ACCRA, GHANA -- In a landmark decision, the Botswana High Court ruled yesterday that the government had acted illegally when it forcibly evicted the last tribal Bushmen living a traditional life from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The last 2,000 Bushmen living in the game reserve were forced out in 1997 and 2002, but yesterday's verdict centered on the latter eviction of about 1,000 people. The court - in the town of Lobatse, about 37 miles south of the capital Gaborone - ruled 2-1 in favor of the Bushmen, also finding that they had a right to hunt and gather in the reserve.
"Today is the happiest day for us Bushmen. We have been crying for so long, but today we are crying with happiness. Finally we have been set free," said one of the leaders of the Bushmen court action, Roy Sesana of the advocacy group First People of the Kalahari.
Evicted Bushmen testified that the government poured out thousands of gallons of water from the Bushmen's tanks in the reserve, sealed wells and threatened to send in armed soldiers if they did not move. Mobile clinics and food rations also were halted.
In a harshly worded finding, Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi condemned the government's decision to stop delivering food rations to the reserve, while also forbidding the Bushmen to hunt. Those moves, he said, gave the Bushmen no way to survive there.
Judge Unity Dow found that the government ignored the value of the Bushmen's culture and traditional knowledge when it pushed them out.
Most of the evicted Bushmen were taken to a bleak, arid settlement outside the reserve called New Xade, where they could neither hunt nor find traditional food. Alcoholism and violence are rife in the settlement, and Bushmen began getting sick from AIDS.
An April 2002 legal action mounted by a group of about 200 Bushmen lasted years. Meanwhile, many Bushmen left New Xade and secretly returned to their homes, only to be evicted again by government officials.
Botswana is rich in diamonds and has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa. Its government often is praised in the West for its economic management. But the plight of those evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve has been a serious blot on the government's human rights record.
The Bushmen are the oldest tribe of Southern Africa, going back 30,000 years. There are about 45,000 Bushmen in Botswana, most of them living in squalor after waves of invaders displaced them from their ancestral lands.
As simple hunter-gatherers, the Bushmen were seen as backward and primitive by Botswana's dominant tribes, which measured prestige by livestock.
But their click-filled languages, ability to survive in the desert and knowledge of the fruits and vegetation of the Kalahari intrigued filmmakers and anthropologists.
The value of the Bushmen's lifestyle was recognized in 1961 by the former British colonial rulers who established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 as a haven for wildlife and the Bushmen.
British attorney Gordon Bennett, who represented the Bushmen, said the decision meant the Bushmen could return to their homelands.
Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.