Fighting Cultural Genocide

The co-founder of a legal and humanitarian aid group details the plight of the Kalahari Bushmen.

| Wed Dec. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EST

In 1961, Botswana’s British administrators created the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) to protect the way of life of the Kalahari Bushmen. An ancient tribe with rock art dating back some 30,000 years, the Bushmen (also known as the San) have a long history of being subjugated by more militant and populous tribes. Persecuted by Afrikaner tribes to the south and Tswana tribes to the north, the peaceable Bushmen's numbers plummeted. By the late 1950s, only a few thousand survived.

In the mid-1980s, government officials began to discuss the need to bring the Bushmen into “modern society.” In 2002, the Botswana government forcibly moved the Bushmen to relocation camps in New Xade, on the edge of the CKGR. It is not just paternalism that is motivating the resettlements: immediately following the removal of the Bushmen, huge swaths of their land were leased to diamond mining companies.

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In these new relocation camps, the Bushmen are losing not only their way of life, but their lives. Exposed to the scourges of AIDS and alcoholism, the Bushmen are disappearing. Without their connection to their land, which provided them with traditional healing plants and medicines as well as a strong spiritual base, the Bushmen will not survive long.

Rupert Isaacson knows the struggle well. Through his frequent trips to Botswana, he has spent over three years with the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Author of The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert, Isaacson is co-founder of the Indigenous Land Rights Fund, a group working to provide legal and humanitarian aid to the Bushmen. His group is currently trying to bring a cultural genocide case before the International Criminal Court. He recently sat down with Mother Jones.com to discuss the plight of the Bushmen and what people can do to help.

MotherJones.com: Botswana prides itself on being a modern nation. President Festus Mogae has called the Bushmen "backwards creatures." Do you think this attitude is at the root of the relocations?

Rupert Isaacson: [No.] I think what is really at the root of it is a kind of cultural racism. When most of us look at Africa, the idea of there being racism within Africa seems impossible. The thinking is “What do you mean? They’re all black.” It’s a leap of understanding that has to be made before people can really come to terms with the fact that the Bushmen are not considered black by black Africans -- they’re considered to be inferior. It’s a very hard thing for people in the West to get their heads around this idea. Whether there are diamonds or not, that cultural racism is never going to go away. There’s not much you can do about that; but there is something you can do about relocating people because of diamonds. The bottom line is that these people have been dispossessed.

MJ.com: Do you think the Bushmen culture is in danger of extinction as a result?

RI: If they return home they can pick up their culture and their lifestyle almost immediately. The proof is the Khomani San in South Africa who won the land claim in 1999 that set the precedent whereby [the Bushmen's] land claim has a chance. They had been away from their land for 25 years, scrounging by the side of the road, but their skills remained intact. What they lost in that generation was their language. The older people spoke it but didn’t pass it on, and they lost their trance-dancing medicine men. But as soon as they were able, they started reaching out to trance dancers in Botswana. Whether or not the language comes back is almost a moot point because they’re back on the land. Some will pursue a mostly modern existence, some will pursue a mostly traditional existence, but most people will do something in between. It’s such a tough and hardy culture. Its whole ethos is about hardship and how you survive hardship because that’s the nature of the land. But it’s absolutely the death of the culture if they can’t return to their land, because this is the last large area of Bushmen land.

MJ.com: These Bushmen that are returning to their old land no longer have access to the minimal government services that were provided them before the government relocations. Can they survive without these?

RI: Yes. Otherwise, the ones that stayed two years ago would have all died by now. You’ve got to remember that the water and so on that the government was taking in there was almost exclusively used for livestock. When the Bushmen are out hunting and gathering for more than a day they can’t take large amounts of water with them, so they all know how to survive without it. But if the government wants to bus in water, they’ll happily drink it.

MJ.com: Hunting must still be done secretively though, right?

RI: Yes. Interestingly Festus Mogae, the president of Botswana, issued a statement saying that the Bushmen can go back and hunt as long as they use traditional weapons. But he won’t put it in writing and they’ll end up arrested if they actually do try to hunt and are caught.

De Beers have changed their tack, too. They apparently gave about 5 million dollars to keep afloat a Bushmen organization called Kuru Development Trust. It’s done some good: there’s a bit of ethno-tourism, art projects, some minor manufacturing, but it’s still not a self-determined thing. That money that De Beers gave is obviously to distract attention from the fact that they’re dispossessing autonomous Bushmen.

