From The Economist print edition
Another setback for the Kalahari Bushmen
WHEN Botswana’s High Court ruled three years ago that the country’s Bushmen (also known as the San) should be allowed to live and hunt in their ancestral territories in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), it seemed a comprehensive victory for some of the world’s last desert hunter-gatherers. But since then the authorities have issued no licences. In fact, none has been given out since 2001. And a recent court case does not inspire much hope for the Bushmen.
Relocated in the 1990s and earlier this decade, only a few Bushmen have been able to return to the empty scrubland of the central Kalahari since the 2006 ruling. Scores have been arrested for hunting without permits, according to Survival International, a charity that helps indigenous peoples trying to preserve their traditional way of life. This week, for the first time, six Bushmen, including at least one of the plaintiffs in the 2006 case, Tshetha Ntwatamogala, were convicted of illegally hunting gemsbok and eland in the reserve.
After a fortnight behind bars they were all cautioned and freed following the intervention of Gordon Bennett, a British barrister who had previously argued the High Court case. Still, their conviction is a setback. As one of the judges in the 2006 case put it, letting people back into the reserve without letting them hunt is “tantamount to condemning the remaining residents of the CKGR to death by starvation”.
The government has long argued that hunting in the reserve must remain illegal to protect the wildlife, even though the Bushmen, who hunt with spears, bows and arrows, have a relatively small effect on the animals. Clifford Maribe, spokesman for Botswana’s foreign ministry, says that the authorities are acting in the Bushmen’s own interests, pointing out that permanent structures such as clinics and schools cannot be built inside the reserve. “Living inside the game reserve limits their livelihood opportunities,” he says. “Their standard of living cannot be improved.”
The government may have other motives. Botswana is arguably Africa’s biggest all-round success. It is lucky enough to have a lot of diamonds, a tiny population (of less than 2m), an income per head (around $6,000) far above the continental average despite the ravages of HIV/AIDS, and a decent record of government. But some Botswanans are embarrassed by some of their compatriots living much as they did a thousand years ago. Add to that the cattle-herder’s traditional disdain for hunter-gatherers.
Mr Bennett also argues that Botswana’s role as a front-line state against apartheid in neighbouring South Africa has left its own special legacy. “[Botswanans] have allowed themselves to believe that having a separate ethnic group without contact with the outside world is effectively apartheid and they shouldn’t have it.”