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Updated: January 30, 2011 23:27 IST

Kalahari bushmen's legal victory

John Simpson
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The Appeal Court judgment is a remarkable victory for the bushmen. Not only has the court upheld their right to water in the Kalahari Desert, but it has criticised the government's treatment of the bushmen as “degrading”.

Survival International, the London-based organisation which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples and has strongly backed the bushmen's legal battle, described the appeal court's decision as “momentous”.

Ever since 1997, when the Botswanan government decided to move the bushmen off their ancestral hunting-ground in the Kalahari, the bushmen's battle to return has been a losing one.

In 2002, the Army moved the majority of the bushmen out of the Kalahari, often brutally, but some refused to leave. Others drifted back from the soulless shanty towns where they were forced to live.

For tens of thousands of years, the bushmen have managed to live and thrive in this deeply hostile environment. The British, who were the colonial power in Botswana before its independence, promised it to them in perpetuity.

The Botswana government's decision to move the bushmen followed the discovery of diamonds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), the heart of the bushmen's territory. It has often been alleged that the two things were linked, though successive governments have denied this.

The legal battle focused on a single well, on which those bushmen who still lived in the CKGR depended for their water. The Army blocked up the pipe with concrete and filled the basin with sand: a melancholy sight in this inhospitable desert.

Nevertheless the bushmen managed to survive without the well. They found water in their traditional ways, and sometimes they managed to raise the money to buy bottled water from a store 48km away.

On at least one occasion, as a group was returning from the 108-km walk carrying hundreds of bottles, they were stopped by guards at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, who poured all the water on to the ground.

The 2010 judgment, which the appeal court has now reversed, was criticised inside and outside Botswana for its tone.

Presiding judge then Judge Walia said the bushmen had “brought upon themselves any discomfort they may endure”.

Botswana is in many ways a model African country — wealthy, democratic and not obviously corrupt. But even its supporters have been embarrassed by the treatment of the bushmen.

— © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate

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