BOTSWANA: Bushmen Living: 'I chose to call it stone age' Said Tonge

Renewed political discord hit the presses this week from London about the San Bushmen of Botswana.

Jenny Tonge (House of Lords peer) responded to an editorial in The Guardian, which attacked her statement defining San Bushmen (also called Basarwa) as stone-aged. "In the case of the Bushmen, I chose to call it stone age. A more accurate description would have been Mesolithic, middle stone age or hunter gatherer. Why this perfectly acceptable, biological, evolutionary description should cause offence I do not know."

While Tonge's full comments are available in the paragraphs ahead, Botswana's president also spoke on the Bushmen's case while he was in London.

Botswana's President Festus Mogae told diplomats that he relocated San Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to ensure that all citizens of Botswana had opportunities to share in the wealth of the nation.

Survival International meanwhile (the NGO rallying for Bushmen's rights,) said 15 Bushmen died this week in the new settlement New Xade as a result of a mysterious disease. Survival International has long claimed that removing the Bushmen from the game reserve was part of a larger plot to open the land for diamond mining.

Diamond concession maps show a number of companies holding licenses on the reserve including De Beers and Debswana, BHP Billiton, and Ampal Ltd.

Mogae criticized Survival International for waging a war of "misinformation" and for showing "pictures of children whom they allege have been shot and killed by us. They allege that citizen Roy Sesana (the leader of the Basarwa organization First People of the Kalahari) has been imprisoned many times."

Mogae said Sesana has not been imprisoned, and no children were shot or killed.

The Bushmen case against Botswana, now considered the longest and most costly trial in the nation's history, is in recess pending the plaintiff's ability to raise more legal defense funds. The Bushmen sued to keep ancestral lands at the game reserve. It appears at this time all Bushmen have been removed from the reserve to live at New Xade or other locations, and parts of the reserve have remained off limits since September 2005.

Religious groups and the United Nations have urged Botswana to negotiate with the Bushmen, but Mogae said that by allowing Bushmen access to the reserve "would decimate the animals, and human settlement would degrade the environment and accelerate desertification.

"Other tribal communities would want to reclaim all the other parks, which were their hunting or grazing or ploughing fields."

Botswana contends the San were not removed for diamond mining, although it reserves the right to mine diamonds at a future date. While the issue has gained little print press coverage in the United States, politicians in the United Kingdom have debated the issue and offered opinions. In a speech on March 14, Baroness Tonge (a former MP) addressed Parliament on the Bushmen issue and calls Botswana a success story for Africa.

"De Beers discovered diamonds in Botswana," Tonge said. "Instead of allowing this huge multinational company to exploit Botswana's riches and line its own pockets, the government went into a 50:50 partnership with De Beers, forming the company Debswana. The arrangement should be looked at as a model for other developing countries."

Tonge discussed how Botswana's Vision 2016 plans include diversifying its economy, building tourism, financial services, subsistence farming, and beef cattle farming "as well as further mining in other areas. It would be a tragedy if this development plan failed."

"Unfortunately, the government is being attacked, and investment hindered, by an NGO campaign from this country to discredit Botswana and its government. Survival International, a British NGO, has been waging war against the government of Botswana over their treatment of the San people, the Basarwa, known commonly as the Bushmen of the Kalahari," she said.

She described the history of the Central Kalahari post 1961 (after it was established as a reserve.) Bushmen "were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows; on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful...Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen and Bushchildren, who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life."

Additionally, Tonge claimed Bushmen advanced hunting skills to incorporate guns and 4X4 vehicles on the reserve and "the Bushmen also demand compensation from the government."

"Survival International has alleged cruelty toward the remaining Bushmen, which has not been substantiated-the allegation has been thoroughly investigated. It has also alleged that De Beers wants to mine the area.

"Investigations have taken place and De Beers has said that there are no substantial diamonds worth mining in the game reserve. But, even if it did at a future date decide that it was worth doing that, we are talking about a mine that would occupy a very small area, compared with the whole of the game reserve. Nevertheless, De Beers is being targeted by Survival International quite unfairly, especially when we must remember that the company was the instigator of the Kimberley agreement to stamp out conflict diamonds."

The Kimberley Process was, however, not only about De Beers, but a worldwide effort lead by multiple governments and business leaders, the international diamond industry, and NGOs.

While Tonge told Parliament she doesn't deny a problem exists for all indigenous people, "some sort of balance has to be struck to try to provide for their needs."

Tonge was criticized by a number of groups for the reference of "stay in the stone age" during her speech. On March 21 The Guardian ran an editorial [Read the editorial,] which prompted Tonge to submit the following in her defense on March 24.

Don't romanticize the Kalahari Bushmen. They're part of the modern world too, says Jenny Tonge

George Monbiot does himself no favors by taking his article on the Bushmen of the Kalahari straight from the pages of Survival International leaflets (Who really belongs to another age: Bushmen or the House of Lords?, March 21.) I wonder whether he has been there, or even read much about Botswana and its government.

He would do well to think a little before accusing me of being bribed by a sponsored trip, together with other parliamentarians, including Lord Pearson, who enjoyed the same hospitality. He went having made up his mind on the issue. I went as International Development spokesman for my party, out of genuine interest to see the way the Bushmen were being treated and also to study the benefits that have undoubtedly accrued to the people of Botswana, from the least corrupt government in Africa and the public-private company of Debswana, formed when diamonds were discovered in Botswana just after independence.

This partnership is worth looking at for developing countries -- combining, as it does, the management expertise of a major company with a government needing to deliver public services to its people. Botswana has done this well, by any standards, and its citizens have healthcare and free education, unlike many African countries with similar natural resources.

Apart from his personal and unjustified attack on my integrity, I welcome his article and hope that it will encourage a proper debate about the treatment and management of indigenous people all over the world, who find that their lifestyle is at odds with the rest of their country. In the case of the Bushmen, I chose to call it stone age. A more accurate description would have been Mesolithic, middle stone age or hunter-gatherer. Why this perfectly acceptable, biological, evolutionary description should cause offence I do not know.

In the Bushmen's case, this requires huge tracts of land which may be needed to sustain the economy of the rest of the population of Botswana, who live in the towns. I hope that Monbiot is not suggesting that we should all live this way, because there is simply not enough room.

We hear about the skills of the Bushmen; their ability to track wild animals and bore water holes. Their lives are held in awe by some people who treat them like exhibits in a museum; but what about the bush women and children? They have human rights too. Some want homes, healthcare, and education to give them the opportunity to make the leap into another kind of life. What about them, especially if it is well nigh impossible for a government to provide these services in a huge area like the Kalahari, and with a constantly shifting lifestyle?

It is how we achieve this and prevent the sad stories of indigenous people failing to adapt and becoming dropouts, that should be the subject of our debate.

Monbiot is right on one thing: The Bushmen and all indigenous people are part of the modern world however we choose to describe them. The House of Lords is not. Perhaps he can persuade his chums in Survival International to leave the Botswanan human rights NGOs to sort this out, and concentrate their fire on the democratization of the House of Lords, if not its abolition.

Jenny Tonge is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
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