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Court’s ruling rides roughshod over Basarwa right to water, says MRG

6 August 2010

The 21 July ruling by the Botswana High Court denying the Basarwa indigenous community access to a water borehole on their lands inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) violates the right to water laid down under international law, says Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

‘The ruling completely discounts the vast protection of the right to water within international human rights law, under the rights to an adequate standard of living, to health and arguably, to natural resources,’ says Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Head of Law.

‘We travel more than 300 km to nearby settlements outside the park to fetch water. We use donkey carts. We do not welcome the court decision. It hurts us. We are talking about human life,’ says Jumanda Gakelebone, a Basarwa spokesperson.

In 1961, the CKGR – which is the size of Denmark – was set up, mainly as a bid to ensure the Basarwa’s survival. Botswana’s national wealth has been founded on its diamond reserves, and in the 1980s exploratory drills were sunk in the Game Reserve and diamonds were found. Although the government claimed there was no connection between diamonds and subsequent events, in 1997, 2002, and 2005, there were a series of forced evictions of the Basarwa.

Many Basarwa were moved into squalid resettlement camps where there was no opportunity to pursue their traditional way of life. They faced high rates of unemployment, alcoholism and were exposed to HIV infection. Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. Hunting in the Game Reserve was banned, and Basarwa caught breaking the law were arrested.

In 2006, the Botswana High Court found that the evictions were unlawful and ruled that the hunter gatherer community had the right to use and occupy the land.

However, the Government of Botswana has been slow to implement the judgment in practice, putting obstacles in the way of accessing Basarwa ancestral land, such as capping the borehole, the only source of water for indigenous communities in one of the driest regions on Earth, whilst at the same time granting permission for the building of a tourist camp within the Reserve, complete with a swimming pool.

‘RETENG feels that this is a matter that cannot be solved by the courts, competent as they are, but rather by a political decision which should take into account the fact that any government has a responsibility towards its people, and especially to the marginalized ones,’ says MRG partner organisation RETENG – the Multicultural Coalition of Botswana.

The right to natural resources is specifically provided for in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Botswana is party, and was recently recognised by the African Commission in the historic Endorois decision.

‘As recognised by the UN, the right to water is a fundamental human right and its promotion constitutes a moral imperative,’ Lucy Claridge added.