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How much is that Bushman in the window?

May 29, 2008

Khadija Sharife

In 1998, De Beers conducted a feasibility study of the Gope region in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). As it turns out, the San who are titled “remote area dwellers” by the government were sitting on $2.475billion worth of diamonds.

The past decade has seen the government of Botswana embark on a policy of forced relocation. The San have been denied hunting permits by the Department of Wildlife, and prevented from accessing boreholes and other water sources — deliberate policies designed to force them into a catch-22 situation: starvation or relocation.

“The Department of Wildlife”, says Jonathan Mazower of Survival International, an organization supporting tribal peoples worldwide, “is doing everything they can to make life impossible for the San, by blocking the High Court judgment which gave the Bushmen the right to return to the CKGR and live there.”

In 2006, Botswana’s High Court declared the forced relocations enacted by the government to be illegal. The San successfully argued that diamond deposits underpinned the displacements and deprivations imposed on them, not tourism or the provision of facilities.

Yet, the government maintains that the San left willingly. Kaudwane, one of two “settlement” camps constructed by the government in 2000, was the scene in which the one and only consultation played out — with a handful of San.

What are the conditions in the camp?

“The conditions are very grim,” says Mazower.

“All the usual indices of development — child mortality, levels of suicide, alcoholism, etc — have increased since the relocation.”

How did De Beers respond to the evictions?

“Their managing director in Botswana publicly welcomed the evictions at the time,” he responds, “but obviously we don’t know what they have said in private.”

De Beers, based in Johannesburg, has a presence in over 25 countries and are the primary handlers for more than 45% of the world’s diamond trade. In 2005, revenues exceeded $6.5-billion.

How can the government give the go ahead when mining conserved land constitutes environmental terrorism?

“It is odd,” Mazower states, “that they are prepared to allow a large mine in a game reserve, when one of the reasons the government gave for the evictions was for the conservation of the reserve’s wildlife and environment.”

Recently, Gem Diamonds acquired the Gope concession from De Beers. How much did Gem pay for a deposit deemed sub-economic by De Beers?

Angela Parr of Gem Diamonds says, “Gem Diamonds paid $34-million for 100% of the share capital of Gope Exploration (Pty) Ltd, which was held by a joint venture between De Beers and Xstrata. At that time Gope held a suspended retention license over the Gope area.”

The mines are situated in environmental protected regions — has the Department of Environmental Affairs in Botswana, approved of mining the conserved land?

“The environmental department has indicated that they do not object to mining within the CKGR in principle.”

Will Gem refuse to mine the region if the San explicitly state that they feel the government has transgressed their human rights?

“The issue of any transgression of the rights of the Basarwa by the government was the subject of a court case that closed in 2007. Gem Diamonds does not seek to take a stance on the matter.”

“To date the public participation process (PPP) meetings conducted as part of the environmental impact assessment have indicated that the Basarwa are by and large in favor of a mine at Gope.”

Is there a conflict of interest, I ask Mazower, when the Governor of the Bank of Botswana, Linah Mohohlo, and Botswana’s Attorney-General Athalia Molokomme — two people in key positions of power concerning the fate of the San, are positioned on the board of Debswana, De Beers venture with the government?

“Yes, we believe there is,” he says, “Legally, they do not have title to most of their traditional lands. The Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve have no title at all.”

But Angela, quoting from a High Court ruling states, “It was the prospectors or an agent of the prospectors, who gave the name ‘Gope’ to that particular locality.”

“The settlement of Gope was established as a result of diamond prospecting as opposed to having been closed down because of diamond mining.”

“It was the availability of water at the prospecting site that had attracted people there and led to the establishment of a settlement,” she said.

The name designated by the San for the Gope region is unknown, in fact, even the appellation San and the derogatory “Bushmen” are merely titles superimposed on a people that constitute the oldest inhabitants of the region.

According to Harvard genetic paleontologist Spencer Wells, the San are the “genetic Adam” — one of the oldest, if not the oldest race in the world. They are the living organisms through which man can trace the origin of the human species.

The San call themselves Xu! Wasi, or Real/Original Peoples; several months ago, I got in touch with a brilliant linguist called Lameen Souag for a period script I was in the process of writing.

Later, I interviewed him for a magazine in the Middle East and, during the course of the interview, he mentioned the language of the Xu! Wasi peoples.

“The only languages to use ‘click’ sounds as consonants in their normal vocabulary are spoken in southern and eastern Africa,” he said. “If these had become extinct, linguists might wrongly think that such sounds could not be used in speech.”

“Apart from its contribution to our understanding of ourselves as humans, such knowledge could in the long term potentially have implications for any field that makes use of linguistics, from speech therapy to search engines.”

It’s unlikely that the government of Botswana, however, will give a shit.

Diamonds constitute the core of Botswana’s economy, which holds 23% of the world diamond market with a cumulative total value of $3.2-billion annually, comprising over 80% of their economy, 50% of government revenue and 35% of GDP.

Yet just under one third of the population lives on less than a $1 per day; even though the country has one of the world’s highest economic growth rates with a per capita GDP of $11,000 in 2006, the official unemployment rate of 24.5% with unofficial estimates placing it at 40%.

Debswana, the joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government, produces 30% of the world’s diamonds, soon to increase with the discovery of the Gope mines. Mining in Southern Africa is largely concentrated in four countries: Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania.

Speaking off the record, a lawyer from Bots laughingly told me exactly how the “Bushmen” would be handled.

“That movie, where they drop the bottle cap from the sky?” he says, “well, this time, maybe the government will drop a diamond on the Bushman.”

“One diamond will be enough to keep them busy for many years.”

“Everyone will take turns polishing it.”

Khadija Sharife is a 22-year-old freelance journalist, musician and the Deputy Director of the Phoenix Environmental Institute. She writes in her own capacity.

To read more blog entries from Khadija Sharife at GUERNICA click HERE .

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