NEWS 2005


Ancient Tribe Battles to Keep Kalahari Their Own


Posted: 12/19/2005 12:51 PM

(Rapaport...Associated Press, KAUDWANE) For more than 20,000 years, clans of hunter-gathers have survived in central Botswana's stark, desert plains. Now, a handful are left, locked in a bitter dispute over their right to remain in what has been declared a wildlife reserve.

Botswana's efforts to remove two small ethnic Basarwa communities from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the latest chapter in a long history of dislocation and loss.

Government officials argue the Basarwas' changing lifestyle is incompatible with wildlife conservation. They want the last holdouts, estimated at less than 30, to be resettled where they can be provided modern services such as schools and clinics.

Basarwa activists accuse the government of forcing them off their ancestral land at gunpoint to make way for diamond mining, charges denied by authorities.

Letsema Tshotlego, a member of the First People of the Kalahari group, said he left the reserve in October to seek medical help for his aging grandmother and has not been allowed back.

"It hurts," he said, touching his heart. "My whole life is there. A person never forgets where he comes from."

Tshotlego's people, who speak a variety of distinctive "click" languages, were the original inhabitants of a vast area stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth have fascinated scholars. They were even the subject of a hit movie: "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

Also known as San or Bushmen, they were driven to near extinction by Bantu tribes who started pushing south from central Africa about 1,500 years ago and the Europeans who followed 350 years ago. The settlers took the most fertile land and the Basarwa retreated into the Kalahari. Only an estimated 100,000 are left today, most living in poverty on society's fringes.

British colonial authorities set up the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 to protect an area surprisingly rich in wildlife and a fast disappearing way of life.

Botswana supported traditional communities after independence in 1966, providing water, food and mobile clinics.

With time, however, once nomadic families began building permanent settlements, raising goats and planting crops. Instead of hunting on foot, their bows and arrows tipped with poison, they started using horses and four-wheel drive vehicles. The meat once shared among the community was dried and sold as a popular snack.

By 1985, wildlife officials were worried about environmental damage, while district administrators were complaining about the cost of bringing services to the remote settlements. It was decided to consolidate the Basarwa in villages outside the reserve where they could "enjoy the fruits of independence," said Ringo Ipoteng, council secretary in the district that includes the park.

Close to 2,000 Basarwa have relocated since 1997, most persuaded by the offer of livestock and financial compensation, he said.

Pogiso Ithuteng was among the first to leave, drawn by the promise of education for his children. He now heads the village committee in Kaudwane and uses his tracking skills to help tag leopards and lions in the reserve.

"We can still teach our children to hunt. We can still teach our children which wild fruits to gather," he said. "What can't we do?"

Others, however, quickly became disillusioned with life in the bleak, concrete block village on the reserve's southern edge.

There is a clinic, school, piped water and toilets. Job training is offered, but most of the more than 500 residents rely on government handouts. Alcoholism, prostitution and AIDS are growing concerns. A small outdoor tavern is full of people whiling away long, sweltering hours playing cards and drinking beer under the trees.

Monday Mokwena tried farming, but said little grows in the sandy soil. He wants to go back to the reserve, but is afraid of armed paramilitary police.

"There we were free," he said, sipping tea from a tin cup outside a traditional shelter made of thatch and branches. "Here we feel like we are in prison."

As resistance mounted, officials adopted strong-arm tactics. Food and water distribution were stopped and hunting licenses withdrawn in the reserve.

Survival International, a British-based group campaigning for indigenous peoples around the world, accuses officials of beatings and torture, charges angrily refuted by the government.

In September, authorities closed the park's southern and central sections, saying this was necessary to keep a skin disease from spreading from domestic goats to wildlife.

Tshotlego said his family's goats were trucked away. Relatives outside the reserve were barred from bringing food and water.

Police acknowledge they fired rubber bullets at Basarwa activists trying to break through their blockades in October. One person was shot in the jaw and another in the leg, witnesses say.

Underlining the increasingly bitter conflict is the possibility that diamonds glitter beneath the shifting sands.

Survival International has backed a lawsuit by about 240 Basarwa accusing the government of destroying their traditional way of life to make way for mining, which accounts for three-fourths of Botswana's export earnings. It has also urged an international boycott of the De Beers diamond giant, which along with the government controls Botswana mines.

Officials say all mineral rights already belong to the government, and the scattered Basarwa communities are unlikely to get in the way of production in an area the size of Switzerland. The case resumes in February.

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