by which countries’ treatment of tribal peoples is judged.”

She adds: ”Botswana voted in September 2007 in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was approved by an overwhelming majority at the UN General Assembly. As well as recognising indigenous peoples rights to ownership of their land, the declaration affirms that they should not be moved from their lands without their free and informed consent.”

According to Maribe, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) has to be done by the developers of the lodge site, in this case Safari Adventure Company. But, EIA compliance may ultimately count for little.

”It is very likely that the Bushmen of the area will be lured by money once the lodge is developed. But once they become part of a Western lifestyle, the very fabric of their traditional society will be destroyed,” says De Jongh. ”What is happening is a disgrace. The government of Botswana is steamrolling over the local people.”

No comment could be obtained from a Bushman advocacy organisation, First People of the Kalahari, at the time of publication. — IPS