In a landmark decision, the Botswana High Court ruled Wednesday that the nation's government had acted illegally when it forcibly evicted the last tribal Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The last 2,000 Bushmen living in the reserve were forced out in 1997 and 2002, but the court's decision focused on the latter eviction of about 1,000 people. The court, in the town of Lobatse, 37 miles south of the capital Gaborone, ruled 2 to 1 in favor of the Bushmen, also finding that they had a right to hunt and gather in the reserve.
"Today is the happiest day for us Bushmen. We have been crying for so long, but today we are crying with happiness. Finally we have been set free," said Roy Sesana, a leader of the court fight and a member of the advocacy group First People of the Kalahari.
Bushmen testified that the government had dumped thousands of gallons of water from tribal tanks, sealed wells and threatened to send in soldiers if they did not leave. Mobile clinics and food rations were halted.
Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi condemned the government's decision to stop delivering food to the reserve and forbid the Bushmen to hunt, giving them no way to survive in the reserve.
"In my view, the simultaneous stoppage of the supply of food rations and the stoppage of hunting licenses is tantamount to condemning the remaining residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to death by starvation," Phumaphi said.
Justice Unity Dow said the government had ignored the value of the Bushmen's culture and traditional knowledge.
"In 2002, they were dispossessed forcibly, unlawfully and without their consent," she said.
Most of the evicted Bushmen were taken to an arid settlement outside the reserve called New Xade, where they could neither hunt nor find traditional food. Alcoholism and violence became commonplace, and the HIV infection rate increased.
In 2002, a group of about 200 Bushmen went to court. Meanwhile, many Bushmen left New Xade and returned to their homes on the reserve, only to be evicted again by the government.
Botswana is rich in diamonds, and it has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. Its government is often praised in the West for its economic growth. But the plight of those evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve has been a blot on the government's human rights record.
The Bushmen are the oldest tribe in southern Africa, going back about 30,000 years. There are about 45,000 Bushmen in Botswana, most of them living in squalor after being displaced from their ancestral lands.
The Bushmen, hunter-gatherers, were seen as primitive by Botswana's dominant tribes, which measured prestige by the number of livestock.
But the Bushmen's click-filled languages, their ability to survive in the desert and their knowledge of the fruits and vegetation of the Kalahari intrigued filmmakers and anthropologists.
The value of the Bushmen's way of life was recognized in 1961 by the former British colonial rulers who established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as a haven for the Bushmen and wildlife.
Lawyer Gordon Bennett, who represented the Bushmen, said the court's decision meant they could return to their homelands.
"It's about the right of the [Bushmen] to live inside the reserve for as long as they want, and that's a marvelous victory," Bennett said.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have supported the Bushmen's right to remain on ancestral lands.
In a videotaped appeal last month, the South African activist said the Bushmen were deprived of their most basic rights when they were evicted and moved to resettlement camps under unacceptable conditions. He said their culture was one of the world's treasures and needed to be preserved.
"When a culture is destroyed in the name of progress, it is not progress; it is a loss for our world," Tutu said. "Hundreds of thousands of years of wisdom, knowledge of nature, medicines and ways of living together go with them."
In March, the U.N. committee, meeting in Geneva, criticized the Botswana government over the evictions and urged it to take note of the ties that held the Bushmen to their land. The panel also expressed concern that Bushmen with the First People of the Kalahari could not attend the Geneva meeting because their passports had been confiscated.
The government denied accusations by Bushmen that the evictions were connected to the potential for diamond mining in the reserve, arguing that it was easier to provide healthcare and education to Bushmen by moving them out of the reserve.
The government argued that Bushmen no longer lived a traditional nomadic lifestyle, and that raising goats, growing melons and other practices posed a hazard to wildlife and a risk of environmental damage.
Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo dissented. He said that there was no legal merit to arguments that the Bushmen had been unlawfully removed from the reserve, and that they were given plenty of warning that food rations would be cut off.
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The Botswana High Court has ruled that the Bushmen may return to their ancestral hunting grounds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushmen, who have inhabited southern Africa for about 30,000 years, were evicted from the land by the government.
Who are the Bushmen?
* Oldest inhabitants of southern Africa
* Populated all of southern Africa until being displaced by other Africans and white settlers
* Speak several Khoisan languages, which use clicking sounds
* Generally of short stature with yellowish-brown skin
* Believe in one supreme god with lesser gods
* Nomadic, traditionally live in groups of 25 to 60
Sources: University of Iowa, Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book Encyclopedia