Ancestral land conflict in Botswana

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Ancestral land conflict in Botswana has centred on the desert land occupied by the San people, including the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), established in 1961 for wildlife, while the San were permitted to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

In the 1990s, the government of Botswana began a policy of "relocating" CKGR residents outside the reserve. In 2002, the government cut off all services to CKGR residents. A legal battle began, and in 2006 the High Court of Botswana ruled that the residents had been forcibly and unconstitutionally removed. The policy of relocation continued, however, and in 2012 the San people (Basarwa) appealed to the United Nations to force the government to recognize their land and resource rights.


group of men standing in the open with spears and other traditional hunting gear
Wandering hunters (Basarwa Bushmen), North Kalahari desert, c. 1892

Much tribal land in Botswana, including land occupied by the San people (or Basarwa), was lost during colonization, and the pattern of loss of land and access to natural resources continued after Botswana's independence.[1]:2 The San have been particularly affected over time by encroachment on the part of majority tribes and non-indigenous farmers onto lands traditionally used by the San. Government policies beginning in the 1970s transferred a significant area of traditionally San land to White settlers and majority agro-pastoralist tribes.[1]:15 Much of the government's policy regarding land tended to favor the dominant Tswana tribe over the minority San and Bakgalagadi peoples.[1]:2 James Anaya, as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people for the United Nations, describes loss of land as a major contributor to many of the problems facing Botswana's indigenous people, citing the San's eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) as an especial example.[1]:2

Central Kalahari Game Reserve relocations[edit]

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) was established in 1961 to protect wildlife populations and provide the San an area to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Over time, the lifestyles of the San and Bakgalagadi residents of the CKGR changed as wells were drilled and a school and health post were established there, which encouraged an agro-pastoralist lifestyle and led to the keeping of some livestock within the reserve.[1]:16 The government determined that the lifestyles of communities within the CKGR were no longer consistent with the aims of the reserve and that providing services within the reserve was too costly to continue. The government therefore decided to relocate all of those living within the CKGR to settlements outside the reserve.[1]:16

While the government maintains that the relocations were voluntary, Anaya describes the consultation process as "inadequate" and notes "serious concerns" about whether consent to relocate was freely given. In particular, harassment of residents, dismantling of infrastructure, and bans on hunting appear to have been used to induce residents to leave the reserve.[1]:16 A countrywide ban on hunting, announced in January 2014, "effectively ends thousands of years of San culture", according to The Guardian. The government's hunting ban does not apply to private game ranches catering to tourists.[2] In 2002, the government ceased all services to residents of the CKGR, and capped the borehole that had provided water to inhabitants of the reserve.[1]:17

Since the mid-1990s, the central government of Botswana has implemented a relocation policy aimed at moving the San out of XamKhomani Heartland, their ancestral land on and near the CKGR into newly created settlements such as New Xade.[citation needed] The government's official reason for adopting the policy states:

Over time it has become clear that many residents of the CKGR already were or wished to become settled agriculturists, raising crops and tending livestock as opposed to hunting-gathering when the reserve was established in 1961. In fact, hunting-gathering had become obsolete to sustain their living conditions. These agricultural land uses are not compatible with preserving wildlife resources and not sustainable to be practiced in the Game Reserve. This is the fundamental reason for government to relocate the CKGR residents.[3]

Anaya writes that while some former residents of the CKGR chose not return to the reserve due to a lack of services, including water, those living in the reserve have stated a desire to be able to hunt and gather, since these activities are an important part of their culture. A sense of a deep personal connection to the land in the reserve was evident among both those San living in the CKGR as well as those San and Bakgalagadi who had been resettled outside the CKGR. These latter groups expressed a desire to return to the reserve despite the challenges of living there.[1]:18 Jumanda Gakelebone, a spokesman for the San in Botswana, told The Guardian:

