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Botswana: Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Volume 726: debated on Monday 14 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they will make to the Government of Botswana about their complying with the 1966 constitution, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recent court judgments in their dealings with Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

My Lords, the UK follows closely the situation of the San communities in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We will continue to encourage dialogue between the San communities and the Government of Botswana, and we raise the issue at appropriate levels. We welcome the Government of Botswana’s announcement that they will respect and facilitate the implementation of the recent decision of the court of appeal granting San community members the right to access and sink boreholes within the reserve.

My Lords, that is, of course, good news. However, as the Government of Botswana have overridden court judgments in the past, do Her Majesty’s Government accept that we have perhaps a special responsibility in this matter, because we did, after all, give Botswana its constitution in 1966, and it has been consistently abused? Will the Government, as the noble Lord has indicated, pay particular attention to making sure that the Bushmen have free access to their reserve, to their water supply and, indeed, to new boreholes?

My Lords, I am not sure that the Government accept that the constitution has been consistently abused, but I welcome the noble Lord’s support for this ethnic minority and its culture, for his vigorous support for the international human rights regime and his insistence that human rights obligations limit state sovereignty. I also congratulate him on his support for the rule of law as a limiting factor on majoritarian democracy, and I am sure that he will hold true to all these principles in his approach to the EU Bill next week. I particularly welcome his reference to the ruling of the Botswana appeal court, which the Botswana Government have clearly accepted. As he will know, the court is, unusually, composed of foreign judges. The judgment is signed by two South African judges and one each from Ghana, Lesotho and Zimbabwe, the last of whom is called McNally. I am glad that the noble Lord recognises that foreign judges can reinforce domestic standards of human rights.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Government of Botswana have already sent a team into the CKGR in pursuance of their undertaking to facilitate the return of the Bushmen? Can he also say whether there is any prospect of employment for the Bushmen in enterprises being set up in the reserve, such as the $3.5 billion diamond mine at which, given suitable training, they might be employed?

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise how difficult it is to combine maintaining the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life with economic development. The report of the UN special rapporteur on human rights for minorities talks about,

“economic and other development activities that align with the culture of the targeted communities, including hunting and gathering activities”.

The problem here is that once you start talking about education, medical assistance et cetera, you are moving away from traditional culture.

Does the Minister feel able to make an evaluation of the role of the mining interests in this area? Does he think that their role is helpful or frustrating in terms of achieving the desires of the indigenous people there?

My Lords, as we all know, these are extremely difficult issues. Botswana has done extremely well economically, and its wealth lies above all in diamonds. That wealth has been put to use for the benefit of economic development in that country; and last year Transparency International ranked Botswana as number 1 in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the transparency and non-corruption of its Government. I am assured that high commission officials from Britain regularly visit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and that the current proposals from Gem Diamonds will not destroy the reserve.

Will the Minister comment on the fact that the real difficulty in enforcing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that it is not legally binding, and that this creates enormous difficulties? Can he therefore also confirm that the United Kingdom is supporting the recent call by the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples for urgent action to ensure that the rights and principles enshrined in the declaration are implemented?

My Lords, I read with great interest the very useful report on Botswana which the UN special rapporteur presented last year. The noble Baroness will know, and I now understand, how immensely difficult it is to maintain traditional cultures in the face of all the pressures of economic development. In a number of other countries there is a clear role for these minorities in protecting the rainforest. In Botswana, some of the issues are a little more difficult.

My Lords, are the Government aware that a number of Bushmen have actually been educated according to our western culture and still wish to return to their way of life? Secondly, does the Minister agree that a diamond mine occupies a very small area in the vast expanse of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and there really should be plenty of room for both?

I thank the noble Lord for reinforcing my previous point. As he will be aware, however, there is no surface water in the game reserve; the Bushmen traditionally obtained their water from fruit. Once one talks about providing boreholes around the reserve, one is already beginning to change the traditional way of life. That is one of the tensions we are stuck with as we deal with these problems.