Ancient Southern Africa Tribe Battles to Avoid Eviction from Kalahari Reserve

Efforts by Botswana's government to remove the last two ethnic Basarwa groups from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the latest chapter in a long history of dislocation and loss.

KAUDWANE, Botswana — Clans of hunter-gathers have survived in central Botswana's stark, desert plains for more than 20,000 years. Few are left now, and they are in a bitter fight to remain on land that has been declared a wildlife reserve.

Efforts by Botswana's government to remove the last two ethnic Basarwa groups from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the latest chapter in a long history of dislocation and loss.

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

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

Basarwa activists accuse the government of forcing them off ancestral land at gunpoint to make way for mining of the gems, which account for three-fourths of Botswana's export earnings. Their appeal before the High Court resumes in February.


Authorities deny the charge, saying the government already owns the mineral rights even if Basarwas are in the reserve.

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 across southern Africa. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive in one of Earth's harshest environments fascinate scholars, and they were 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 that 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 about 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 rich in wildlife and a fast disappearing way of life. Botswana supported traditional communities after independence in 1966, providing water, food and mobile clinics in the reserve.

With time, however, once nomadic Basarwa families started building permanent settlements, raising goats and planting crops. Instead of hunting on foot, with arrows tipped in poison, they started using horses and four-wheel-drive vehicles, drying and selling excess meat to outsiders.

By 1985, wildlife officials were worried about environmental damage, and local administrators were complaining about the cost of providing services to the remote settlements scattered in an area the size of Switzerland.

It was decided to consolidate Basarwas in villages outside the reserve, said Ringo Ipoteng, council secretary in the district that includes the park. Close to 2,000 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, and now heads the village committee in Kaudwane. He uses his tracking skills to help tag leopards and lions in the reserve and believes Basarwa culture can be preserved in the new setting.

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

Others, however, soured on life in the bleak community of cinderblock homes on the reserve's southern edge. It has a clinic, school, piped water and toilets, and 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 to hunt and gather, but is afraid of 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 to relocation 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 that campaigns for indigenous peoples around the world, accuses officials of beatings and torture -- charges angrily disputed by the government.

In September, authorities closed the park's southern and central sections. 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.

Source: Associated Press

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