We have survived for millennia in one of the world's driest areas but they treat us as stupid. We are hunter-gatherers yet we get arrested. We cannot damage the wildlife. If we kill one animal we eat it for a month. We are not allowed to hunt but others can.[2]

The human-rights group Survival International quotes Gakelebone as saying:

We are still hunter-gatherers. We want to be recognized as hunter-gatherers. If you say don’t hunt, it means don’t eat. If you are going to ban hunting, you have to consult us. You’re going to turn us into poachers. But hunting for us has never been about poaching. We hunt for food.[4]

The government has denied that any of the relocation was forced.[5] A 2006 ruling by the High Court of Botswana confirmed, however, that residents had been forcibly and unconstitutionally removed.[6] The court held in Roy Sesana and Others v. The Attorney General that the San plaintiffs were, "forcibly or wrongly and without their consent", deprived of possession of land that they lawfully occupied. The judgement noted conflicting and confusing statements and actions by the government.[1]:17 According to Anaya, the case "highlights the failure of the government to adequately consult with indigenous peoples in significant decisions affecting them and to respect their rights to traditional lands and resources".[1]:21

Opponents of the relocation policy claim that the government's intent is to clear the area—an area the size of Denmark—for the lucrative tourist trade and diamond mining.[citation needed] Government representatives have stated that allowing even small communities to live within the game reserve is incompatible with the reserve's aims of wildlife conservation. Anaya, however, writes that the government's position on this issue appears to conflict with its decision to permit diamond mining by Gem Diamonds within the reserve. The mining operation is planned to last several decades and could involve an influx of 500 to 1200 workers into the reserve, according to the mining company.[1]:17–18 The government stated that although exploration had taken place, it concluded that diamond mining would not be viable and that the relocation policy had nothing to do with mining.[3] However, in 2014 the Ghaghoo mine, operated by Gem Diamonds, began extracting ore in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. As stated by the news division of the Rapaport Diamond Report, a diamond-industry pricing guide, "Ghaghoo's launch was not without controversy [...] given its location on the ancestral land of the Bushmen".[7] Survival International director Stephen Corry said that with the mine's opening:

Botswana’s commitment to conservation is window dressing. The government falsely claims that the Bushmen’s presence in the reserve is incompatible with wildlife conservation, while allowing a diamond mine and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) exploration to go ahead on their land.[8]

In 2005, John Simpson of BBC News described the people of New Xade as suffering from drunkenness and sexually transmitted diseases, saying, "When the Botswana government takes foreign guests to New Xade on fact-finding trips, it shows them the showcase schools and clinics which have been built for the Bushmen. The VIP buses take a detour in order to miss the shebeens [bars]." Simpson said he suspected the relocations were partly motivated by plans for diamond mining.[9]

In a 2005 embassy communication released in 2011, United States Ambassador to Botswana Joseph Huggins condemned the forced evictions, saying: "While it is probably the case that two-three years on since the move, the greatest trauma is past, it is also clear that people have been dumped in economically absolutely unviable situations without forethought, and without follow-up support. The lack of imagination displayed on the part of the GOB [Government of Botswana] is breathtaking. The GOB views New Xade as similar to many sites of rural poverty, deserving no special treatment. But the special tragedy of New Xade's dependent population is that it could have been avoided."[10]

2006 High Court decision[edit]

On 13 December 2006, the San won a historic ruling in their long-running court case against the government.[11] According to the San's lawyer Gordon Bennett, "Nobody thought the Bushmen had any rights" before their court victory. "Nobody even cared."[12]

By a 2–1 majority, the court ruled the refusal to allow the Basarwa into the CKGR without a permit, and the refusal to issue special game licences to allow the San to hunt, was "unlawful and unconstitutional". It also found that the San were "forcibly and wrongly deprived of their possessions" by the government.[13] Two of the three justices referred to the relative powerlessness of the San, partly as a result of discrimination, that had resulted in low literacy and little to no political or economic clout relative to majority tribes. The justices concluded that even voluntary decisions to relocate on the part of the San were not based on informed consent, in light of evidence that the government had not adequately informed the San about compensation or their right to return to the reserve after relocation.[1]:17 The court did not compel the government to provide services, such as water, to any San who returned to the reserve. As of 2006, more than 1,000 San intended to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest protected nature reserves.[13]

