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Bushmen Sue Botswana Over Land - 2004-07-13

A group of San people, sometimes called Bushmen, has taken the government of Botswana to court to challenge their relocation from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The case opened Monday in a remote desert town.

The San people are asking three judges to restore their right to live on their ancestral land in the middle of Botswana's biggest game reserve. A lawyer for the San tribes told a specially convened High Court in central Botswana that the government has violated their constitutional right to live where they choose.

In the past seven years, the government has moved more than 1,500 San people out of the reserve. At the trial in the remote town of New Xade, judges and lawyers in pin-striped suits and black robes mingled with Bushmen wearing animal skins, with antelope horns on their heads.

The London-based activist group Survival International has long supported Botswana's San tribes in their effort to retain rights to their ancestral land. The group's research coordinator, Jonathan Mazower, says the Bushmen are one of the most marginalized groups in southern Africa.

"With these forced removals, the government has pretty much ensured that unless they are reversed, the last Bushmen who managed to actually live self-sufficiently will no longer be able to do so and will become dependent on government handouts just like all the other Bushmen of southern Africa, and will be similarly exploited and similarly mistreated," he said. "So I think it is a double tragedy."

The San people say the Botswana government forced them out of the game reserve by cutting off their water supply and refusing to provide basic services.

But spokesman Clifford Maribe of the Botswana Department of Foreign Affairs says it was just too expensive for the government to continue providing services to the dwindling number of Bushmen still hunting in the Central Kalahari.

"So people who have been found to reside inside game reserves or protected areas in the country have been persuaded to relocate, so they could be provided with services that are provided to all other citizens of Botswana," he said. "And these services cannot be provided when people are staying inside game reserves, such as building of schools, clinics, provision of potable water. They cannot benefit from economic empowerment initiatives that are offered by government."

The San people are the original inhabitants of southern Africa and have lived in the region for 20,000 years. Botswana has the largest population of San, but there are also groups living in Namibia, Zambia, Angola and South Africa.

The Central Kalahari tribes were among the last Bushmen still living their traditional lifestyles. Their court case aimed at regaining that lifestyle is expected to last through the end of the month.