Dispute Over ‘Bushmen’ Heats Up

The fight between De Beers and the nongovernmental organization Survival International has turned nasty—and could end up in the courts.

Survival International is protesting the Botswana government’s relocation of the Bushmen tribes from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The group claims they are being evicted to make room for De Beers diamond mines. De Beers denies this, saying that none of the sites are economical to mine and that building a mine does not require resettling native populations. In a recent speech, Botswanan President Festus Mogae reiterated this, saying any “assisted relocation of Basarwa from areas of the CKGR … was in no way related to any plan, real or fictitious, to commence diamond mining in the CKGR.”

Even so, in October, Survival International upped the ante, plastering a photo of a Bushman over the face of De Beers LV “style icon” Iman on the site of the company’s store in London. They also staged a protest to coincide with the store’s opening in November and have lobbied Iman to stop promoting De Beers.

De Beers LV laughed off Survival’s tactics. “No matter how hard Survival had tried to spoil the opening of the De Beers store they must be chagrined that it was such a huge success,” says De Beers LV spokeswoman Joan Parker. “Only because of them were we able to get the very commercial photo of Iman with the De Beers logo on the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times. The more they keep up their efforts, the more people will know about the new De Beers store.”

Still, there are signs the company is taking this seriously. In November, its lawyers wrote Survival “to inform [it] of the serious consequences of any future activity or statement that would defame De Beers and its commercial interests,” a company statement said.

“De Beers … cannot ignore the sustained campaign against it and the dissemination to the media of untrue and misleading information damaging to the reputation of De Beers,” it continued. “In correspondence over many months De Beers has provided information to Survival International about the true facts in relation to the allegations against De Beers. Unfortunately this information has not been taken into account, and indeed the public statements being made against De Beers by Survival International have become much more serious.”

In response, Survival director Stephen Corry told JCK: ” ‘Survival has been threatened many times by companies and governments which put profits before tribal peoples’ rights. However, we have not the slightest intention of betraying the responsibility which so many Gana and Gwi Bushmen have asked us to shoulder for many years. The Bushmen have asked us to help them get their ancestral land back, and the campaign will now be stepped up until they are back living on it without fear of further harassment. This could happen in just a few days if the Botswana government and its ‘Siamese twin,’ De Beers, wanted it to.”