The government interpreted the ruling narrowly, however, and only limited numbers of San have been allowed to return to this land. The government further required the children and other relatives of the original applicants in the case to obtain permits in order to return to their ancestral land.[14]:7[15] In April 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) criticised Botswana's government for not allowing certain San to return, as well as for denying Bushmen the right to hunt in the reserve, despite their having used the land for hunting for thousands of years.[16]

High Court appeal[edit]

A number of San brought a new legal action to reopen the water borehole in the reserve, which was capped in 2002.[1]:18 In 2011 the Court of Appeals awarded the Basarwa (San) the right to reopen or drill new boreholes to gain access to water for domestic use. Prior to the ruling, the government banned the Basarwa from accessing wells, which prevented them from returning home to the CKGR. Following the ruling, the government granted the appropriate permits for workers and machinery to enter the CKGR to drill boreholes.[14]:9–10 Barrister Gordon Bennett represented the San in court as the judges declared the Botswana government guilty of ‘degrading treatment’ and described the case as ‘a harrowing story of human suffering and despair’. Furthermore, the Government was ordered to pay the costs of the San's appeal.[17][18] As of 2013, however, the government was still blocking San people's access to water in the CKGR.[19] According to a case study published in June 2012 by Minority Rights Group International, Gope mine owner Gem Diamonds was to work with CKGR residents in order that they would benefit from the mine: the company was to drill four new boreholes, hire residents, and establish a community trust, but only one waterhole had been drilled by year's end.[14]:10

2012–2013 conflict[edit]

In May 2012 the Basarwa appealed to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, asking the United Nations to force the government to recognize their land and resource rights. The forum approved a set of nine draft recommendations addressing the impact of land seizures and government disenfranchisement of indigenous people.[14]:7 Government relocations continued during the year in the western settlement of Ranyane. In May 2013, the High Court ruled the government must stop the relocation of families from the Ranyane settlement. NGOs reported that the government relocated several families from Ranyane after the High Court ruling and alleged that government officials installed themselves in Ranyane in order to conduct a campaign to induce residents to move from their village, in part by blocking access to the settlement’s only water supply.[14]:20–21

Survival International reported that some San in Ranyane were slated to be evicted from their ancestral land in order to create a wildlife corridor,[20] known as the Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor.[21] Botswana government representative Jeff Ramsay denied any forced eviction plans.[22] A Survival International campaigner said, "I don’t know how the government can say [...] that they are not planning to evict them when the Ranyane Bushmen are taking the government to court to stop from being removed."[23] A new case was filed on behalf of the residents.[24] In response to a complaint filed on behalf of residents, the court issued a restraining order in June 2013 prohibiting the government from relocating residents from Ranyane and from blocking access to the water pipe, entering any household without occupants’ permission, and removing residents without first notifying the community’s lawyers.[14]:21

