Art & Activism: Trip to Botswana
In September 2005, I participated in a very powerful journey to Botswana in Africa. I have fallen in love with the Kalahari Desert and all that lives in balance in this huge land. Although there is great attention to the conservation of the land and wild life, there seems to be an orchestrated attempt to see that The Bushmen, who are an essential part of that balance, be relocated and consequently their traditional knowledge and well-being destroyed. It seems absolutely clear to me now that the government should support traditional life communities and immediately close down the costly, dangerous and degrading relocation camps.
Click each of the headings below to read more.
In September 2005, I participated in a very powerful journey to Botswana in Africa. I fell in love with the Kalahari Desert and all that lives in balance in this huge land. Although there is great attention to the conservation of the land and wild life, there seems to be an orchestrated attempt to see that The Bushmen, who are an essential part of that balance, be relocated and consequently their traditional knowledge and well-being may be destroyed.
Gloria Steinem (Author/Founder, Ms. Magazine) and Rebecca Adamson (Founder, First Nations) invited me and several other friends to go with them on a trip to Botswana. Our itinerary included a safari on the Kalahari Desert and the chance to meet two of their friends, Roy Sesana and Jumanda Gakelebone. These men are Bushmen who generously introduced us to the wonders of the desert as well as taught us about the ancient traditions still practiced by the Bushmen. (I just read that Roy Sesana has recently received The 2005 Right Livelihood Award for his work to preserve his people and culture!)
As it turns out, we arrived during a very complex time. The Bushmen are taking the Botswana government to court on a land claim and the government is behaving in a shocking and abusive manner.
The government has moved Bushmen into relocation camps. Some communities are holding out on the desert but their water has been cut off, and their radios for communication with their lawyer confiscated. In a recent attempt to get food and water in to the people, 28 were arrested, including our friends Roy and Jumanda.
The situation is very bad now. Of course, news like this is bad regardless. But somehow, when one has just sat around the fire, told stories, shared songs and dances, and laughed with people, it becomes very personal. This case is important to indigenous land claims all over the world. And the immediate human rights issues cry out for global support and attention.
Start with reading astute observations (next header) from one of my travel mates, Abigail Disney.
In the >photo gallery you will see pictures of the desert and of a few of the many beautiful animals we saw. There are pictures of our visit with Bushmen in the relocation camps. There are much happier pictures of us with a Bushman community that is living traditionally.
The Botswana government seems determined to destroy the culture and the way of life of The Bushmen. It is on the point of changing the country's constitution to remove existing protection for the San Bushmen. These camps are sites of misery, boredom, unemployment, alcoholism and AIDS (37 Bushmen in just one of these camps now have HIV/AIDS.)
We had an opportunity to spend a few days with The Bushmen who are living on a private farm, protected by the farmer. They maintain their traditional way of life. They care for themselves in a non-violent and community manner. They have immense knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants. They make wonderful art and jewelry. They showed us how they gathered plants, cooked food, and made jewelry. They sang us wonderful songs and showed us a melon dance where they toss the melon, each with their own signature toss.
But they could not do this if they had been relocated and put in camps where they have no access to their traditions, most of which require living in balance with the land and the animals.
As I flew over the desert which goes on and on for thousands of miles, I could see no reason except historic disdain and racism that the government would want to destroy these people and their way of life. Oh, yes, well there is De Beers diamonds!
The San Bushman are global family. The Land Rights Fund describes the situation like this:
The San Bushmen cause is a unique one: according to many geneticists and most ethnologists, not only do the San Bushmen of southern Africa's Kalahari represent the oldest living culture on earth (estimated to be as ancient as 70,000 years old), but we all share a common DNA with them, making the Bushmen our oldest living ancestors. San Bushman culture is non-violent, actively promotes gender equality and centers around healing - whether through traditional medicines or the use of trance. Hunters, gatherers and in some cases herders, the Bushmen traditionally require little to take care of their daily needs and are widely known by anthropologists and ecologists to be acutely aware of the fragility of the natural environment: true caretakers of the earth, in other words. However, in most of Southern Africa, but especially in Botswana, they are being dispossessed at an alarming rate, mostly due to diamond mining, cattle ranching and the establishment of game parks - a process that Amnesty International has called a "cultural genocide."
