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In 1997, the government of Botswana began evicting San and Bakgalagadi people from their homelands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve out of concern that the groups’ hunter-gatherer way of life was harming wildlife. Since then, local and international advocacy groups have been engaged in an arduous struggle to enable the groups to return.

Domestic activists face harsh consequences from the state, including arrest, beating, and alleged torture, while foreign activists on their behalf face arrest, visa restriction, and expulsion from the country.

San activist Roy Sesana, circa 2005. © Lottie Davies/Survival International.
San activist Roy Sesana, circa 2005. © Lottie Davies/Survival International.

As the San and Bakgalagadi and their advocates prepare their next legal offensive under the threat of government reprisals, they are raising questions not only about the value of human rights in Botswana, but also about how best to steward the country’s rich natural resources. They argue that the indigenous groups, making their living on the land with traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles, are far better able to preserve biodiversity than contemporary conservation approaches, such as wildlife-only parks.

A San family in traditional dress. © Aino Tuominen
A San family in traditional dress. © Aino Tuominen

Overall, somewhere between 2,200 and 2,500 people were resettled, though the government claims that many left the reserve of their own volition. In any case, a mélange of welfare dependency, prostitution, and alcohol abuse now dominate people’s daily lives in New Xade and Kaudwane, according to Gordon Bennett, a British human rights attorney who has worked for the two groups on various proceedings against the Botswana government.

The Kalahari people first issued litigation against the government of Botswana over their relocation from the CKGR in 2002. Their initial attempt was dismissed by Botswana’s High Court on a technicality. But the appeal was successful, developing into the longest court case in the country’s history.

Gordon Bennett began representing the groups in 2004 after two years of impediments that he said were due in part to procedural mistakes made by the original legal team. Litigation costs were funded primarily by Survival International.

In December 2006 the High Court granted permission for 189 of 243 applicants to return to the CKGR. They were permitted to hunt and gather, provided they acquired government-approved game licenses. The caveat to the victory was that all social services would remain withheld.

San people celebrate a victory in a court case against the Botswana government in December 2006. © Survival International.
San people celebrate a victory in a court case against the Botswana government in December 2006. © Survival International.

Bennett described the result: “The people faced an obvious difficulty because there was no water source within the reserve. The government had capped off the only borehole and refused to reopen it.”

The Kalahari people then commenced a legal battle over their right to water in the CKGR. They won that case, too, in January 2011. “That really made it feasible for people to return, particularly with elderly dependents or young children, because the lack of water can be very difficult in that environment,” Bennett said.

The people’s return to the reserve held another hidden caveat, according to Bennett, which is that the government refused to issue game licenses, despite the court having declared in 2006 that this was a violation of the groups’ right to life, food rations having been revoked.

Since then, dozens of foreign academics, journalists, and human rights activists who reported on or protested the marginalisation of the Kalahari people have been issued visa restrictions or declared prohibited immigrants. Bennett’s visa application is currently denied.

Part of the reason for keeping the San and Bagkalagadi out of the CKGR is that the Botswana government fears that foreign ecotourists won’t like seeing people in the reserve, both because the wilderness won’t look “natural,” and also because they are embarrassed by the groups’ “primitive” appearance, according to an activist on behalf of the displaced groups who requested anonymity due to concerns of possible government reprisal.

Ironically, bans on regulated hunting by traditional people may lead to rapid wildlife population reduction as poachers move in and exterminate unsustainably.

Gemsbok in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. © Adobe Stock
Gemsbok in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. © Adobe Stock

In contrast to the trending environmental philosophy of fauna preservation at any cost, this approach holds that having a local population that kills what it needs to survive actually stabilises, and may even help bolster wildlife populations.

The future of the San and the Bakgalagadi hangs in the balance. Despite a visa setback, Bennett and his team are now preparing for two related cases. The first is aimed at forcing the government to issue hunting licenses to San and Bagkalagadi people now living in the reserve. The second, more tedious, case involves gaining access to the CKGR for the people who remain barred from returning.

For the time being, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve remains a magnificent wilderness where people from all corners of the globe can travel — all except those who call it home.

Read the full article here: Mongabay


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Africa Geographic Travel
Michael Schwartz

Michael Schwartz is an American consultant currently living in upstate New York. It wasn't until the age of twenty one when he got the opportunity to pack his bags and visit a South African game reserve. What started as a hobby soon developed into a passion for the African continent. With advanced degrees in Journalism and African studies, he has since had the good fortune of exploring the breadth of Southern Africa from its scenic shores to the rugged hinterland, as well as assisting in regional humanitarian endeavors. He plans to continue his journey discovering Africa while seeking out new ways of using his freelance photography and writing to promote environmental conservation and to raise cultural awareness.