Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bushmen Get Land Back

Tribal Bushmen began returning to their ancestral lands inside Botswana's largest game reserve this weekend, despite what their supporters describe as a heavy police presence and attempts to persuade them to stay in relocation camps. The Bushmen have lived in southern Africa for more than 20,000 years and are thought by some experts to be one of the oldest--if not the oldest--people on the planet, in genetic terms.

Basarwa tribesmen, also known as Bushmen, won a court order in December allowing them to return to land in the massive Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which, at 52,800 square kilometers, is larger than the nations of Denmark and Switzerland.
In its ruling, Botswana's High Court called the government's eviction of the Basarwa "unlawful and unconstitutional" and said that they had the right to live on their ancestral land inside the reserve. The court also ruled that the Basarwa who live in Botswana have the right to hunt and gather in the reserve . But the harassment continues - the government continues to dispute the Bushmen's return, maintaining that only the 189 people who filed the lawsuit would be given automatic right of return with their children--well short of the 50,000 Basarwa who live in Botswana, 2,000 of whom say they want to go home. And officials also argue that tribesmen cannot take along domestic animals or other items that have become necessities for these descendants of hunter-gatherers.
According to Survival International, government officials forced nearly all of the Bushmen to leave the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in three separate events in 1997, 2002, and 2005. Their homes were dismantled, their school and health center were closed, and their water supply was destroyed. Botswana's government has sought to evict the local tribesman numerous times over the last 20 years, ostensibly to promote tourism and protect wildlife in the area, although many believe the main reason has more to do with diamond mining aspirations.

Life in relocation camps outside the reserve has been especially difficult for the Bushmen, Survival says. Rarely able to hunt, they have been dependent on government handouts while their society has become gripped by alcoholism, boredom, depression, and illnesses such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS .
"The government has given various different reasons for the evictions," Survival International's Ross told OneWorld. "The government said it's for the people's own good--that they can't live hunting and gathering in this day and age, that they need to become civilized. The president said if the Bushmen want to survive they'll have to change or they'll perish like the Dodo. They've also said it's because the game reserve is for animals and that the Bushmen are a danger to animals.What Survival believes is that the Bushmen were evicted because there were diamonds found under their land in the early 1980s,"
Ross said. "There isn't mining in the reserve at the moment but we believe the government wanted to get the Bushmen out of the way so future diamond mining could take place."

Ross noted much of Botswana's foreign exchange comes from partnerships with diamond companies like DeBeers.

"DeBeers has a concession in the Kalahari Game Reserve," she said, "so it has the right to explore for diamonds in the reserve. I would ask the government to explain that."

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