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Botswana's bushmen get Kalahari lands back

Story Highlights

• Hunter-gatherers can go back to land rich in diamonds
• Court says government not obliged to provide services
• Government contends it was trying to pull Bushmen from poverty
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LOBATSE, Botswana (Reuters) -- Botswana's High Court ruled on Wednesday that hundreds of Bushmen had been wrongly evicted from ancestral hunting grounds in the Kalahari desert and should be allowed to return.

The court ruled 2-1 for the Bushmen in the key issues of the case, which saw Africa's last hunter-gatherers take on one of the continent's most admired governments in a dispute over diamond-rich land and development priorities.

Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi, who delivered the swing vote in the case, said Botswana had been wrong to force the Bushmen out of the Kalahari reserve by cutting off their livelihood.

"In my view the simultaneous stoppage of the supply of food rations and the stoppage of hunting licenses is tantamount to condemning the remaining residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to death by starvation," he said.

Roy Sesana, head of the Bushman pressure group wearing a waistcoat of animal hide over his shirt and tie, did a little dance on coming out of courtroom. "My heart today is nice!" he said in English, then added through an interpreter:

"I'm very very much happy at the outcome. I'm going to greet my ancestors at home. My ancestors told me I was going to win."

Jumanda Gakelebone, another Bushman activist, said: "I'm very very glad. I'm expecting to go back tomorrow."

The Bushmen's lawyer, Gordon Bennett, said the court had opened the way for the Bushmen to return to lands that their ancestors have lived on for 20,000 years.

"It's about the right of the applicants to live inside the reserve as long as they want and that's a marvelous victory," Bennett said.

Chief government lawyer Sydney Pilane stressed that the state had not lost outright because the ruling did not require it to provide essential services to the Bushmen in the reserve.

He said the government might appeal.

The court said it saw no grounds for out-of-court claims by the Bushmen that the government and diamond giant de Beers wanted to clear the land for diamond mining -- the basis for a major publicity push by western pressure groups who have backed the Bushmen's cause.

Activists say more than 1,000 Bushmen want to go back to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, an area of desert the size of Belgium which the government has set up as one of Africa's largest protected nature reserves.

Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo, delivering a minority opinion ahead of the verdict, said the case should be dismissed.

"The contention of the applicants that the government unlawfully deprived them of their land ...must fail," he said.

But Judge Unity Dow disagreed, saying Botswana's government had "failed to take account the knowledge and the culture" of the Bushmen when it expelled them.

"In 2002 they were dispossessed forcibly, unlawfully, and without their consent," she said.

The Bushmen say their way of life was being wiped out as they were resettled into bleak camps where they were unable to use their traditional hunting skills.

Botswana argued that western activists, who have won the backing of South African anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu and British actress Julie Christie, have romanticized a Bushmen lifestyle that vanished long ago.

It says the Basarwa, also known as the San, are a danger to wildlife and that the Kalahari reserve is a poverty trap which stops the San integrating into society and denies them access to healthcare and education.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Bushmen from the Kalahari wait inside the court before the final hearing of their case against the Botswana government on Wednesday.

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