MJ.com: The government claimed that it was necessary to move the Bushmen because they were killing off the game in the CKGR (Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where the Bushmen’s land lies), yet a government report cited an increase in game before the relocations occurred.

RI: They’ll basically say whatever they think will get the job done, and misinformation is a big part of this. Either the Bushmen are too traditional and they’re an embarrassment or they’re not real Bushmen at all and -- one government official actually said this -- they’re driving around in four-by-fours blasting animals away with firearms out of the window. I don’t know anyone who has ever witnessed [this]. And no ecologist in their right mind would accuse the Bushmen of over-hunting because they are the arch-conservationists. They are celebrated as such by almost every zoologist, biologist, and ecologist in Africa.

The government also claims that because the Bushmen were keeping livestock, living in permanent settlements and using horses and donkeys to hunt, and that they are therefore no longer living the “traditional” life. But again, that’s misinformation because the reason they were living in the permanent settlements was because the government moved them into them back in the 70s. The only reason the Bushmen ever did these things was because the government tried to change the culture and rather than change completely, they, in a very Bushmen way, would absorb a bit of it.

MJ.com: How many Bushmen are dying in New Xade, and why?

RI: If you hear Roy Sesana’s figures, he’ll say it’s three to four a day. My feeling is that there are probably days when three to four die, but it’s probably more likely that that figure is for a week or a month. But there is a great ticking time bomb there, which is AIDS. There is no question that more people are dying because of alcohol-related violence that they were not facing when they were living within the reserve. So many of the girls in New Xade are prostituting themselves and there’s so much rape that we won’t see the true cost for a couple of years. It would be a great irony if they get to go home but they go home infected.

MJ.com: Is the violence initiated from within the Bushmen community, or is it from other people that are in New Xade with the Bushmen?

RI: Outsiders come in and run illegal bars. Bushmen tend not to kill each other, even in drunken rages. It tends to be more them getting beaten up by outsiders. And there’s a lot of rape and prostitution—the Bushmen will sell themselves for food, will sell themselves for money, particularly when they’re dead drunk. But a lot of the rape that goes on is from outsiders—whether it’s government officials or whether it’s the people who own these bars.

MJ.com: Are there any figures that are kept on the violence, murder, and rape?

RI: Absolutely not. The only people that would keep those figures would be the government and there haven’t been any independent observers out there before now. Our group has sent some people out there and we’re waiting to see what they come back with.

MJ.com: Has Roy Sesana made an effort to keep figures on what’s happening to the Bushmen?

RI: He’s realizing now that that’s something that he needs to do. Roy himself is just now learning the ropes. These concepts and issues—how to collect figures, how to document each abuse—they’re not as obvious to him. Roy’s idea was simply, get to the U.N. and tell them we’re all dying and then hopefully someone comes along and helps. But it takes more than that. We’re just at the beginning of gathering this information now.

MJ.com: Your group, ILRF, is trying to bring the Bushmen’s plight before the ICC. What case are you making?

RI: Well, first we have to make sure that there is a case. We have a couple of people out there right now interviewing and talking to the Bushmen inside the resettlement camp. They just went out about 10 days ago so we will see what they come back with. A few others and I will be going out there this coming year to do the same thing. We’ll send the lawyers out to do the same thing and we’ll gradually get this evidence together, hopefully over the course of the next six to ten months.

MJ.com: What will be the preliminary focus of the case?

RI: At this stage, the focus is on cultural genocide. The Botswana government appears to be violating the UN’s convention on genocide by knowingly creating a situation that results in the whole or partial demise of a community. This can include cutting them off from their economic base, their land base, their spiritual base, their cultural base. We were alerted to this by a paper written by Dr. Mark Levene from the University of Southampton in the UK. It shows how blind one can be. We had not thought to call it this—cultural genocide. I think most of us tend to think of genocide as putting people up against a wall and shooting them or putting them all in a concentration camp. But, in fact, if you look at this picture over the last thirty years, you realize that this is just the thin end of a much larger wedge. I think that in a perfect world we would not have to bring the case because there’s always, at every level, an out for the government to simply let the Bushmen go home, re-ratify their existing rights, and add that they will be included in the decision-making process for any development of the region and given a fair deal on any mineral-related development.