Now it appears to be more than cultural. The government is making it impossible for these people to live. It has become a life and death issue. Botswana holds proud its reputation as a democracy in Africa. But they are about to participate in what may become genocide.
Here is the good news. The powerful women who were on our journey, along with human rights organizations and land rights groups and tourism companies are joining together to shine light on this part of the world. Criticism has been expressed, meetings have been requested, negotiated settlements proposed, and it looks like there is some receptivity. We want to encourage this.
Mostly I want to impress upon you how deeply moved I was by The Bushmen. They hold, precariously, ancient wisdom and global ancestry. May we in our collective heart, our belief in hope through activism, have an effect on this current situation.
Abigail Disney was one of my travel mates. We often talked into the night about the children we love, the music that moves us, the ideas that inspire us. She was great at spotting birds, I was good at spotting the hoofed creatures. We shared the thrill of being on the desert and we fell in love with the people we met, the people who could dig down below what seemed like a dry brittle bush and find with joy, a potato rich with nutrients and full of thirst quenching moisture. I so appreciate the way in which Abby has compiled what we learned on this trip.
The reasons the government gives for forcibly removing (emphasis on the word "forcibly"--some have been beaten, one killed, all have been bullied in a variety of ways) seems to shift with the wind, and we all know from experience that shifting justifications are usually an indications that there's another agenda in there, well hidden.
We've been told, variously, that the Bushmen are being removed because they need to be "developed" and that development is incompatible with living on a game reserve. We've been told that the Bushmen are no longer living "traditionally" and so no longer legally can claim the right to live there. We've been told that the CKGR is for animals and tourists only, and that the Bushmen are being removed for their own safety. We've been told that the goats they keep, as a back-up food supply because they are not allowed to hunt game year-round as they would have traditionally, expose the CKGR animals to diseases and the landscape to overgrazing. And we've been told that the Bushmen's presence in the CKGR is a threat to the long term well-being of the eco-system.
Each of these rationalizations appears at first to have merit, but all of them collapse under the weight of the tiniest scrutiny. The fact is that these people trace their origins in the land 60,000 + years, and if they did not know how to steward it, they would have disappeared from the face of the earth long before we would ever have had the opportunity to come to know them. And in those limited ways in which they have given up some of their traditions it has only been because the government has forced these changes upon them.
And this, in spite of the fact that the CKGR itself was set aside specifically to protect the Bushmen and their way of life, and in spite of the fact that the Constitution of Botswana protects their right to this land in perpetuity. All these people want is to live in peace and harmony with the land of their ancestors (and if recent DNA studies are true, they are ALL OF OUR ancestors) and not die slowly in despair and squalor in the hideous resettlement camps set aside for them by the government.
They are not asking for mineral rights. They are not asking not to be educated or governed. They are not asking for much at all.
What do the government's actions tell us? The government is currently trying to change its constitution so as to divest these Bushmen of their traditional lands. The government has sent police and wildlife officials into the remaining Kalahari communities to beat, intimidate and harass the last remaining inhabitants. They have closed precious boreholes, separated families, restricted the free movement of the Bushmen and anyone who vocally supports them, and as of last week they have closed the entire CKGR, ostensibly for "administrative" purposes (this is like "closing" Yellowstone!) while simultaneously stepping up the removals, clearly while no one can possibly be watching.
And finally, not long after the removal policy was announced, the government gave away diamond concessions accounting for 2/3 of the CKGR to their oldest partners in that business, including, not surprisingly DeBeers and its Botswanan affiliate Debswana. Whether or not diamonds are at the heart of this issue it is hard to say, but we cannot underestimate the role plain-old, garden-variety racism plays--historically the Bushmen have been reviled by whites as well as by black tribes all over Southern Africa--tortured, traded as slaves and even hunted as animals. As recently as the 60's, one could buy a license to hunt a Bushmen as game!
I came to Botswana because I wanted to listen and learn. I had no intention of coming home an advocate. If I am, it is because the Botswana government turned me into one, and because at a fundamental level I care about the gross unfairness of changing the rules in the middle of the game and removing a constitutional protection for the sake of short term political or financial ends.
Right now, as you sit here and read this, the last of the Bushmen are starting to die, with no food or water, and no ability to call out for help. We are not talking about a large group of people here. But we are talking about a 60,000 year old culture snuffed out willy-nilly, and only because no one cares enough to object.
