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Ancient Tribe Fights for Its Homeland, Way of Life

September 27, 2004|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Wiping tears from his eyes, an envoy from the Bushmen of the Kalahari -- the world's oldest human community -- on Sunday decried the eviction of his tribe from its homeland as he prepared to take his protest to the United Nations today.

Genetic evidence suggests that the Bushmen are the direct descendants of the first evolved members of the modern human family -- Homo sapiens -- who appeared more than 100,000 years ago.

Speaking at the American Museum of Natural History here, Roy Sesana, a San Bushman, sought support for the right of his fellow hunter-gatherers to roam across the dry savannah of red sand, camel thorn and scrub of Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve. There, amid herds of wildebeest and prides of lions, the Bushmen have lived for an estimated 20,000 years.

They were driven out by government order in 2002 -- beaten, tortured, imprisoned for hunting violations, their families dispersed or relocated to camps -- said Sesana, his neck draped with strings of ostrich shell beads and his head capped by a patch of animal hide studded with two horns. Fewer than 50 Bushmen are said to remain there.

"I come here to cry about being evicted from my land," said Sesana, who was introduced by feminist activist Gloria Steinem, a longtime supporter of the Kalahari people. "We have been scattered. There is war from the government to the Bushmen," Sesana told the audience.

The government of Botswana has argued that the presence of the Bushmen is at odds with the purpose of the game reserve.

Human rights activists counter that the government is more attracted by the prospect of diamond mining in the preserve than in the protection of wildlife. Botswana is home to the richest diamond mines in the world.

The Bushmen are contesting their eviction through Botswana's legal system and in the international court of public opinion.

Last week, a delegation of Bushmen took their protest to the International Finance Corp. and the World Bank, which recently loaned $2 million to Botswana for diamond exploration in the preserve, and to the congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington.

The Bushmen are expected to meet today with officials at the United Nations.

The Bushmen are not seeking to block any mineral exploration in the preserve, they said. They are only seeking the right to go home so that they can continue to live by their traditional ways in the arid landscape, as they have done for millenniums.

"There is a very good case you can make that this is a cultural genocide," said Rupert Isaacson, author of a book about the Kalahari Bushmen called "The Healing Land," who is accompanying the delegation.

"These are the oldest people in the world," Isaacson said. "They are our common ancestors. If we lose them, the cost is immeasurable."

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