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Conservation, Culture, and Land Use Conflicts in the Central Kalahari, Botswana

At the present time, there are approximately 550 people in the Central Kalahari, and some 3,500 people in the three resettlement sites outside of the reserve.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana has seen conflicts between local people (San and Bakgalagadi) and the state over land and resource rights. Botswana government policy has emphasized biodiversity conservation, high-end tourism, and mining, whereas the indigenous peoples of the reserve favor a multiple use strategy involving foraging and agropastoralism.

Conflicts over land use, hunting, gathering, water, and entrance rights to the reserve have occurred since the conclusion of a High Court legal case in December, 2006. Some of the people who were resettled out of the reserve in 1997 and 2002 have returned to the reserve and are residing currently in 5 communities. These communities are seeking rights to manage the resources in their areas, but thus far the government has not given permission for them to do so in spite of Botswana’s national policies on community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). This paper assesses the continuing conflicts and disputes over social, economic, and cultural rights in Botswana and the Central Kalahari and makes some suggestions on ways that some of these issues might be resolved to the benefit of all parties and the environments of the region.  


Over the past 50 years there have been conflicts between local people and the state over the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a large protected area in the Republic of Botswana of southern Africa.  This area was set aside originally as a means of protecting people, many of whom were hunter-gatherers, habitats, and wildlife. 

As indigenous peoples’ representatives pointed out at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) at its 12th annual meeting in New York (May (17-29, 2013), some of the major problems facing indigenous peoples today are (1) the expanded pace of extractive industrial development, (2) the take-over of blocks of land (‘land grabbing’) by individuals, transnational corporations, and the state, and (3) resettlement out of areas designated as national parks, game reserves, and protected areas.  Finally, there is battle over governance of the forests of Africa, some of it related to international initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation and degradation due to global climate change.

Since the mid-1970s extensive tracts of land in the Kalahari Desert region of Botswana have been converted from open savanna areas that were communally owned and managed into private leasehold and freehold farms. There has also been considerable investment by the Botswana state and private transnational corporations in mineral prospecting, particularly diamonds and copper.

In the case of the Central Kalahari, Botswana government policy has tended to emphasize (1) biodiversity conservation, (2) high-end tourism, and (3) mining, while the indigenous peoples of the reserve favor a multiple use strategy involving foraging and agropastoralism. In the 1990s and early part of the new millennium the Botswana government relocated some 2,200 people out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The government gave several reasons for the removals.  First, government officials said that the land where people were living in the Central Kalahari was state land, and as such, people should not be residing there as it was ‘a reserve for animals.’ Second, it was argued that the people of the area were no longer ‘living ‘traditional lives’ since they resided in stationary villages, kept domestic stock, and used modern technology including vehicles. Third it was argued that it would be cheaper and more effective to have people grouped in single locations outside of the reserve where they could benefit from the provision of services including water, health, and education.

The people of the Central Kalahari brought a legal suit against the government of Botswana in 2004.This lawsuit, which was tried in the High Court over a period of two and a half years, the longest legal case in Botswana history, ended with the people of the Central Kalahari being granted the right of return to their original homes in the reserve, and the right to hunt in the Central Kalahari as long as they had licenses from the government. 

Mining and Tourism in the Central Kalahari 

The Botswana government maintained throughout the High Court trial that there were no plans to develop diamond or other mines in the Central Kalahari. In May, 2007, it was announced that a mining company, Gem Diamonds, had purchased the mining licenses for sites around Gope in the southeastern portion of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where in the 1980s De Beers and Falconbridge, Ltd. (Xstrata) had found kimberlite deposits indicating the presence of diamonds. Gem Diamonds paid a reported US $34 million for the license. The estimated returns from the mine are set currently at 20.53 million carats, for a total value of US$5.3 billion.  So Far, Gem Diamonds has invested some $31 million in the construction of the mine, which is ongoing. The area set aside for the mine was 745 km2.

One of the most significant of the international indigenous rights organizations to bring pressure upon the government of Botswana was London-based human rights advocacy organization, Survival International. Particularly in the period between 2004 and 2013 Survival International was one of the key players to influence events and perceptions relating to Botswana. In the early part of the new millennium Survival International initiated what came to be known as the ‘blood diamond’ campaign. This campaign, which focused on Botswana’s extractive industry policies, held that the diamonds from Botswana were having harmful effects on the people.  Survival International maintained that mining was the major reason for the removals of people from the Central Kalahari. In fact, mineral exploration companies had been prospecting in the Central Kalahari since the early 1980s, and significant kimberlite pipes containing high quality diamonds had been found at Orapa, just to the east of the reserve, in 1967.

Gem Diamonds maintains that it has policies in place that govern its relationship with local communities and that these will ensure environmentally sustainable exploitation of mineral resources.  Gem Diamonds has also said that it will hire local people, but interviews suggest only a few people from Ghaghoo have been employed, with the majority of employees coming from outside of the reserve and as far afield as South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

On July 18th, 2012, a consultation was held by Hana Mining Company of Canada at Mothomelo in the Central Kalahari to get feedback from residents of the reserve about a potential copper-silver mine that would have impacts on the northwestern portion of the reserve. Reactions of the Central Kalahari community members to the new mining plans were mixed. On the one hand, there were those who did not want to see a new mine in the Central Kalahari, while on the other there were those anxious to get jobs and who were hopeful that the mining company would provide services such as schools, clinics, water delivery, and social safety nets.

It is also important to point out that the government of Botswana has allowed tour operators to take sizable numbers of tourists into the Central Kalahari. In December, 2009, a luxury tourist lodge was opened by Wilderness Safaris in the northern part of the Reserve. Tau  Lodge, owned by Kwandu Safaris out of Maun, was opened in 2010 at Tau Pan in the northwestern part of the reserve.