The land rights of the Khwe, the Gana and Gwi of the Central Kalahari Game Range (CKGR) in Botswana were enshrined in that nation's constitution in 1961. Thus this land was set aside for use by these indigenous people before the country became independent. These rights were re-ratified in 1965.
Despite their rights to the CKGR guaranteed in the Botswana Constitution the Khwe San have been evicted from the CKGR. This community of 3,500 people was forcibly relocated in 2002. The government asserts that the residents were "no longer real Bushmen", that they had over-hunted the reserve and abandoned their traditional ways of living, and therefore, had to be moved both for their own good and the good of the reserve ñ this despite the fact that a management report for the CKGR commissioned by the government in 1998 found that biomass there had significantly increased under the Gana and Gwi's stewardship. The report states:
The suggestion that wildlife populations throughout the Kalahari are in a state of terminal decline is not supported by the evidence. There has been a good recovery of wildlife in the CKGR/KGR since the droughts of the 1980s, with significant increases in the numbers of three out of seven major ungulate species, and no significant declines in any species.
In 2002 shortly after the eviction of the San from the CKGR most of this land was ceded to several diamond-mining companies as exploration and mining concessions.
History and Background of the San Situation
For thousands of years, the Khwe or San, popularly known as Bushmen, were the only inhabitants of Southern Africa. These people hunted and gathered wild plants. Much of their ancestral land is now incorporated into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana.
In most parts of Southern Africa, the Khwe are not referred to or regarded as "black", and almost all the words used to describe them--Bushman, San, Basarwa--carry pejorative meanings. Culture also plays a key role in the disenfranchisement of the Khwe: they are hunter-gatherer pacifists, while most modern day African tribes are cattle-keepers with a strong warrior heritage.
The first attempts to evict the CKGR residents were halted by the efforts of First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) after it received a request on February 20, 1996, from John Hardbattle of First Peoples of the Kalahari (FPK). Hardbattle himself was responding to a request he received from a traditional Khwe man from the CKGR, who was asking for immediate assistance and legal representation from FPK to stop the removal of the Khwe people from the CKGR. The Khwe sent a report and community testimony on a meeting the Ministry of Local Land, Governments, and Housing (MLLGH) held February 7, 1996, on the CKGR. Patrick Balopi, of MLLGH, notified all the communities within CKGR that they would have to leave the Reserve ìin the interest of the wildlife.î Hardbattle requested that FNDI, provide the overall strategic, legal, and technical assistance to: (1) stop the removal, and (2) secure title to the lands. In response to FPKís urgent request, FNDI developed a two-fold strategy to: (1) use international political and governmental pressure and public opinion to get the removal postponed, and (2) undertake the legal research and facilitate proceedings to secure the land.
Phase 1 of FNDI Strategy
Hardbattle, the Khwe representative and FNDI attended the United Nations High Commission on Racism and Discrimination in Geneva from March 17 through April 10, 1996, to stop the forced removal. Substantial progress was made in gaining international attention and support to prevent the forced removal of the Khwe in the immediate future as evidenced by:
Members of the United States Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations Committees wrote a letter to the Botswana government expressing their concern about the situation facing the Khwe and urged the government to reconsider any action that would result in their displacement from the CKGR. Meetings continued with members and aides of the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations Committees during their trip to the United States in 1996. Tim Reiser, Aide to Senator Leahy, coordinated the meetings.
Parliamentarians from Norway, Denmark, and the EU would be sending a fact-finding mission into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Great Britain's House of Lords introduced the issue before Parliament because they created the Reserve and were concerned about the integrity of their intent. The British High Commissioner in Botswana was asked to head into the Kalahari Desert to meet the threatened Khwe bushmen.
Prince Charles met with Hardbattle and the Khwe representative while they were in London to pledge his support.
A press conference was held in London on April 4th, and articles appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Times of London, The Financial Times, The London Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, the Spanish News Agency, and Deutschpresse. Interviews were also conducted on the BBC and Sky TV, and radio shows were broadcast on the BBC World Service, BBC Focus on Africa, and Radio France International.
