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The war of words about the persecution of the San societies in Botswana grew ever hotter last week, though calls for compromise may yet prompt a peaceful resolution of the matter—in line with the heritage, at least, of the G/wi people. A hopeful reading of the news suggests the possibility that both sides of the issue may yet stand down from their positions.

Survival International headquartersOn Monday, Survival International (SI) called for tourists to boycott all of Botswana as a tourism destination because the southern African nation continues to discriminate against the G/wi and G//ana people by not allowing them access to water. Botswana used Monday the 27th, World Tourism Day, to promote itself as a nation of “cultural diversity and welcoming people.” SI ridiculed the statement.

In the opinion of the British NGO, which fights for the rights of persecuted minority peoples around the world, the accolades for Botswana due to its conservation initiatives and its eco-friendly tourism are nothing but a travesty. According to the director of the organization, Stephen Corry, the president of Botswana, Ian Khama, “continues to sit on the board of Conservation International, and the country receives plaudits for its conservation and tourism industries [but] tourists should decide if they really want to support the destruction of Africa’s hunting Bushmen.”

SI maintains that the government continues to harass the San peoples, despite their victory in the nation’s high court in 2006, which granted them the right to return to their homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The government had expelled them from the land some years earlier because it didn’t want to share the royalties from diamonds with the so-called “Bushmen.” The government denies them the right to open a new borehole for water, or even to reopen an old one that it closed shortly after the expulsion. In July this year, one justice of the High Court turned down their suit to require the government to allow them the right to reopen the existing, closed, borehole.

On Tuesday last week, the San people filed an appeal to the July ruling. Gordon Bennett, the lawyer for the San, told the African newspaper the Mail & Guardian his clients were willing to re-commission the borehole at their own expense. “But the government is denying them access to water, as it wants them to leave the reserve,” he said. He indicated their appeal is based on the wording of Botswana’s Water Act, which says that people who occupy land have the right to sink boreholes for their own domestic use. He maintains that the San are the legal owners of the land they live on in the CKGR, and that the High Court had recognized that.

A resident of the CKGR, Smith Moeti, told the paper that conditions in the reserve remain very difficult. The government still refuses to give the residents hunting licenses, and of course they have no water or health facilities.

A spokesperson for SI says that the earliest the latest appeal can be heard is January 2011. Their attorneys will have to wait until November to see if their appeal can be heard then, or if they will have to wait even longer.

Wilderness Safaris, the owner of a new, luxury tourist lodge in the CKGR, located fairly near some struggling San communities, has refused calls that it should share some of its water with the nearby people. It feels that its business model is not suited to giving away water like that. The company, of course, was granted a permit to drill a new borehole for its purposes—entertaining Western guests.

Mmegi, a Botswana daily newspaper, asked Jeff Ramsay, a spokesperson for the government, about SI’s call for a tourist boycott. He replied that the government and the San were about to resolve their differences amicably, and that SI was just trying to gain attention. He refuted the SI claim that the government is discriminating against the San by depriving them of water, but since it is an ongoing court case, he really couldn’t discuss it any further. He assured the paper that the issue will be wrapped up soon. “The key is to manage the resource on a sustainable basis, to benefit those within and around the CKGR,” he said.

The British newspaper the Telegraph, weighed in on the issue on Friday. The paper tried to present the essence of both sides of the issue. It quoted SI’s arguments as well as those of the Botswana government. The additional wrinkle that the paper highlighted is the disconnect between conservationists, who generally support the conservation initiatives of the Botswana government, and the pressures and tactics of SI.

The World Travel and Tourism Council gave the country its Tourism for Tomorrow award in May and it defends its decision. A WTTC spokesperson said that the organization recognized the Botswana Tourism Board “for its outstanding stewardship of the Okavango Delta, a global biodiversity conservation priority.”

The spokesperson for another organization, Great Plains Conservation, indicated he was saddened by SI’s campaign against the Botswana government. He cited the “unrivalled track record” of the government in protecting wildlife and “uplifting the lives of its people.” He also lauded the revenues the government collects from the various tourist installations in the country.

Interestingly, the British newspaper concluded its report by quoting another observer, Chris McIntyre, who is the managing director of Expert Africa and the author of several guidebooks to Botswana. He criticizes both the government and SI. The government was overzealous and inept in its treatment of the San, but he did not accept the reasoning that diamond mining was behind the government’s actions.

He feels that SI’s call for a boycott of tourism in Botswana is counter productive. The country has good schools, a fine social program, and is doing very well compared to much of the rest of Africa. It should be the last country on the continent to be castigated for its human rights record.

He called for a compromise. The government cannot backtrack at this point, he feels, since it has dug in its heels. “No African government likes being told what to do. What we need is a compromise, and what I’d like to see is Survival’s campaign aiming to achieve one,” he said.