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Botswana Bushmen Win Right to Access Water on Ancestral Land

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Joe DeCapua

In Botswana, Bushmen of the Central Kalahari are celebrating Thursday’s court decision granting them water rights on their ancestral lands.

In 2002, the Bushmen were evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  While they won the right to return in 2006, the government said they could no longer use a vital water borehole.

Now the Court of Appeal has struck down a lower court ruling that denied them access to the borehole.  At the same time, the court described government treatment of the Bushmen as “degrading.”

Fantastic… wonderful

“This is a wonderful ruling from the appeal court of five judges, which basically has found the Botswana government guilty of degrading treatment towards the Bushmen,” says Fiona Watson, field and research director for Survival International.

The ruling, she says, gives the Bushmen access to the borehole, which the government has sealed, and the right to drill new boreholes.

“So this is a fantastic ruling because it completely supports the Bushmen and we really hope that now this will draw a line under what has been several years of total misery and despair for the Bushmen, who have been denied access to water in one of the driest and harshest places in the world,” says Watson.

Central Kalahari Bushmen celebrate appeals court victory granting them water rights on ancestral lands
Central Kalahari Bushmen celebrate appeals court victory granting them water rights on ancestral lands

Watson says it’s unlikely the government has any further legal action it can take to again block access.  “This is the highest court in the land, with five judges who come from Commonwealth countries and who were sitting at the Court of Appeal in Lobatse,” she says.

How many?

While Bushmen won the right to return to the game reserve, getting an exact count on how many actually have can be difficult.

Watson says, “Bushmen come and go, partly because it has been so difficult, if not impossible, to access water on their land.  But at any one time we estimate there are probably about 300 to 400 Bushmen currently living in the Central Kalahari, but I think now with this wonderful ruling many Bushmen will return to exercise their constitutional right to live on their ancestral lands.”

Finding water

The borehole must be inspected to learn whether it can actually be reopened after being sealed by the government.  “Nobody knows what the condition of the borehole is,” says Watson.

Also, drilling new boreholes would be expensive.  “Finding water in the Kalahari is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack,” she says.

Survival International says the Botswana government continues to “prevent the Bushmen from hunting for food” in the reserve.  The government recently awarded a contract to Gem Diamonds for a $3 billion mine near a Bushmen community.

The Botswanan government had said it relocated the Bushmen to give them better access to health, education and other services.

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