Bushmen case could be landmark in land rights


Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 7

It was a little court in a big desert, and the lawyers grew uneasy as the shadows lengthened: Lions are nocturnal hunters. Gordon Bennett, a British barrister, suggested the court adjourn. "Dusk is almost upon us and we are camping tonight."

To everyone's relief, the three judges wedged in the Land Cruiser agreed, and the convoy dispersed to collect firewood before another night under the stars.

It was a surreal safari, where baseball caps and sunglasses replaced wigs and robes, but there was no doubting the seriousness of this week's effort to bring justice to the Kalahari.

The San people, also known as Bushmen, have challenged the government of Botswana over their expulsion from ancestral lands in what could be a landmark case for indigenous rights in Africa.

Before formal hearings last Monday, the judges wanted to visit the government-run settlements where most Bushmen now live, as well those still holding out in the Central Kalahari game reserve.

Driving under a blistering sun through endless sand in white four wheel drives, the cavalcade of legal teams, police, academics and journalists resembled a column of UN weapons inspectors.

The tour confirmed that many San were miserable in the settlements, which critics compared to refugee camps, and pined for their old hunting grounds.

"The government gives us food and water here, but mostly the people are not happy," said Maiteela Segwaba, 75, chief of the San living at Kaudwane settlement. "They earn their living gathering wild fruits, and those fruits are not here. Nor can we pray at our fathers' tombs."

The San accuse the government of illegally expelling them from ancestral land by cutting off water supplies and denying hunting permits. Their lawyers say that these measures are unconstitutional, and want water supplies to be restored to the reserve and hunting permits granted.

The government's case is that the San left the reserve voluntarily to avail themselves of schools and clinics closer to towns and cities. It also claimed it was too expensive to sustain water supplies that were never intended to be permanent, and that the San were depleting the wildlife.

According to Survival International, a London-based advocacy group which is partly funding the legal challenge, victory would help San in other countries as well as Pygmies in central and west Africa and hunting peoples in east Africa to claim indigenous land rights.