Controversial diamond mine on Bushman land back on track

July 12, 2010

Bushman man, Botswana. © Survival International

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Plans for a major diamond mine on Bushman land are now back on track after being shelved due to the global recession.

Gem Diamonds mothballed plans for the mine at Bushman community Gope, after global demand for diamonds collapsed. However, the mine’s Project Operations Manager, Howard Marsden, is reported to have described activities at the mine as ‘reaching fever pitch’, with recent evaluations showing that the value of the mine has increased to pre-recession value.

Gem Diamonds, which bought the Gope concession from De Beers in 2007, claims that the Bushmen are in favour of the mine. However, the Bushmen have had no independent advice on its probable impact, and are currently struggling to cope with severe water shortages.

In 2002, the Bushmen were forcibly evicted from their lands inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by the Botswana government. Four years later, the Botswana High Court ruled that the evictions were illegal and that the Bushmen have the right to live on their ancestral lands in the reserve.

However despite the ruling, the Botswana government has banned the Bushmen from accessing a borehole which they rely on for water. Last month the Bushmen went to court in a bid to gain access to the borehole, when the judge reserved his ruling until an unknown date.

Gem Diamonds was given environmental approval for their operation at Gope on condition that ‘boreholes developed…by [the company] … will be utilized strictly to provide water for the mine.’ The obvious intention of the government is to ensure that Gem Diamonds does not give the Bushmen access to water even though the mine will be built in the heart of one of their communities.

Survival and the Bushmen have always maintained that the Bushmen were evicted to make way for diamond mining. The government denies this, claiming, amongst other things, that the Bushmen were removed for conservation purposes.

However, as the UN’s top official on Indigenous peoples reported, the government’s apparent concern for conservation is ‘inconsistent with its decision to permit Gem Diamonds/Gope Exploration Company (Pty) Ltd. to conduct mining activities within the reserve, an operation that is planned to last several decades and could involve an influx of 500-1200 people to the site, according to the mining company.’

Latest reports from Gem Diamonds claim that the Gope mine will involve an underground mine for the first ten years, followed by open pit operations.

Survival’s director, Stephen Corry, said today, ‘The UN says projects should not happen on Indigenous peoples’ lands without their free, prior and informed consent. Everyone knows this has never been secured for the Gope mine – indeed, for years the government said Survival was lying about diamonds in the game reserve. If the mine now goes ahead, Botswana will once more be seen violating Bushman rights bringing more condemnation about Botswana diamonds. What will it take for the government to realize that diamond buyers are not immune from ethical considerations?’