The Botswana Government accepts Court judgment but restrictions apply.
The Government of Botswana announced late last week that it accepts the High Court ruling that the San were illegally evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It also announced the restrictions that will apply within the CKGR. What are the restrictions? Is this the end of the story?
There was wide-spread jubilation at the High Court’s decision (by majority judgment) that the San were illegally removed from the CKGR. The Government accepted the Court’s decision and so decided not to pursue an appeal. However, the Government of Botswana continues to see the decision as one concerning the rights of Central Kalahari San to use the land for ‘traditional’ purposes i.e. in pursuit of a semi-nomadic hunter-gather existence. It does not take the Court’s decision as challenging fundamentally the status of the CKGR as State Land nor as altering the status of the area as a game reserve. The San leadership, and many journalists, may have thought that the ruling was about ‘ownership’ rather than ‘access’ but the land remains State Land. San rights are, in the Government’s view, limited and are established only with respect to the maintenance of the San lifestyle under hunter-gathering conditions. It has been the view of the Government of Botswana that a traditional life-style is effectively unsustainable under modern-day circumstances, hence its view on the question of re-settlement.
So whilst it accepts the decision, it has imposed conditions on the return. It may have been internationally embarrassed by the plight to the San and out maneuvered by their international supporters but it has not changed its basic view. Those who filed the lawsuit will be given an automatic right to return. If others wish to return, they will have to apply for permission. Domestic animals (horses, donkeys, cattle and goats) will not be allowed and water use will be limited to what is required for subsistence purposes. Hunting will continue to be regulated as it is in other parts of Botswana. Any domestic structures will be temporary ones only (though this condition may not be as restrictive as it may first appear). Park authorities will be in charge. In other words those who opt to continue to use the Kalahari environment must opt for a fully-traditional life-style. This is one that Government continues to think is untenable under modern-day conditions of contact and exchange. Few San will be willing to return under such (cynical) conditions.
What is likely to happen next? The Government clearly has a reserve management plan (the Court found no evidence that there were any plans to established diamond mining and, anyway, mineral rights are invested in the State throughout Botswana). One possibility is to enter into negotiations with the San on the reserve management plan. It could attempt to see if there is any non-confrontational and less authoritarian way to accommodate the interests of those who wish to pursue a more traditional life-style than is possible within the settlements whilst falling short of a full hunter-gatherer existence. Whether or not it consults will depend on the continued interest of internal and external groups. It could, and indeed should, put more resources immediately into the ‘dispiriting’ settlements to move them towards some form of self-sustaining development. It must do this not only in an effort to redeem its international reputation but also because it must offer a viable and sustainable alternative to the people who are currently living under social and economic stress. On its own terms it must offer a viable life-style alternative. It has the resources to make such settlements attractive places to live. As for the San people and their leadership (and external advisors) there is a need to consider what they have and have not won as a result of the Court’s decision (at least one, otherwise sympathetic, judge was not happy with the leadership qualities exhibited) and to decide from this understanding how to try and shape their future. I imagine that they have no direct local government rights (the CKGR remains State Land) and if they have no such rights they should seek, at the very least, a formal framework for discussing CKGR management issues with the Government otherwise the people that return are likely to be subject to arbitrary decisions by Park authorities. Although they now cannot be ignored, they will need to continue to build wider political links within Botswana in order to secure some control over the conditions on which they have the right to return to the areas concerned. Some of these links will need to be with the Botswana Democratic Party. Such links are necessary but may be difficult to make given the history of external involvement. The issue of the return is not yet over.