Survival Alert: Botswana’s Bushmen Arrested and Tortured for Hunting While Tribal

Takepart.comJanuary 15, 2013

Imagine being arrested, beaten until you pass out, thrown into a hole and covered with sand, just for going to the supermarket to buy some dinner. Well, that is the basic equivalent of what happened to Nkemetse Motsoke in Botswana last year.

On this fateful day in November, Nkemetse and his friend Kebonyeng Kepese were out hunting for game when they were accosted by paramilitary police and arrested for killing an eland, a large antelope.

Nkemetse and Kebonyeng are Bushmen. Their ancestral land—where they still live today—is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana, which was established in the 1960s to protect the Bushmen’s way of life. Tribesmen depend heavily on hunting to feed their families, but the current government refuses to issue hunting licenses to the Bushmen. Worse still, the government seems intent on ridding the CKGR of the Bushmen altogether, through harassment, intimidation and arrests of Bushmen who choose to carry out their self-sufficient lifestyle.

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So what choice do Botswana’s Bushmen face? They must either risk arrest, become dependent on government handouts, or face starvation. For a people who have lived a self-sufficient lifestyle for tens of thousands of years in Southern Africa, those aren’t really choices.

How did this happen?

In the 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the CKGR. Soon after, the eviction notices arrived. When the Bushmen refused to move, the government turned to harsher measures, and evicted them with force in three big clearances in 1997, 2002 and 2005. Their homes and water supplies were destroyed; schools and health posts closed.

Continued harassment and intimidation by police and wildlife scouts for hunting means the Bushmen live in fear of arrest and torture, like Nkemetse and Kebonyeng.

The Bushmen were moved to resettlement camps outside of the reserve, far away from the land of their ancestors. Bushmen describe these camps as places of death, where alcoholism, depression and diseases are rife.

With the support of tribal rights organization Survival International, the Bushmen took the Botswana government to court over these evictions. In a landmark decision in 2006, the High Court ruled that the Bushmen had the right to live, and to hunt, in the CKGR. In a following case, the Court of Appeal ruled in 2011 that the Bushmen have the right to access water inside the reserve, which the government was refusing them.

Many Bushmen have since returned home, in the hope of resuming their way of life. But continued harassment and intimidation by police and wildlife scouts for hunting means they live in fear of arrest and torture, like Nkemetse and Kebonyeng.

Kebonyeng Kepese was arrested for hunting on his tribe’s ancestral land. (Photo Copyright Survival)

One Bushman said to Survival, “We depend on the natural resources of the CKGR for our food. How are we expected to survive if we cannot hunt?”

Perhaps the government thinks that nobody will notice its harassment and persecution. It is mistaken. With the support of Survival International and people like you, the public’s watchful eye will once again return to the CKGR.

Share this story with your friends and colleagues to raise awareness of the plight of one of the last hunter-gatherer societies in Southern Africa. Survival’s long-standing campaign will continue, until the Bushmen can live in peace on their ancestral land, without fear from the government.  

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Since 1984, Stephen Corry has been Director of Survival International, a global organization campaigning on behalf of indigenous people and their ancestral lands. Survival, which Corry joined in 1972, operates from the perspective that indigenous people have both moral and legal rights to their lands and their way of life. Email Survival | @Survival