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Basarwa absolved of depleting natural resources

The government of Botswana has accused the Basarwa - or San, as they are commonly called - of depleting the natural resources of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. However, independent researchers - and even a Botswana government department - have shown that the Basarwa are actually excellent environmentalists.
Mqondisi Dube

The government of Botswana is locked in a bitter battle with the minority Basarwa over the Basarwa's residence in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The government accuses the Basarwa of depleting the park's natural resources, while the Basarwa - backed by international groups - say that the government is violating their rights by trying to relocate them and that their impact on the environment is negligible.

In 1985, when the Botswana government first put forth the idea of relocating the Basarwa people (as the San are commonly known in the country) from the game reserve, it claimed that the group was affecting the reserve's "pristine environment." The Basarwa population is estimated to be 750; of these people, the government has managed to relocate 300 to new settlements outside the CKGR.

But Arthur Albertson, an independent ecological research consultant, has, through his research, contradicted the government's allegations that the Basarwa are "benevolent savages."

In May 2002, Albertson presented a paper on the relocation of the Basarwa at a seminar organised by Ditshwanelo, Botswana's Centre for Human Rights. Albertson's paper showed that there was a significant increase of wildlife inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the last five years during which he conducted his study.

If the Basarwa were, indeed, degrading the environment, there would have been a corresponding decrease in the park's wildlife biomass, he argued. Rather, the Basarwa have a well-thought out way of managing natural resources, wrote Albertson, who is also a technical adviser with the negotiating team of non-governmental organisations that are negotiating with the government on the plight of these indigenous people.

Albertson noted that the Basarwa's hunting and gathering way of life actually preserves natural resources. The Basarwa rotate their hunting season and kill already mature game. After eating fruits that they gather, the Basarwa plant the seeds.

This is in contrast to modern agriculture in the Kalahari area, which has practices that often result in severe environmental degradation and requires substantial financial subsidisation. The constant cutting down of trees and tilling of the land, which is exposed to desert like conditions, leads to soil erosion. The CKGR is located near the Kalahari Desert.

"There is least prospect of industrial development due to lack of water, infrastructure, and natural resources for commercial value," said Albertson. "Tourism has the greatest potential to generate income, at the least environmental cost."

Albertson said the use of veld products such as edible wild fruits and loin skins for clothing is a valid and appropriate form of land use that can sustainably and adequately meet basic economic needs where other forms of land use fail. The Basarwa, unlike other societies in Botswana, do not depend on tilling land or cutting down trees for their day-to-day survival. The Basarwa's exclusion from the mainstream economy has ensured that their lives have remained simple, as most of them are hunters and gatherers. The Basarwa do not have access to modern machinery that in many instances are described as not being environmentally friendly.

The ecologist noted that in planning human development, it would be folly to ignore the ecological and economic realities of the drought-prone Central Kalahari Desert.

The 2002 Botswana theme for World Environmental Day "Veld Products, Treasures of a Sustained Environment, Use Them Wisely" recognises the importance of fauna and flora management. Environmentalists say the Basarwa are living within the theme, but the government thinks otherwise.

"The CKGR communities occupy clearly defined traditional territories, which encompass all the natural resources required to meet their long term needs," Albertson said. "As such, territories are self-contained ecological and economic units. Communities have in-depth knowledge of local fauna and flora dynamics."

The Basarwa employ highly complex and flexible land-use strategies that have successfully sustained them for generations - even during drought - without harming the ecosystems that they depend on, he said.

The Basarwa, who use rotational farming, do not depend on extensive farming that involves the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. The Basarwa use reeds to extract water from the ground instead of digging wells. This largely reduces land degradation and the destruction of the environment.

Aaron Johannes, a Mosarwa activist, supports Albertson's views. Johannes has dismissed the government as "misinformed" in alleging that the Basarwa are depleting wildlife resources inside of the game reserve. He says the game reserve is continuingly witnessing an increase in wildlife species.

He says that after the Basarwa eat fruits from plants, they put back the roots into the soil so that the plant can grow again. "We have hunting seasons," said Johannes. "We are selective in hunting as we target specific game during certain times."

Ironically, the government's own Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) can also prove that the Basarwa are an environmentally conscious people. A recent DNWP aerial survey shows that since the drought of the 1980s, wildlife numbers in the game reserve are either stable or increasing. Drought and cordon fences have significantly impacted on the number of wildlife species.

"Despite instances, though remote, of inappropriate hunting methods, the CKGR residents have negligible impact on the wildlife population," says DWNP.

Despite this pronouncement by its own wildlife department, the Botswana government has been locked in a bitter wrangle with the Basarwa community over the relocation exercise. The Basarwa have vowed to stay put in their native land, arguing that moving them elsewhere will be tantamount to destroying their culture. The government claims that it wants to bring the Basarwa to the "rest of the world" and make sure that they live a "civilised life."

This relocation has attracted the wrath of national and international non-governmental organisations, which are leading an anti-relocation crusade against the government.

A University of Botswana lecturer, Dr. Anderson Chebanne, described the relocation of the Basarwa from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as an "ethnocidal tragedy. This has deculturised and dehumanised the Basarwa."

Derek Hudson, a local economist, cannot comprehend the reasons for the relocation. He wonders whether government appreciates the vastness of the game reserve, which is almost the size of Belgium. He said he doubts the Basarwa, who number less than 1,000, can have any significant impact on that great of a land area. "Basarwa are determined to live eternally under the harsh conditions of the CKGR," he said.

The number of Basarwa who live in the game reserve today is significantly less than in the past, experts say. Albertson estimates the number to be 750, much less than the historical norm of between 4,000 and 6,000 hunter-gatherers.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established on February 14, 1961 to protect the food supplies of the Basarwa people. In 1985, a fact-finding mission of the government of Botswana explored various ways to deal with how humans could successfully co-exist with wildlife.

In 1986, the government declared Old Xade (one of the Basarwa settlements within the game reserve) a permanent settlement. About 20 families have been moved from Old Xade inside the game reserve to New Xade and Kaudwane, where the government provides amenities such as boreholes and other modern facilities.

Ditshwanelo said the relocation from the CKGR to areas outside the reserve such as Kaudwane and New Xade goes against the spirit of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP)'s Third Draft Management Plan. The plan makes provision for residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to use and manage natural resources in and around their residential areas for income generating activities.

According to a negotiating committee for the game reserve, plans are about to be proposed for the development of "community use zones." These plans would outline the specific terms for community-based management of resources, development of eco-tourism and cultural tourism enterprises. The proposals are to be made to the government as soon as consultations conclude.

These enterprises would fall within the framework of the wildlife department's objectives of preserving the biodiversity and aesthetic qualities of the reserve and environment. Meanwhile, the negotiating team says that discussions are aimed at ensuring that community-based natural resource management programmes are fully implemented for the benefit of the park's residents.

Through a registration exercise, the names of people residing inside the reserve have already been recorded and will be used to determine usage rights and control the potential influx of people. The number of livestock would be restricted and inappropriate developments and activities would not be permitted inside the community use zones.

The negotiating committee is also proposing a new hunting quota, improved access to dry season resources, correct fire management, and the development of additional water resources to boost the wildlife population, which it says would improve the self sufficiency of Basarwa communities as well as enhancing biodiversity.

Resident communities today are smaller and less mobile than in the past. This is due to increasing pressure to become settled, restrictions imposed upon their subsistence activities, and the movement of people to settlements and farms outside the game reserve. Ecologists say that this settling down would result in the depletion of natural resources in the immediate vicinity of villages within the game reserve.

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