April 18, 2005

Government denies bid to undermine land-claim fight

Botswana’s government has denied allegations that a bill, which is being pushed through parliament to change the constitution, was aimed at undermining a court challenge to the forced removal of the Baswara people from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve. The amendment will remove clause s14(3)(c), which provides protection for Baswara in the reserve, from the constitution. Rights group Survival International and First People of Kalahari, which is fighting the removals, had before argued that the proposed change would directly affect the outcome of a high court challenge to the removal of Baswara from the reserve, which is in part based on the clause. According to Presidential office spokesman Jeff Ramsay, the change was aimed at rendering the constitution "tribally neutral. The high court and the lawyers for Roy Sesana (the chairman of the First People of Kalahari) and company were informed of the proposed change on this basis. This government made a commitment to render the language of the constitution tribally neutral," he said.
The clause in question stipulates that government can restrict the general public's right to free movement within "defined areas of Botswana" if required for the protection or well-being of the Kalahari people. The amendment has already passed its second reading in parliament and if supported at the third reading, will become law within months. As First People of the Kalahari spokesman Jumanda Gakelebone explained: "On behalf of all Bushmen we at First People of the Kalahari are upset because the government is planning to remove the protection given to Bushmen in section 14 of the constitution. They say they want to make the constitution tribally neutral, but the effect and purpose of this section is to protect the Bushmen."
According to Gakelebone, it was more than a coincidence that when the Baswara invoked this clause for the first time, to protect their constitutional right to protection and their land, the government set about changing it. "This section was included in the constitution to give us protection. Now we are trying to rely on the section for the first time in history," he said.
Survival International noted that the high court's guidance on the clause would have helped the Bushman's case. The rights group also said the government appeared to be "quite happy to arbitrarily bend the law to get its own way". Survival International director Stephen Corry explained that removing that section took away the only constitutional protection given to an already vulnerable people just when they needed it. It was outrageous that it should act before the court had handed down its judgment.
The government has denied the Baswara are being forced off their ancestral land. Rather, the state says, the removals are aimed at averting a slide into poverty and to preventing the spread of farming in the reserve blamed on Bushmen. The government has said the Baswara were encouraged to leave and that they have been given arable land outside the reserve, where clinics and schools have been built. Some Baswara say the relocation sites were underdeveloped poverty traps. The Botswanan government has also denied the reserve has been earmarked for mining. Gope Exploration Company, a joint venture between Falconbridge Explorations Botswana, a subsidiary of Canada's Falconbridge, and diamond miner De Beers was in November 2000 granted a retention licence to mine in the reserve. A kimberlitic pipe discovered there was initially found to be uneconomical to mine, but Gope has rights to explore further and mine the area until November next year. (Business Day, Johannesburg)


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