Diamonds in the desert and despair in the Kalahari

When the British colonial rulers created the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, the Bushmen who lived there were given the right to remain in perpetuity. But this week, 220 Bushmen went to court in a last, desperate attempt to preserve a unique way of life. Meera Selva reports
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The Independent Online

Speed is a Bushman. Or rather he was. Like hundreds of his tribe, he has been forced off the land that his nomadic ancestors have occupied for centuries. Few people have the skills to seek out food and water in the unforgiving landscape and fewer still would want to. But the Bushmen made an art of surviving in one of the harshest environments in the world. Now, in Botswana, the rumour of diamonds in the desert and the growth of upmarket tourism in the area mean that, as far as the government is concerned, the Bushmen's ancient presence is unwelcome and a unique form of human life is being eliminated. This month, wildlife guards entered the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and reportedly threatened the 250 remaining members of the tribe at gunpoint, in an attempt to drive them out. Harassed, intimidated and vilified since the mid-nineties, the few remaining Bushmen are now reduced to a last, defiant stand.

Their expulsion is a tale of state-sponsored greed which has led to a catastrophic social experiment. Hundreds of uprooted Bushmen like Speed are now scattered across specially-created settlements outside the Kalahari Game Reserve where they have fallen prey to alcoholism and many women have become involved in prostitution. Contact with urban Botswana - which once had the highest incidence of Aids in the world - has also led to a steep rise in HIV infection rates.

Yet in 1961, when Botswana's British colonial rulers created the 20,386 square mile Game Reserve, the 5,000 or so Bushmen who lived there were given the right to remain in perpetuity. The Bushmen, also known as the San people, had already been persecuted by Afrikaaner farmers and the cattle-rearing Tswana tribes. The Game Reserve was meant to protect the few thousand who remained.

But instead of protecting them, the Botswana government has been determined to break up their way of life. For the Game Reserve has proved to be crucial for two of Botswana's main income generators - tourism and diamond mining.

Animal lovers relish the chance to ride through the wide plains of the game reserve looking for lions, antelope and giraffe. Although the presence of Bushmen leading a nomadic lifestyle was part of the attraction for many tourists, the government of Botswana worried that they would ultimately have a negative impact on the wildlife in the area.

Dawn Parr, director of communications at the Botswana High Commission in London said: "By the 1990s, many of the Bushmen were no longer nomads but were living in fixed settlements inside the reserve. They were also keeping domestic animals, which can wreak havoc with the wildlife." But the Bushmen point out that they have lived in harmony with the wildlife for centuries, and know how to feed themselves while sustaining their environment. Their claims are backed up by a report by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, which shows that game in the reserve had actually doubled in the decade before relocations began.

There have also been stories of diamonds, hidden beneath the Bushmen's lands. Botswana is the world's biggest producer of diamonds, and has relied on precious stones to drive economic growth. Diamonds account for about 60 per cent of government revenue, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, diamonds helped the economy grow at about 13 per cent a year. But by the 1990s, falling diamond prices slowed the rate down to between four and six per cent and the government found itself under pressure to look for more mines.

De Beers, the diamond company 45 per cent owned by Anglo-American, applied for several exploration permits to mine within the game reserve. The company has repeatedly insisted that it has nothing to do with the decision to evict the Bushmen, and claims that any diamond deposit that was found inside the reserve could be mined without having to remove or resettle any communities nearby.

But few believe the government was happy with the idea of Bushmen living on land that could be filled with diamonds.

In 1996 the government implemented a formal policy to evict the Bushmen from the Central Game Reserve. About 1,500 were alternatively cajoled and persuaded to move away from their hunting grounds and ordered to live in newly created settlements on the boundaries of the reserves. The government promised better healthcare and schools, and compensated the Bushmen for the move with a combination of money and animals.

In 2002, another 700 who had either refused to go or had returned to the reservation were again moved away, this time with more force and threats. Molathwe Mokalaka, who was ordered out at the time recalled: "When they came they cut services and poured out the 10,000 litre water tanks. They said the army would come to force us out and burn us. I was born in Molapo [inside the reserve], my grandparents were born in Molapo, I was brought up in Molapo, my children were born in Molapo, I belong in Molapo, so I don't know what I have done that the government is harassing me like this."

The government of Botswana insists it has to move the Kalahari Bushmen to provide proper social services to the community. In the desert, they say, the Bushmen live without access to medical care or schools. It also claims that it does not have the resources to provide boreholes for the Bushmen inside the reserve.

But human rights groups point out that by forcing a nomadic people to live within fixed settlements, the Botswana authorities have created a new set of social problems. "In these small settlements outside the reservations, the Bushmen have been reduced to total dependency on the government," said Miriam Ross, of Survival International, a British pressure group that campaigns on behalf of the Bushmen. "They have become despairing and depressed and now alcoholism and prostitution is a huge problem," Life in New Xade, one of the three new resettlement towns, certainly looks unappealing. It is little more than a collection of mud huts and tin roofed buildings in a baking hot site stripped of vegetation, a far cry from the Kalahari plains. The Bushmen who live there have not begun to call it home.

The government's claims about not being able to afford boreholes inside the reserve ring hollow, considering that in 2002, they cut off existing water supplies, and now actually have to pump water from inside the game reserve to the settlement towns on the borders.

Disgruntled with life in the settlements, hundreds of Bushmen headed bank into the game reserve to take up their old lives as hunter gatherers. Many have since been arrested for hunting illegally inside a game reserve. In June this year, seven Bushmen were tortured by wildlife officials, after they were arrested and charged with poaching. One of the men, Selelo Tshiamo, died from his injuries.

Over this summer, the government has placed armed guards around the reserve boundaries to stop the Bushmen returning home, and arrested several Bushmen for hunting. Lawyers and journalists have been forbidden to go into the reserve to talk with the few Bushmen who remain.

The Bushmen have received high-profile support. "The government is profoundly racist in its attitude to the Bushmen," said Miriam Ross. "They have been called stone age people who need to change or perish like the dodo. But they will only perish if they are killed off."

In June, feminist writer Gloria Steinem picketed the opening of De Beers first store in America, and Julie Christie spoke at a similar protest at London's Natural History Museum a month later. Several models, including Lily Cole and Erin O'Connor have refused to endorse De Beers jewellery. Iman, who acted as the face of De Beers for two years, has been heavily criticised for working with the company.

This week, 220 of the few remaining Kalahari Bushmen resumed a court case to fight for the right to remain on their ancestral lands. The early signs were not promising. Instead of ruling on the Bushmen's claims, the court allowed the government to remove all goats belonging to the Bushmen.

But the Bushmens' nostalgia for their land cannot be extinguished. Dauqoo Xururi, another unhappy resident of the government settlements outside the reserve, refuses to give up on the idea of return. "We've buried some of our ancestors in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve," he said from his home at New Xade. "If I'm sick, they're my hospital. [The government of Botswana] made me leave my hospital and my culture behind. Why? They are termed a democracy but is this the way a democracy should be run?" Speed Gaothobogwe would nod his head sadly in sympathy.