After years of dispute, authorities permit access to water for displaced Bushmen

Botswana: Hope for forcibly resettled indigenous people in the Kalahari


The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) expressed relief on learning of the Botswana government's decision to finally permit access to drinking water for the San indigenous peoples in the Kalahari Game Reserve, after years of legal battles. "Now the San people, once driven from the Kalahari, have a renewed prospect of survival there," stated the head of the Africa section at the STP, Ulrich Delius, on Tuesday in Göttingen. "This decision by the authorities was long overdue. On 27 January 2011 the highest court in the land reaffirmed the right of the San to return to their previous settlement areas and use the wells there."

Since the mid-1990s when there were some 5000 San living in the Kalahari, authorities forcibly removed them from the Game Park region, or effectively drove them out by sealing off their watering holes. The government had argued that the San, a traditional hunter-gatherer society, endangered the wildlife population. But the San kept returning to their homelands. To prevent this, the authorities sealed off their main well in 2002. Botswana courts have confirmed in several judgments since 2006 that the forced resettlement of the indigenous people is unconstitutional.

The STP repeatedly called on the Botswana government in recent weeks to act on the decisions of the highest courts in favor of the indigenous peoples, and restore their access to urgently needed drinking water. The dispute around the forced resettlement of Bushmen from the Kalahari Game Reserve is seen as one of the most significant conflicts between governments and indigenous peoples in Africa.

Jumanda Gakelebone, the spokesperson for the San community that has returned to the Kalahari, confirmed a few days ago that the authorities had issued a permit allowing them to dig for water in Game Park. Gakelebone was arrested in January 2011 when he visited the San in the Kalahari with an attorney to advise them on further legal options open to them. At the time, this human rights activist was accused of entering the Game Park without obtaining permission from a government authority.

Since then, a South African company has expressed its willingness to drill wells for the San in the Kalahari free of charge. This assistance is important for the San, as the high court had ruled that the Botswana authorities are obligated only to permit the construction of new wells, not to finance it.