In August 2013 attorneys for the Basarwa people filed a High Court case in which the original complainants from the 2006 CKGR case appealed to government for unrestricted access to the CKGR for their children and relatives (i.e. without permits). The case was dismissed for technical reasons, with permission given by the court to refile with a new application.[14]:7, 20 In a move criticized by civil society and local media, the government added the Basarwa applicants’ lawyer, a United Kingdom citizen affiliated with Survival International, to a list of individuals who must apply for visas to enter the country. While the government denied allegations that it planned to bar the lawyer from the country, it did not grant his visa in time for him to participate in the August High Court hearing.[14]:20 The lawyer, Gordon Bennett, said, "The right to a fair trial normally includes the right to be represented by counsel of your choice. Not in Botswana, apparently – or at least not if you sue the Government."[25] A Botswana government Facebook post stated that the Department of Immigration had turned down Bennett's request for a visa, describing it as "submitted on short notice[.]"[26] A follow-up Facebook post said that the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, the Honourable Edwin Batshu, defended this move as being "in the interest of national security."[27] The trial began on 29 July.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Anaya, James (2 June 2010). Addendum – The situation of indigenous peoples in Botswana (PDF) (Report). United Nations Human Rights Council. A/HRC/15/37/Add.2.
  2. ^ a b Vidal, John (18 April 2014). "Botswana bushmen: 'If you deny us the right to hunt, you are killing us'". The Guardian.
  3. ^ a b Question and Answer. Government of Botswana Web Site
  4. ^ "Legal analysis finds tribal peoples persecuted unjustly for 'wildlife crime'". Survival International. 28 February 2015.
  5. ^ Advisory Group on Forced Evictions, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2007). Forced Evictions-- Towards Solutions?: Second Report of the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions to the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT. UN-HABITAT. p. 115. ISBN 978-92-1-131909-5.
  6. ^ "Botswana's bushmen get Kalahari lands back". CNN. 13 December 2006. Archived from the original on 20 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-13.
  7. ^ Miller, Jeff (5 September 2014). "Gem Diamonds Opens Its Underground Ghaghoo Mine". Rapaport | Diamonds.Net.
  8. ^ Miller, Jeff (4 September 2014). "Botswana to Inaugurate Diamond Mine on Bushmen Ancestral Land". Rapaport | Diamonds.Net.
  9. ^ Simpson, John (2 May 2005). "Bushmen fight for homeland". BBC News. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  10. ^ "US embassy cables: Botswana's forced relocation of indigenous tribespeople condemned". 20 January 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  11. ^ "Sesana and Others v Attorney General (52/2002)[2006] BWHC 1 (13 December 2006)". Southern African Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 10 May 2009.
  12. ^ Dowell, Katy (1 November 2010). "Gordon Bennett: the go-to tribal rights guy". The Lawyer. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  13. ^ a b "The insider's guide to the Kalahari Bushmen". CNN. 14 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-13.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Botswana 2013 Human Rights Report (PDF). United States Department of State.
  15. ^ Nyati-Ramahobo, Lydia. "Minority Tribes in Botswana: the Politics of Recognition". Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  16. ^ Nieuwoudt, Stephanie (29 May 2008). "Development–Botswana: Of Tourists, Bushmen – and a Borehole". Inter Press Service.
  17. ^ Victory for Kalahari Bushmen as court grants right to water. Survival International. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
  18. ^ "Judgment delivered 27 January 2011 --In the Court of Appeal of the Republic of Botswana Held at Lobatse" (PDF). Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  19. ^ Simpson, John (25 October 2013). "Hunted by their own government – the fight to save Kalahari Bushmen". The Independent. London.
  20. ^ Bushmen face imminent eviction for ‘wildlife corridor’. Survival International. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  21. ^ "Conservation Corridors in South-western Botswana" (PDF). Conservation International. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-17. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  22. ^ "Botswana denies plans to 'evict' Bushmen". 2013-05-27. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  23. ^ Lewis, Kim (30 May 2013). "Bushmen Want to Live in Peace on Their Land". Voice of America. Retrieved 30 May 2013.
  24. ^ Ontebetse, Khonani (2013-05-30). "Survival International threatens to take up new Basarwa case". Sunday Standard. Archived from the original on 9 January 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
  25. ^ "Botswana bars Bushmen's lawyer as landmark case starts". Survival International. 2013-07-29. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
  26. ^ "Bwgovernment - Visa Application: Gordon Irvine Bennett..." Facebook. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
  27. ^ "BWgovernment - PARLIAMENT REJECTS BENNET MOTION A motion..." Facebook. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
  28. ^ "Bushman court case begins". Survival International. 29 July 2013. Retrieved 2014-02-19.

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