In May, the then President of Botswana, His Excellency, Sir Ketumile Masire, announced that he would conduct a briefing on the "Basarwa" (Khwe) situation in Washington, D.C. Members of FPK flew to the United States to be present for the President's first official statement about the situation. After requesting a private meeting, FNDI, FPK and an Indigenous representative from the CKGR met with the President and several of his advisors in Washington, D.C. on June 13, 1996. During that meeting, he agreed to begin discussions with the Khwe in Botswana.
President Ketumile Masire conducted a public briefing at the World Wildlife Fund addressing the government's position on "remote area dwellers" (the Khwe and others) and allowed questions from the audience. After his presentation, he acknowledged that the government continually tries to persuade the Khwe to relocate the settlements "for their own good," and for the benefit of all people in Botswana. However, he stated that the government would not forcibly remove them from their homes. The President presented only two options for the Khwe: Option 1 was to remain on their territory with the situation remaining as it was then (limited access to water and food, and the continual "persuasion" to leave); or Option 2, which was to relocate to the settlements designated by the government (which the Khwe call "places of death").
A third option, presented by FNDI and agreed to by the San, was for the Khwe and the government to collaborate to find mutually agreeable ways of managing the CKGR, and to determine culturally appropriate economic development alternatives so the Khwe could continue their environmental management practices that have sustained the land, themselves and the local wildlife for centuries. However, this option was only mentioned and not discussed. In addition, the President stated that it is the government's policy to only compensate the Khwe for the cost of resettlement--there was no compensation made for what they've lost.
Phase 2 of FNDI Strategy
After successfully completing Phase 1 of their strategic plan "to use international political and governmental pressure and public opinion to get the removal of the Khwe postponed", FPK and FNDI moved into Phase 2, "to secure possessor rights to the CKGR for the Khwe". During this effort Hardbattle, the main spokesperson for the Gana and Gwi died. Soon after his death, the first round of evictions began in 1997. However, these evictions caused enough of a human rights outcry in the USA and Britain that the Botswana government soon backed off.
In order to improve the standard of living for the Khwe who lived outside established and/or recognized villages, the government of Botswana introduced the Remote Area Dweller Program (RADP) in 1975. Although it was initially called the Bushman Development Program which more accurately reflected the cultural background of the majority of its clients, the name was later changed to RADP in order to avoid what the Botswana Government anticipated would be a negative reaction to its potential apartheid (separate development) connotations.
Unfortunately, the RADP has not been successful in satisfying the basic objectives articulated by the Khwe people. Despite the influx of large amounts of foreign development aid through programs such as RADP and the Natural Resources Management Project (NRMP), the standard of living of the resident of the CKGR and the surrounding settlements decreased in relative terms.
Officially, the government of Botswana maintained that they were not forcing people to leave the CKGR. According to the government, the provisions of basic social services remain the primary motivation for encouraging residents to move. The government made promises to CKGR residents that they would be provided with cattle, land, and the basic social services if they moved to settlements such as Okwa or Xade, which are located outside the CKGR. Unfortunately, there have been several cases where the promised services and "compensation" has not materialized and those who moved have become destitute and completely dependent upon governmental support for survival.
It is important to also note that in 1997, output of the three diamond operations (Orapa, Jwaneng and Letlhakane) in Botswana represented approximately 50% of DeBeers annual profit, making the Republic of Botswana a model of modern economic success. In contrast, the original inhabitants of the territory, the Khwe, were said to be the "poorest of the poor", mostly living in extreme poverty, lacking land tenure and dependent upon the State.
In 2000, the remaining CKGR residents had their special game licenses (i.e. household hunting licenses) revoked ñ several cases of beating and the torture of hunters at the hands of wildlife officials were reported and testimonies taken, but no investigation followed. In 2001, intimidation tactics were stepped up and finally in 2002, boreholes in the CKGR villages were filled in, villagers were loaded onto trucks and were later deposited in three resettlement camps. A few months later two-thirds of the reserve was leased to De Beers, Debswana and BHP Billiton (all mining companies) for diamond exploration. Both the Botswana government and mining companies assert that there was no connection between the CKGR removals and diamond mining.
Immediately after their eviction, the Gana and Gwi under the aegis of FPK, took the government to court, asserting that the removals had been illegal as the peoplesí rights to reside, hunt, gather, graze and use water inside the CKGR had twice been ratified by the government itself. The case was thrown out on a technicality and FPK could not raise sufficient funds to bring the case back to court until 2004. To date it is reported that approximately 250-300 Khwe are still living in the CKGR.
