End near for Kalahari Bushmen

The Times

HARARE: The Bushmen of the Kalahari, among Africa's last indigenous peoples, are on the verge of losing their ancestral homeland after the Government of Botswana stepped up a campaign to force them into squalid resettlement camps.

The Government has sent heavily armed wildlife guards into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, an area promised to the Bushmen "in perpetuity". Between 200 and 250 Gana and Gwi Bushmen live in the area, having drifted back after previous evictions.

The Government has banned all outsiders, including journalists, from the area. It said a disease had been discovered in the Bushmen's goats, which could be fatal.

Vets said the disease, sarcoptic mange, was common and posed no real threat to wild animals or humans.

The authorities' action was timed to coincide with the start of the Bushmen's final appeal against the evictions of 1997 and 2002.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, which has highlighted the Bushmen's plight, said: "The Government seems hellbent on finishing them off this time. The situation is very urgent. Unless circumstances change through outside intervention, this could very well be the end of these particular people."

A bill removing a clause in the constitution that guaranteed the Bushmen the right to live in the Kalahari in perpetuity - the basis of their case against the Government - is before parliament. Once passed, the appeal is expected to collapse.

Botswana, which has a reputation as one of Africa's success stories, first began moving the Bushmen off the land in the mid-1990s. It said it could no longer afford the paltry costs of providing them with basic services.

It also accused the Bushmen of threatening game through hunting. Mr Corry said: "The excuses given were ludicrous, and the Government changed its arguments several times."

Squeezed together in resettlement camps and unable to live their traditional life, many of the Bushmen have developed serious health problems, while drunkenness and prostitution are also rife.

Most people, including several government ministers who went public on the issue, said the real reason for the evictions was that deposits of diamonds were discovered in the area.

The state diamond company, an offshoot of the De Beers diamond conglomerate, maintains that even the richest diamond deposits, which lie at the heart of the Bushmen's land, are currently uneconomic to mine. However, De Beers does not rule out mining them at a later date.

Many leading figures in the state mining company, Debswana, are ministers in the recently re-elected Government of President Festus Mogae.

Bushmen are treated with disdain by Botswana's farming tribes. Mr Corry, who called for British intervention, said: "There is very deep-seated racism on the part of the Government clique."