G/ui and G//ana San and Bakgalagadi were quick to point out the irony of large numbers of wealthy tourists and mining company personnel spending time in the Central Kalahari, seeing animals and magnificent vistas, driving around on delicate pan surfaces and fossil river beds and drinking iced water when they themselves are not allowed to have access to water or to utilize the resources there.  

Hunting and Natural Resource Management Issues

On May 5th, 2012, the government of Botswana sent Special Support Group (Botswana Police) officers to a camp at Metsiamanong in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This decision was taken by the government in order to control what was alleged to be illegal hunting in the reserve. The Special Support Group spent time searching people, including women and children, and, in some cases, arresting them. By early 2013, over two dozen people had been detained and some of them charged with contravening Botswana’s wildlife laws because they allegedly had game meat in their possession.

In August, 2012, the government of Botswana announced that it was going to ban all hunting in the country beginning in 2014. There were fears expressed by indigenous peoples and others that the hunting ban will lead to loss of access to crucial sources of food, and a decline in the numbers of jobs available to people in the safari tourism industry. While the government stated that it would continue to provide licenses to people dependent upon ‘traditional’ hunting, in fact, no Special Game Licenses or hunting permits have been given to anyone either inside or outside of the central Kalahari in the past year.

 Also in 2012, the government sought to take over some of the community trusts that were established under Botswana’s community based natural resource management program, many of which had been in place since the 1990s. Botswana government and district council officials argued that there were problems with financial management of the trusts. They maintained that some community members were being impoverished because of unfair distribution of benefits by the management boards of the trusts which, they said, tended to keep the funds for themselves or for projects that board members wanted to implement. Many community trust members, reacting to these positions, said that they believed that the Botswana government was actually interested in taking over the trusts for its own purposes and was planning on giving the community trust areas to private companies, some of them owned by high government officials.

Returning to the Reserve and Managing Resources 

A number of the people who had been resettled out of the reserve in 1997 and 2002 have returned to the reserve since 2007 and are residing currently in 5 communities. At the present time, there are approximately 550 people in the Central Kalahari, and some 3,500 people in the three resettlement sites outside of the reserve. People inside the reserve are engaging in foraging, craft production and sale, gardening, and, in some cases, raising small stock, mainly goats, in order to meet their subsistence needs. The government has not made it easy for people seeking to enter the reserve, restricting access only to those people who were among the original applicants in the first CKGR High Court Case. Livestock including donkeys, horses, and goats have been confiscated from people attempting to enter the reserve.  

The communities in the reserve are seeking rights to manage the wildlife resources in their areas, but thus far the government has not given permission for them to do so in spite of Botswana’s national policies on community-based natural resource management. What the government did do, much to the chagrin of the people inside of the reserve, was to grant rights over the resources in the reserve to the people living in the three resettlement sites (Xere in Central District, Kaudwane in Kweneng District, and New Xade in Ghanzi District). This has led to tensions between those people living inside of the reserve and those who are living outside of the Central Kalahari.

The residents of the Central Kalahari filed a second legal case relating to water rights in the Central Kalahari in the High Court in September, 2009. Initially, a High Court judge, L. Walia, dismissed the case in July, 2010, but the people in the reserve and their lawyers appealed the judge’s decision, and in January, 2011, the Appeals Court ruled that the people of the Central Kalahari had the right to develop their own water wells (boreholes). Gem Diamonds reportedly underwrote the costs of some of the drilling in the Central Kalahari, and thus far, one borehole has struck water fit for human consumption, at Mothomelo. It took almost a year to reopen the Mothomelo borehole and other boreholes drilled in the CKGR have yielded only salty water. The Mothomelo therefore remains the only source of potable water for the residents of the reserve. What this means is that the people living in the other communities have to travel to Mothomelo, depend on water substitutes (e.g., wild melons), use sipwells, places where water is sucked out of the ground laboriously through straws, a labor-intensive strategy, or leave the reserve to get water at the resettlement locations, with little or no guarantee that they will be allowed to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.


Two government ministers, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism, told people in the Central Kalahari in 2011 that there would be a ‘third relocation’ of people in the reserve either to Mothomelo or back to the resettlement sites outside of the reserve, a position that they did not mention during the Central Kalahari Game Reserve negotiation meetings which have been on-going since 2009.   

There are continuing conflicts and disputes over social, economic, and cultural rights in the Central Kalahari and in Botswana in general, particularly given the announcement of a new draft land policy that is aimed at providing land only to those who can afford to develop it. Already, nearly two dozen communities, made up mainly of San and Bakgalagadi, have been told that they have to relocate to new places, with no mention made of compensation to be provided to affected people or assistance from government or the district councils. Some of these communities are seeking legal advice.

One of the resistance strategies employed by people in the Central Kalahari has been to engage in what is known as ethnocartography, the mapping of community areas using Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) instruments and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. The maps produced are used for various purposes, including documentation of land use and historical territories and the education of local people including the young about natural and cultural heritage resource management.  It is likely that some of the information that has been gathered will also be used in future legal cases.

One of the points made by people in the Central Kalahari and in the remote area settlements outside of the Central Kalahari is that engaging in legal efforts is extremely costly, both in terms of cash and political capital. Their preference would be to have the government of Botswana engage in wide-ranging negotiations with them that are aimed at resolving what everyone agrees are difficult and sensitive issues. If Botswana is to be able to hold on to its cherished reputation of being a democracy concerned with human rights and social justice for all people, ways will have to be found to ensure that everyone in the country has equal access to the benefits of conservation and development, not just those who are in positions of power and authority.


Robert K. Hitchcock

Department of Anthropology

University of New Mexico

Albuquerque, NM87107