/ 21 January 2011

‘Thirsty’ Bushmen go to appeal court

The battle between Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the government of President Ian Khama took another turn when the Bushmen challenged the state’s alleged denial of their water rights before a panel of five judges of Botswana’s Court of Appeal.

The court is expected to pass judgment on January 27. The Bushmen are challenging a high court ruling in July last year that bars them from the Mothomelo borehole in the reserve.

In the appeal they reaffirmed their willingness to sink a borehole in the park at their own cost and requested the assistance of surveyors and engineers to do this, to “put into practice their rights”.

The standoff over water is taking place nine years after the Bushmen were allowed to return to the reserve after a series of forced evictions by the government in 2002 that escalated into many court battles.

The conflict has dented Botswana’s international image as a bastion of human rights, sparking a boycott of the country as a tourist destination spearheaded by London-based Survival International, which champions the rights of indigenous people.

Fight for survival
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Jumanda Galekebone, a Bushman and member of the First People of the Kalahari, a pressure group involved in lobbying against the government, was sharp in his assessment of the ongoing logjam over water in the reserve. Galekebone spoke of “the [Bushman community’s] lack of a single drop of water and loss of human life in the game reserve, while the Botswana government merely watched”.

Survival International claims that several Bushmen have died in the reserve as a result of dehydration. “It’s evident that the government is not interested in helping its own people and this is very troubling,” said Galekebone. “While the Bushmen have made a commitment to use their own resources to get access to water it seems the government will not allow this and that is why we are fighting with them.”

It is a fight that the Botswana government shows no sign of backing away from. In court this week it argued that it is not obliged to provide water in the park and that “the opening of the borehole [to the Bushmen] would be incompatible with the conservation of wildlife”.

The government’s approval of a $3-billion diamond mine owned by Gem Diamonds at Gope in the game reserve is likely to stoke more controversy, as it tends to support claims by Survival International and the Bushmen that diamond exploration lies at the core of the government’s stance and that its hidden agenda is to drive the Bushmen out of the park.

Survival’s director, Stephen Corry, said this week: “Survival has said for years that the government wants to open up the reserve for diamond mining. The government has denied it, but we have sadly been proved right.”

Criticising the government for putting wildlife policy ahead of the needs of people, the Bushmen’s legal representative, Gordon Bennett, said: “Policy is not law, as government appears sometimes to forget.

“The government has treated the applicants in an inhuman and degrading manner and it is not possible for it to justify its conduct.”