Torture and Murder Are What Happen When Conservation Goes Totally Wrong

A new report details how protecting parkland has led to thousands of people being evicted and abused.

A Bushman is seen hunting in Botswana. (Photo: Michele Westmorland/Getty Images)

Dec 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

There are more than 120,000 protected areas around the world, covering some 13 percent of the Earth. But that progress has come at a cost: A report released last month by Survival International, a tribal people’s advocacy group, details how thousands of indigenous people have in recent years been evicted from their traditional lands in the name of conservation.

In the process, tribal people have been arrested, beaten, tortured, and even killed. They are often forced to relocate into settlements where they cannot support themselves with traditional hunting and gathering, leaving them impoverished and dependent on government handouts. In some cases, after their expulsion, their lands have been reopened to tourists, big-game hunters—and even mining companies.

“This model of conservation can be traced back to the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks in the 19th century in the United States, which led to the brutal eviction of Native American tribes,” declare the report’s authors.

One particularly vulnerable group: The San people of Botswana. The San have inhabited southern Africa for millennia, surviving by gathering native plants and hunting with spears, bows, and arrows. In 1961, however, the government of Botswana—where many of the estimated 100,000 San live—established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which encompassed San lands. Since then, the government has launched a series of forced evictions that have left nearly all the Kalahari San, also known as Basarwa people, in desolate resettlement camps.

“We are used to feeding ourselves,” Roy Sesana, a San community leader in the sunbaked resettlement camp of New Xade, recently told the BBC. “Now, dependent on government handouts, we are being made lazy and stupid. We are being treated like dogs. The dog is the only thing that can’t bring its own food home. It has to wait for its owner to give it some food.”

Goiotseone Lobelo, 21, is a San woman in New Xade. In her old village, she would join the other women each morning in collecting berries, nuts, and roots to eat. But that ended one day when “the police came, destroyed our homes, and dumped us in the back of trucks with our belongings and brought us here,” she said, adding, “I miss my home and the way we lived.”

Other Kalahari San have allegedly been treated far worse. An earlier Survival International report, “They have killed me: the persecution of Botswana’s Bushmen [San] 1992–2014” details over 200 cases of violent abuse, including a child shot in the stomach and a San who was buried alive. Botswana’s treatment of the San has been criticized by Amnesty International, the United Nations, and other groups, including the U.S. State Department, which calls “discrimination against the Basarwa people” a “principal human rights concern.” Botswana’s own high court calls it “a harrowing story of human suffering and despair.”

The government says it evicted the San from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to save the environment from overhunting. But activists have charged for years that the real reason is the rich diamond deposits that lie below the ground. In fact, just last September, a British mining company opened a $95 million diamond mine inside the game reserve, with the government’s blessing.

The San, meanwhile, have been fighting for their rights in court. In 2006, a group of them won the right to return to the reserve—but the ruling applies only to the small number of San named in the court case. Roy Sesana is one of them, but he told the BBC he is far from satisfied. “We have been separated from our children and our wives,” he said. “What kind of life is this? We didn’t do anything to deserve this.”