UN gets involved in the fight between Bushmen and Botswana government

The government of Botswana says it has “no problem” with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People visiting the country for a briefing on the San Bushmen, who are contesting their relocation from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, according to a UN news service release.

The San Bushmen were relocated to the New Xade and Kaudwane settlements outside the reserve after the government drew up controversial plans to set aside the CKGR for wildlife and tourism development. San rights groups have claimed the Bushmen were forcibly removed from their ancestral land to make way for diamond explorations in the game reserve.

The Botswana government has denied these charges.

Relocation began in 1997, when, according to government figures, 1,740 people were removed from the CKGR to the settlements of New Xade and Kaudwane. Another 530 reluctantly moved out when the government cut off water, food rations, health and social services to the reserve in early 2002. Those who moved received a measure of compensation in money and cattle.

But about 50 residents refused to leave. Activists have claimed that at least another 100, unhappy with life in New Xade, have trekked back into the reserve, rebuilt their branch-and-thatch huts, and live off the land. San rights groups have also claimed that many others in New Xade want to return to the CKGR.

The San took the Botswana government to court in April 2002, seeking an order to declare illegal the government’s decision to terminate the provision of basic and essential services to those who had refused to leave the CKGR. The case continues in the Lobatse High Court.

At a news conference in neighboring South Africa earlier this week, UN Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen said the San had a right to be consulted about the use of their ancestral lands, according to a release from IRINnews.org, a UN humanitarian news and information service.

“I think the San people in Botswana have a legitimate case in terms of not wanting to be evicted from their homeland … Therefore, I think negotiations are extremely important,” Stavenhagen reportedly said.

Botswana government spokesman Jeff Ramsay told IRIN that the government had consulted the San over their relocation from the CKGR.

“Firstly, the Basarwa [Bushmen] were consulted between 1985 and 1997, so that the ones who removed themselves—the vast majority—were paid compensation packages after they agreed to relocate,” Ramsay said.

He also challenged the assertion by activists that hundreds of Bushmen were keen to return to the CKGR, commenting that “we’ve only seen seven in court.”

“There is a court case ongoing, and that puts us in a certain sub-judice situation regarding some of these issues, but what I saw was Radolfo [Stavenhagen] saying was that he wishes to come to Botswana to talk to us, and I see nothing wrong with that because I think he needs to be briefed from our point of view – we are certainly open to having a dialogue [with him],” Ramsay reportedly said.

In a report to the 60th session of the Economic and Social Council of the Commission for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur noted that he had requested a meeting with the authorities before visiting the San in February 2002.

Stavenhagen had again sent a letter to the government of Botswana in November 2003, “stressing his view that constructive dialogue with the national authorities is the most effective way for him to contribute to an effective response to the needs of indigenous peoples. In this context, the Special Rapporteur recalled that he had informed the authorities of his intention to visit the communities and also requested a meeting with governmental representatives,” the report said.

He had also “expressed his ongoing interest in making an official visit to the country … to discuss with the authorities, indigenous communities and NGOs the situation of indigenous peoples in Botswana”.

However, Stavenhagen’s office reportedly said they were yet to receive a formal invitation from the government of Botswana.