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July 04, 2013 | By:  Khalil A. Cassimally
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Conservation’s Dark Side: How the Bushmen Became Conservation Refugees

Over the past hundred years, around 20 million people have been ushered from their homelands due to conservation alone. Those displaced people are kicked off their ancestral lands, witness their homes being burned down and are left mostly without aid from governments. Those people are conservation refugees and their numbers are growing even today.

But sometimes, conservation refugees find the courage to fight back against the governments and the lobbies. They fight in court while their oppressors ruthlessly bend, break or rewrite laws to hamper their inconvenient voices. The fight is a modern day version of David against Goliath. It is the poor indigenous tribes against the salivating monarchy, the stereotyped famished African against the Harris Tweed-wearing oligarch, the mother with starving children against the people who are starving her children. And then sometimes, just sometimes, the oppressed win.

This is what happened last month in Botswana thanks to a landmark court ruling [PDF] which opposed the government's latest attempt to evict the Bushmen from their ancestral land. The Bushmen are an indigenous people of Southern Africa and have lived in the regions of Botswana, South Africa, Angola for tens of thousands of years. The 5,000 Bushmen living in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve however have for years been forcibly intimidated, violated and forced to decamp from their ancestral land. The official reason? Conservation. The Bushmen live in a region that falls right into a planned "wildlife corridor" [PDF]. Their presence would allegedly pose a threat to wildlife.

This, in itself, is absurd. The Bushmen, like other indigenous tribes around the world, respect and protect nature because nature, among other things, provides them with shelter and food. They live in peaceful cohabitation with their environment and have done so for aeons. They live sustainably on game and their carbon footprint is translucently small. They pose as much as a threat to wildlife as a pea would hamper a princess' sleep.

And yet the Botswanan government has the audacity to accuse the Bushmen of potentially wrecking that same nature, that same wildlife. It paints itself "green" and uses conservation, a humble scientific endeavour, as an excuse to get rid of extremely "green" people. But it gets more absurd. As it turns out, conservation was merely an excuse to get rid of the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Because in the 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the reserve.

Using conservation as a cover-front to displace people is not a new tactic. As I wrote last year, in 2009 the British government unscrupulously backed the erection of a marine protection zone, the world's largest, around the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean. Its motivation wasn't conservation but rather to squash the native Chagossians' attempts to return to the main island of Diego Garcia, currently occupied by an active US military base.

For the Botswanan government, the motivation was money. The lure of sparkling diamonds and dollars that come with them (Gem Diamonds publicly stated that it valued the region at $3.3 billion in 2010) ranked higher than the lives of the Bushmen. And so it was decided. The Bushmen would be displaced and diamond mining companies would start digging. The government began its newfound mission of clearing the Bushmen away in 1997. Two further clearances occurred in 2002 and 2005 by which time most Bushmen had effectively been evicted.

As Survival International, an organisation working for tribal peoples' rights worldwide, reports, the evicted Bushmen, stripped from their land, home and purpose found it hard to settle in the so-called modern world:

"Rarely able to hunt, and arrested and beaten when they do, they are dependent on government handouts. Many are now gripped by alcoholism, boredom, depression, and illnesses such as TB and HIV/AIDS."

In 2006, the Bushmen did win the right to go back and live on their land but although the Botswanan government rapidly announced that it would not appeal the ruling, behind the scenes, its machiavellian machinations were already in place. It kept the sole borehole used by the Bushmen as source of water effectively useless by removing its pump.

Lawsuits later, the Bushmen finally won the right to access their borehole as well the right to sink new ones in the reserve. A pledge by Gem Diamonds to sink more boreholes is also good news, although it remains to be seen if that's just sweet talk.

Undeterred though, the Botswanan government continued its wave of intimidation, but this time under the guise of conservation. Threatened with more-or-less spontaneous eviction, the Bushmen had to go to court yet again and it is this ruling, made last month, that they are now celebrating. The court rightfully granted more powers to the Bushmen, including the right to refuse entry into their compounds to government officials.

As for the "wildlife corridor," well, someone please tell President Obama that the genius idea was initially promoted by the US organization Conservation International (CI), whose proud motto is "people need nature to strive." (CI apparently distanced itself from the "wildlife corridor" last month. Read its statement here.) In his quest to befriend the African continent, maybe he can put a definitive end to this nonsense.

What is most saddening about this is that people are being displaced and mistreated and it's all being covered up by the need for conservation. The thing to keep in mind however is that even if conservation is indeed the primary reason for the displacement of people, removing indigenous populations from their ancestral lands cannot be condoned by conservationists. Conservation involves the preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment. People are most definitely part of the natural environment and as such, they too, must be taken care of.

Images' credit: Dietmar Temps (all from Flickr).

More information about the Bushmen's plight by Survival International:

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