Government denies diamonds behind Basarwa removals

The Botswana government has denied that diamonds were behind the controversial relocation of the Basarwa bushmen from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR), and has accused British lobby group Survival International (SI) of a "campaign of deception".

In addition, the Botswana human rights group Ditshwanelo, which is part of an NGO negotiating team on the future of the Basarwa, has distanced itself from SI's campaign which has focused on the alleged role of diamonds and the firm de Beers. It said this "confrontational" intervention had stalled talks between the government and the negotiating team.

"Despite exploration over many years, beginning in the mid-1960s, no commercially mineable mineral deposit has been found inside the CKGR. There is neither any actual mining nor any plan for future mining inside the reserve," the government statement said.

A diamond deposit was discovered at Gope, inside the CKGR, in 1980 but after extensive testing, including the sinking of a trial shaft, it was determined that the deposits could not be economically mined.

The area remained the subject of a retention licence, which temporarily protected certain rights which the former investors may still have, but all activity has ceased and there was no plan to resume, the statement said.

A borehole that SI criticised the government for disconnecting had been sunk during past mineral prospecting and had attracted a small number of the normally nomadic Basarwa to settle in the area. But this was not the Basarwa's "traditional" water supply as SI had claimed, the statement added.

The programme to relocate Basarwa from areas of the CKGR, where it was "virtually impossible to provide any kind of basic human infrastructure" began in 1997, after consultations started in 1985, it explained.

"It is in no way related to any plan, real or fictitious, to commence diamond mining in the CKGR. The great majority of the Basarwa communities are anxious to seize the opportunity for an improvement in the quality of their lives and the lives of their children," the statement alleged.

A breakdown of the relocations showed that in 1997, 1,739 people relocated to New Xade and Kaudwane. A 2001 government population and housing census showed that there were 689 Basarwa in the CKGR. They left between February and June 2002 and only 17 people remained in the reserve.

The government had already provided basic facilities in the new settlements of New Xade, Xere and Kaudwane. These included primary schools, health posts, and water facilities. A breakdown of expenditure since 1997 included the construction of a customary court, an airstrip and a hostel for children whose parents did not live in the new settlements.

People relocated had received financial assistance and had been issued with livestock.

Thato Raphaka, co-coordinator of the Botswana government's remote area development programme denied that the removals were forced.

"They were completely voluntary. The government wanted to economically empower them and there was a conflict in terms of land use. The settlements were growing, so the wildlife would disappear and the ecosystem would be depleted," he told IRIN.

SI did not immediately comment on the allegations but a statement from Ditshwanelo said that it was "not convinced" that diamonds were the reasons for the relocation, and urged the government to meet representatives of the negotiating team to reach a solution to the current situation.

Ditshwanelo has, however, condemned the relocation policy. "The termination of services [in the reserve] by the government effectively forces people out of the reserve, as they will have no access to basic resources," the group said in a statement earlier this year. "The relocation of the residents ... is unnecessary and it is in breach of the constitution and human rights of the residents."

According to Ditshwanelo, the reserve was created in 1961 "specifically" for the Basarwa to practice their hunter-gatherer way of life.