- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

LOBATSE, Botswana

This southern African country’s High Court ruled yesterday that Bushmen are entitled to live and hunt on their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a decision hailed as a victory for indigenous peoples.

The Basarwa tribesmen had accused the government of evicting them — in many cases, at gunpoint — to exploit the diamond and mineral potential of a hunting reserve the size of Switzerland.

The government claimed the tribe agreed to move as part of efforts to protect the reserve, that it already owned the mineral rights, and that the tribe had been compensated for the land.

“I feel only happiness and confidence that I can go back,” said Junanda Gakelevone of the First People of the Kalahari, a group representing the Basarwa.

“I want to go back home now,” he said, amid singing and dancing by some two dozen fellow tribesmen, many wearing traditional clothes and horns.

There was no comment from the government. The parties have six weeks to appeal.

There 20,000 years

For over 20,000 years, clans of hunter-gatherers have survived in central Botswana’s stark, desert plains. They were the original inhabitants of a vast region stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi Valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Their rock paintings, knowledge of native wildlife, and ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth have fascinated scholars. They were the subject of the 1980 movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

The Basarwa, also known as Bushmen or San, were driven to near extinction by Bantu tribes that began pushing south from central Africa about 1,500 years ago, and by the Europeans who followed 350 years ago. The settlers took the most fertile land and the Bushmen retreated into the arid and semi-arid lands of the Kalahari Desert. Only an estimated 100,000 are left today, most living in poverty on society’s fringes.

By a vote of 2-1, the judges found that the Bushmen were “forcibly and wrongly deprived of their possessions” by the government. Gordon Bennett, an attorney for some of the tribesmen, said that referred to the land.

Also by a 2-1 vote, the court ruled that the refusal to allow the Bushmen into the game reserve without a permit was unconstitutional. It also said the state’s refusal to issue special game licenses to allow the tribesmen to hunt violates Botswana’s constitution.

The three-judge panel, in a unanimous decision, said the Basarwa were legally living on their land before 2002.

The court also ruled, however, that the government was not obliged to provide basic services like water to anyone returning to the reserve. And the court said the decision to cut off the services in the first place was neither “unlawful nor unconstitutional.”

Mr. Bennett said the Bushmen did not consider water and other basic services a big issue, and would now focus on negotiating with the government for an orderly return.

Some 2,000 of the Bushmen have moved to two new settlements, leaving a handful of holdouts. Government authorities say their living conditions have improved, with the provision of drinking water, schools and medical facilities.

But Bushmen representatives argue that they have suffered from the disruption to their traditional way of life and have fallen victim to alcoholism and AIDS.

At least 12 percent of the original 239 Bushmen involved in the lawsuit died in government resettlement camps, according to the British-based aid group Survival International, which supported the tribe’s suit. This year, 135 asked to be added to the original petition.

Nation seen as model

Botswana is regarded as a model of democracy and good management in Africa, a continent plagued by corruption and poverty. The dispute over the reserve — and support for the Basarwa cause from notables like Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu — was an embarrassment to the government.

The southern African nation is the world’s largest producer of diamonds. The Bushmen have appealed for help from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, whose new film “Blood Diamond” shows how diamonds financed civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

British colonial authorities established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 to protect an area rich in wildlife. Botswana supported traditional communities after independence in 1966, providing water, food and mobile clinics in the reserve.

With time, however, Basarwa families started building permanent settlements, raising goats and planting crops. Instead of hunting on foot, with arrows tipped in poison, they began using horses and four-wheel-drive vehicles, drying and selling excess meat to outsiders.

By 1985, wildlife officials were worried about environmental damage, and local administrators complained about the cost of providing services to remote settlements.

Basarwa leaders said the government’s arguments failed to take into account their traditions, such as the need to be buried near their ancestors.

“Today is the happiest day for us Bushmen,” said one of their leaders, Roy Sesana. “We have been crying for so long, but today we are crying with happiness. Finally, we have been set free.”

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