MJ.com: What responsibility do you think the World Bank’s IFC bears for the Bushmen relocations and the state of Bushmen in New Xade? Do the International Finance Corporation [IFC, a member of the World Bank Group] and Kalahari Diamonds Ltd. [a subsidiary of BHP Billiton] plead ignorance?

RI: We just got word a few days ago from someone inside the CKGR that a man from BHP has been running around the communities belatedly telling them of the plans to explore -- no doubt in reaction to the IFC's investigation. Too little, of course, and too late. And again, our contact person said that the man was doing little to really help the people on the ground truly understand what was afoot, which because of the cultural and linguistic gulf takes more than just a flying visit.

How much responsibility do they take? It seems that the KDL people knew what was going on. That’s what is suggested. I think the IFC were probably taking KDL’s word for it and not inquiring too closely. Are they culpable? We’ll see what the IFC ombudsman says.

MJ.com: When will we hear about the results of the IFC investigation?

RI: In about 60 to 80 days. Certainly, no evidence has been presented to us that either KDL or the IFC really did put the necessary effort into informing and consulting with the local communities. Nor did they say to the government, “Hey, I’m sorry guys, we can’t do business with you over these concessions because you’re breaking the rules by which we play. You’re evicting these people. Our own rules say that we can’t do this.” Why didn’t they say that?

MJ.com: If the Bushmen were allowed to return to their land and legally hunt, do you believe they could continue their traditional lifestyle? Do you see the Bushmen being able to survive in a “modern” Botswana?

RI: They were doing just fine until 2002 and had been for several hundred years with lots of people coming in and doing various things across their land whether it was trading with them, taking them as slaves, or killing them off and raping them. These people have been dealing with the outside world in their face for a long time. I think they would do just fine. They would go on with their unique hybrid of traditional and modern culture -- as long as they have the rights to their land. It’s not a question in my mind whether they would “go back to” their traditional culture because the traditional culture never died. It’s more an issue of whether they will be allowed the autonomy to decide what kind of culture they want to have.

MJ.com: Given the opportunity to work and receive shares in the mining on their land, do you think the Bushmen's quality of life would be better than it is in New Xade?

RI: It would all depend on how close to the mine they were living. If they were living in the actual mining town or towns that end up getting built there, their quality of life will definitely deteriorate. So would mine. What’s more likely to happen is that certain people will end up there as drunks or scavengers, but a lot of others will live away from where all that goes on, and perhaps have a family member who’s working there for cash. It would be on a family-by-family, individual-by-individual basis as to how much quality of life is compromised.

The thing to remember is that the reason the Bushmen have said that they are willing to work the mines on their land if they are allowed to return to their land is because they are fatalistic. They accept that, in their experience, once someone has their eye on a resource, whether it’s the land or the stuff in the land, they won’t give up. They know that this area will be mined whether they’re in it or not. For them, the important thing is not to get pushed off. But I think if they had their perfect world, no one would do anything to their land, and they’d just be left alone.

MJ.com: If people want to help the Bushmen, where do you think their efforts are best focused?

RI: There are several things they can do. Obviously this stuff takes money. They can give to us (ILRF) -- the money goes to legal costs and humanitarian relief -- to Survival International, Kalahari People’s Fund, or any of those organizations depending on where their specific interest is. If they give to us, it goes to legal costs. If they give to Survival, it goes to some legal costs and publicizing. If they give to Kalahari People’s Fund, it goes to on-the-ground, village projects.

Also, writing a letter to the Botswana embassy here and saying that you’re thinking that you might not go on safari there, and that you’re disseminating this information on to your friends is helpful. And this is crucial: Don’t buy diamonds if you don’t know where they come from. I can’t stress this enough. It’s almost impossible to go into a jewelry shop and buy a diamond that doesn’t have blood on it. There’s an organization starting up next year called “Diamonds For Humanity” which is busy sorting specific conflict-free diamonds, which they'll have in shops in the Spring. There’s Gemesis, which is growing the gems in a laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. They're available now. These things really only change for economic reasons; if people said, “We love diamonds, but we really feel uncomfortable about buying them until we know that the Bushmen, and whoever else is affected by them -- Australian Aboriginals, Sierra Leoneans -- are getting a fair cut of the pie and are not being exploited. This is the bottom line: people have really suffered and died world-wide because of this and if that’s what you’re giving as a proof-mark of your love, what are you actually giving? What are you actually putting on this woman’s finger whom you want to spend the rest of your life with? Could be a pretty heavy burden to bear.

 

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