Current History and The Indigenous Land Rights Fund
In January 2005, the IFC sent an Ombudsman to conduct their own investigate of the situation faced by the Khwe in the CKGR. We are still awaiting the IFC Ombudsman report to be completed or released.
In June 2005, seven hunters were picked up by the wildlife authorities, beaten severely about the genitals and had gasoline poured into their anuses.† These abuses have been going on unchecked for over three years now. Moreover the community appears to be dying at an unsustainable rate. Of the 242 Bushmen, out of a total population of about 3,000 who signed the land claim currently in the Botswana courts, at least 10% have died. The death rate appears to be accelerating. Meanwhile the government claims that it will never allow them to go home and that they will 'perish like the dodo' should they not follow the plans to mainstream them. The irony seems to be that, with no choice but to sit in the camps as the government dictates, they are perishing anyway.
The Botswana government is considering a change in the nation's Constitution that would legalize the taking of the CKGR and the expulsion of the San. Urgent action is required to stop this process and facilitate the return of the San to their ancestral lands in the Kalahari.
The Indigenous Land Rights Fund (ILRF) has undertaken numerous legal actions on behalf of the Gana and Gwi. The ILRF grew out of a long established organization - the Kalahari Peoples' Fund (KPF), a 30 year old non-profit. As the need for more intensive advocacy in the matter of land claims became clear, it was deemed prudent to set up a U.S. based sister organization to deal with the land rights issue separately, so as not to endanger KPF's existing humanitarian projects within Botswana. The Indigenous Land Rights Fund (ILRF) exists to help displaced or soon-to-be displaced indigenous communities gain secure tenure of their ancestral land. The organization works through courts on the ground, through the international courts, through direct lobbying of government both in the USA and in the home country, through lobbying of corporations, and through mediation. They take a multi-faceted approach to each case, making sure that all avenues are thoroughly explored, so as to bring about the best result in the shortest possible time. The ILRF is a young organization, founded in 2004 but based on founder Rupert Isaacson's ten years experience fighting for bushman land rights in Southern Africa. In the short year ILRF has been in existence it has moved so fast and so effectively and has accomplished the following on behalf of the Gana and Gwi:
•A direct land claim case on the ground in Botswana, disputing the legality of the evictions and asking that the Bushmens' rights to dwell, hunt, gather, take water and graze within the CKGR be restored to them. ILRF is working closely with
another indigenous rights group, Survival International, on this case.
•A case to be brought before the African Commission on Human Rights, asking that the organization pressure the African Union to pressure the Botswana government to allow the Gana and Gwi to return to their ancestral homeland, and to cease keeping them in resettlement camps where death rates are becoming unsustainable.
•A case of illegal eviction and cultural genocide to be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
•ILRF works to coordinate pro-bono legal and technical support. Such as the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), and with law school human rights clinics such as the Human Rights Clinic at American University Law School and the Rappaport Center at University of Texas. They also have extensive contact networks at the UN (ILRI has official observer status there under the wing of the International League for Human Rights), U.S. State Department, IFC and World Bank, Congressional Human Rights Caucus and other relevant groups. Partner organizations include Survival International, Kalahari Peoples' Fund, Physicians for Human Rights, the Bank Information Center, the First Nations Development Institute, and the International League for Human Rights. ILRF is currently seeking more pro-bono legal aid to help it fight for the land rights of the San.
In addition, ILRF has launched an investigation of ethics breaking within the International Finance Corporation (IFC), who have partially financed the operations of one of the mining companies involved in the illegally vacated land. In addition, ILRF offers mediation to the Botswana government - via the UN, U.S. State Department and through a team of 11 U.S. Senators - for a settlement to be made out of court, for the Gana and Gwi's existing rights to the CKGR to be upheld and the people allowed to return home and make their own negotiations with the mining companies involved.
All the Bushmen want is the right to go home to the CKGR. They are not saying to the government 'don't mine'. They are not asking for mineral rights.
Timing is critical for powerful legal and public pressure to be exerted immediately on the Botswana government as they consider changing the Botswana constitution to ìlegalizeî the eviction of the Khwe San from their ancestral lands.