Dana Vanthof, currently a first year student at McGill’s Faculty of Law, is an associate editor with the JSDLP. She holds a M.A. in International Affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Carleton University) and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo, where she majored in International Development Studies. In 2011/2012, Dana completed an 8-month internship in Botswana working with indigenous San communities on natural resource management projects.
Botswana has become well known across the globe for its post-colonial success unknown to many African countries. The country has celebrated monumental achievements such as economic prosperity, absence of conflict, and free and fair elections; successes that have led some commentators to label the now upper-middle income nation as “an African Miracle.” However, Botswana’s impressive track record in these areas stands in stark contrast to the dismal record of social and cultural rights in the country, especially those of Botswana’s indigenous San people.
In Botswana the San, an indigenous minority and marginalized group, face extreme social, economic, and political exclusion due to widespread discrimination. Traditionally, the San have existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers but have in recent times faced incredible barriers to maintaining their traditional culture and lifestyle. Historically in Botswana, the majority of the San people have lived on their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The CKGR was founded in 1961 as a means to protect the traditional lifestyles of the nomadic San people and to provide a refuge for approximately 5000 San in their natural environment.
Unfortunately, three major Government-imposed clearances in 1997, 2002, and 2005, have forces almost all the San out of the reserve. The forced relocation of the San to remote settlements across the country, and the inhumane means employed by the Government to ensure their removal, has resulted in a number of Court actions. Despite a landmark ruling in 2006 by Botswana’s High Court in which the San won the right to return to their ancestral lands and another successful Court of Appeal ruling in 2011 affording the San the right to access water on the Reserve, the Botswana government has continued to restrict access to the reserve. A particularly alarming aspect of the treatment of the San is that their displacement has been justified by the Government using rhetoric of nature conservation and development.
One central justification for removing the San from the CKGR is in the name of nature conservation. The Government has labeled the San’s hunting practices as “poaching,” viewing their way of life as “incompatible with wildlife conservation.” However, various groups have questioned this reasoning revealing centuries of sustainable coexistence between the San and the natural environment of the CKGR. Critics believe that the true motives for the relocations lie in Government sponsored diamond exploration. Despite the Government’s adamant assurance in 2003 that “there is neither any actual mining or any plan for future mining in the reserve,” in September 2014, a 4.9 billion dollar, 25-year diamond mining project was officially launched in the CKGR. After a visit to Botswana in November 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights highlighted this hypocrisy, stating the Government’s attempts to relocate the San outside the CKGR for “wildlife conservation purposes” is at complete odds with allowing mining and tourism activities within the grounds.
A second posited justification for the San’s relocation was that resettlement would better allow the Government to provide health and education services to San populations, ultimately improving their way of life. Former press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Clifford Maribe commented that the relocations were an encouragement for the San “to move out to give themselves and their children the benefits of development.” However, the reality of resettlement has proven anything but beneficial. The majority of the San in the settlements live in extreme poverty and face extremely high levels of illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, depression and alcoholism. Without the ability to continue their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles, the San have become almost entirely dependent on government handouts and other social welfare programs. One San man explained “The development the government offers us does not include what we are proud of.” Consequently, they have almost all but lost their traditional culture.
The story of the San in Botswana highlights the complexity of the intersection of traditional cultures and values with the pressures of modern economic development. Botswana is an example of the use of “sustainable development” rhetoric as camouflage for ulterior economic and political ends. Unfortunately, the case of Botswana is not unique. Many other indigenous minorities around the world face similar challenges to cultural survival in the wake of continued economic development efforts. At the end of the day what must be weighed are the costs that accompany the many successes of modernization. For the San of Botswana and many other communities like them, the costs are unfortunately too high.