British MPs' visit to Botswana 'controlled by the government'

July 4, 2004

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A delegation of British MPs has just returned from a visit to Botswana paid for and organised by the government there. The Bushmen evicted from their ancestral lands, whose situation they were supposed to investigate, have denounced the visit as 'controlled by the government.'

Most of the MPs spent just a few hours talking to Bushmen in one of the relocation sites, and most of those chosen to talk to them were appointed by the government.

When other Bushmen tried to explain how they wanted to return to their ancestral lands, they were prevented from speaking. The MPs did not attempt to visit the hundreds of Bushmen who have returned to their lands inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Not all the MPs, however, were taken in. Dianne Abbott told the Sunday Telegraph that the relocation centres were 'more like refugee camps than communities… I am quite convinced that they were moved against their will.'

The visit was organised by the huge PR company, Hill & Knowlton, which has been contracted by the Botswana government and De Beers to counter the Bushmen's campaign for their land rights. It is one of many visits, all similarly stage managed, led by Nigel Jones MP. Hill and Knowlton have set up and administer a new all-party group on Botswana which is chaired by Mr Jones. The trips are paid for by Botswana's diamond revenue, controlled by De Beers, and include luxury safaris.

Nigel Jones told the BBC last week that they only saw 'one or two people who were not happy'. When the reporter put it that the Bushmen themselves were reporting 'huge social dislocation', he replied, 'Well, we didn't see any of that,' and went on, 'the government has been pretty generous.' Mr Jones has previously accused those supporting the Bushmen's right to return to their lands as 'prefer[ring] Basarwa women to die in childbirth in the bush' and 'people to die from curable diseases'. (The Bushmen are called 'Basarwa' in Botswana, a derogatory term.)

Botswana's President Mogae visited the same settlement only two weeks ago and handed out food and blankets to the Bushmen, telling them not to try to return to their lands, in spite of the fact that they are now taking the government to court for the right to go back – the case starts this week.

The Gana and Gwi Bushmen lived largely by independent hunting and gathering until the evictions. They are now destitute and dependent on government hand-outs. They call the government sites 'places of death', saying there is nothing to do there except get drunk. They are arrested if they try and hunt. Prostitution is becoming common.

The Bushmen are the Indigenous inhabitants of all of southern Africa and, it is thought, have lived there for at least 40,000 years.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival, said today, 'For the Oxford-educated president to hand out blankets to the Bushmen and tell them not to try and return to their land is like the British 'buying' the land of Canadian Indians for 700 blankets in 1850. British MPs were complicit in that deal, and now some are doing the same thing in the Kalahari. Both episodes bring shame on Britain. Have we learned nothing from history?'

For further information, please contact Miriam Ross at Survival International on +44 20 7687 8734 or email [email protected]

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