The plight of the San people, particularly the G/wi, who have been expelled from their homes by the government of Botswana, prompted some press coverage in Africa last week. Several news sources reprinted a press release from Survival International which shows a cartoon that caricatures the reactions of President Ian Khama of Botswana to the G/wi situation.
President Khama, who is on the board of the international environmental NGO Conservation International, succeeded the previous president, Festus Mogae, 18 months ago. So far he has not changed his predecessor’s repressive policies toward the indigenous minority people. In fact, he has demeaned their way of life as an “archaic fantasy.” The Botswana government expelled the G/wi, and other San people, from their homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in order to make sure there were no competing claims for royalties when diamond mining commenced. The San people took the government to court.
In 2006, the highest court in Botswana decided against the government and required it to allow the San to return to their homes. In retaliation, the government destroyed all sources of water and prevented the people from hunting game. In effect, by denying the people food and water, the government continues to make it extremely difficult for the San to survive in the desert.
The drawing that SI reprinted, by an anonymous cartoonist, shows President Khama sweeping the San people and their huts under a rug—depicted as the national flag. He is saying, “do you think anyone will notice?” As always, Stephen Corry, director of Survival, had harsh words for the government: “President Khama isn’t only trying to sweep the Bushmen out of the picture, he’s making things even worse by attacking their way of life and refusing to uphold his own court’s rulings.”
Also last week, the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF), a South African church-based NGO that monitors the corporate social performances of businesses, released a 114 page report that severely criticizes the diamond mining industry and its government allies in Botswana. It focuses particularly on the activities of Debswana, the corporate child of DeBeers and the national government.
“Corporate Social Responsibility in the Diamond Mining Industry in Botswana,” by David van Wyk, appears as a PDF on the BMF website. It has prompted controversy in the press and government circles in Botswana as that country confronts its highly discriminatory treatment of its minority citizens. As IRIN, a human rights reporting service for the United Nations noted last week in describing the BMF document, “the plight of the San, also known as Bushmen, has become an international public relations nightmare for Botswana.”
BMF made many charges that repeat information that has already appeared in Survival International releases and other sources in the press. However, the detailed presentation by a respected South African ecumenical organization appears to be having an impact. The BMF document charges that the diamond mining operations make it difficult for the San communities to have access to water. It also indicates that the mining does not provide benefits to the communities located near the operations, and that the industry was not required to prepare environmental impact assessments as it should have been.
Predictably, the government and DeBeers dismissed the findings in the report as inaccurate. “The key criticism made by the BMF is that Debswana’s operations have not generated benefits at a community level in Botswana. This is not the case,” stated a joint rebuttal by the company and the government. The government/corporate statement claims that Debswana is “one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the world,” since it pours approximately 80 percent of diamond mining revenues back into Botswana’s coffers.
“Debswana’s contribution to social development in Botswana vastly exceeds the global benchmark for Corporate Social Investment of 1 percent of pre-tax profits,” the statement says. According to the IRIN news story, however, the corporate rebuttal does not mention the idea that some of the benefits should go directly to local, indigenous communities. In fact, it denies that the government needs to consider the possibility of local communities having any claims to royalties. The state, it claims, owns all mineral resources.
Perhaps the most damming aspect of the BMF report is the charge that Debswana has failed to develop communities near their mines. It alleges that they remain impoverished. DeBeers argues that their sharing agreement with the government relieves the diamond industry of responsibility for local, nearby people. Their contributions to the government, the company argues, represent a significant boost for government-led development.
A BMF response to the DeBeers rebuttal was equally hard-hitting. DeBeers had cited, in its rebuttal, various major studies that, it claimed, “highlight Botswana’s unique success in using its diamond wealth to drive sustainable development at both a community and national level…” In responding, the BMF dismissed the DeBeers contributions to the discussion.
The BMF rejoinder indicated that it had used a variety of sources such as information from the World Bank, the UN, the government of Botswana, the Brenthurst Foundation, DeBeers itself, and its own research. It indicates that unemployment in Botswana ranges from between 24 to 40 percent, and it alleges that the country is one of most unequal in the world.
The BMF stresses that its own emphasis, in contrast to DeBeers and the government, is on the welfare of the marginalized people—workers, rural peasants, indigenous minorities—who are deeply and directly affected by large-scale industrial projects such as diamond mines. The report seeks to make that same connection for the power elites who run the government and the giant corporations.