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Bushmen: Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 16 May 1996

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3.21 p.m.

Whether they will protest to the Government of Botswana about their intention forcibly to remove the bushmen of the Kalahari from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

My Lords, the Government of Botswana confirmed to our High Commissioner in Gaborone on 25th April last that none of the bushmen would be forced to leave the Central Kalahari Game Reserve against their will. Those who wished to remain there could do so.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that reply. However, I have to tell her with the greatest respect that it does not accord with what we are told by Mr. Roy Sesana, a prominent bushman, who claims to have heard Mr. Patrick Balopi, the Housing Minister, address a meeting of bushmen recently to tell them that they indeed had to leave the reserve. In those circumstances, and in view of the United Kingdom's part in drafting Article 14 of Botswana's constitution in 1966, which should allow the bushmen to stay in the Kalahari Game Reserve, will the Minister do everything in her power to discover who is telling the truth in this matter? Will the noble Baroness do everything she can to ensure that the bushmen are indeed allowed to stay in their ancient homelands?

My Lords, I am concerned that there has been reporting, some of which has not been entirely accurate. As I said in a letter to Mr. Nigel Evans, a Member of Parliament in another place, it is quite clear to me that the Botswana Government recognise that bushmen must be free to decide their own future. That was not quoted in Mr. Booker's articles at the weekend.

Yesterday I received a letter from the High Commissioner for Botswana again telling us that all those who wish to stay in the Kalahari Game Reserve could do so. But, quite understandably, if they are going to stay there, no infrastructure will be provided for them. The differences which arise are quite clearly these. Many indigenous people who wish to stay in their natural habitat also wish to change that habitat by having facilities placed there. Those two factors cannot go together.

There will not be forced removal of the bushmen. However, those who wish to go where facilities are available will be free to do so. I cannot declare who is or is not telling the truth. But Article 14 of the Botswana Constitution covers everyone in Botswana including the bushmen. That means that they too have the right to move freely throughout Botswana and to reside where they will in Botswana. However, if they stay in the areas without facilities their health may not be as good as it might be elsewhere.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this issue is an extremely good illustration of why we need a strategic statement of the Government's development policy rather than a series of tactical responses? Does the noble Baroness not agree that there is a fundamentally important issue here about the survival of minority and traditional indigenous people not only in Botswana but across the world? I refer, for example, to the rubber tappers in Brazil. There is often a conflict between macroeconomic development and the well being of such people.

In their traditional surroundings, those minority groups often play a critically important part in preserving the environment. The prospect offered to them is to languish in unemployment and poverty in overcrowded urban areas. How on earth does that make developmental sense?

My Lords, to deal with an area like this, I do not believe that we need the kind of strategic statement for which the noble Lord asked me in his first Question today. What I believe we need is a little common sense, a balance and a proper review of what is going on. I have made it absolutely clear, as has our High Commissioner in Gaborone, that we believe, as the Botswana Constitution states, that these people should be free to move around in their own country, to reside in any part of their country and that they should not be deprived of their freedom of movement.

However, it is quite clear that, if areas are to be protected in the ways of centuries ago for the benefit of bushmen who live there, those bushmen cannot have piped water and facilities as some demand outside those areas. That question has been gone into in considerable detail in Botswana. We have made it clear, as has the European Union, that we will not support any policy by the Botswana Government if it were to include the forced removal of people from their natural habitat.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the British Government were party to giving certain guarantees to these people? If so, surely it would be absolutely wrong for us now to condone any action which might result in these people having great difficulty in continuing to survive as they have done for tens of thousands of years? Will my noble friend critically examine everything that the Botswana Government say on this issue and closely monitor what they do?

My Lords, indeed we were helpful to the Botswana Government in drawing up the constitution at the time of independence in 1966. Therefore, we were party to that pledge in Article 14 to which I referred earlier.

We have told the Botswana Government that we will not condone action which goes against that article. That includes moving people against their will from their natural habitat.

However, any decision to move from their natural habitat will be taken by the bushmen themselves. It will not be taken by the Botswana Government. We have been assured of that time and again. I can assure my noble friend that I am satisfied. However, I shall go over the paper work once more. We have made these views, and other views expressed, well known to the Botswana Government. I do not believe that the issue is the problem that it is made out to be.

My Lords, will the Minister say what progress has been made as regards agreement on the United Nations draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples? When the UN General Assembly finally agrees to this declaration, will states which have large numbers of indigenous people be encouraged to amend their constitutions to bring them into conformity with the declaration? Will the noble Baroness confirm that Botswana has one of the best human rights records of any country in Africa?

My Lords, I confirm that Botswana has a good human rights record. She has taken seriously her obligations under the 1951 refugee convention. At one time she had more than 20,000 people from Zimbabwe in her country. She now has well over 500 refugees, mainly from Angola, in her country. She does her best by anyone who knocks on her door.

The United Nations convention is not yet complete, but I am told that it is making good progress.

My Lords, is it not a goal of the policies of the Overseas Development Administration to provide healthcare and running water? Are not the Government of Botswana to be commended for so doing?

My Lords, indeed it is our goal to provide fresh water, though it may not be piped and it may not be running, and to provide health care, but you can only offer it to people; you cannot force them to take it. You can lead the horse to water but you cannot force it to drink.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that there are many fine constitutions in Africa and many grand assurances given by politicians in Africa but that they do not always stand up to close examination? Although it is not our business to interfere in other nations' internal affairs, would my noble friend also agree that, if we are indeed guarantors in any way of the future of these people, the whole issue as to whether they are being properly treated or not could be decided quite easily not so much by asking the Botswana Government questions as by asking the British High Commissioner to go to the Kalahari area, together with a reputable anthropologist or two, to inquire into the matter and report back?

My Lords, my noble friend anticipates some information. I understand that it has been possible to arrange for another such visit—it will not be the High Commissioner's first visit—to the Kalahari to look at the situation. Of course, not every constitution is perfect. Some countries which have written constitutions seek to change them, and that seems to cause more problems than not having one in the first place.

I want to say one thing about the Botswana Government. It is a government which has shown the way to many other countries in Africa. Botswana has a stable, relatively prosperous, democratic government which pursues sound economic management. I believe Botswana is about the only Commonwealth member in Africa with a record of multiparty parliamentary democracy and free and fair elections every five years since 1969. Botswana tries to do the right thing.

This is a very sensitive problem for a small number of people in the Kalahari. We have received those assurances. From my own knowledge of President Masire, I cannot believe that the rumours that have been put about are true. If they were to be true, we would stop our technical co-operation and the European Union would also stop its help to Botswana.