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About the Author

Johan Knols
Blogger, safari specialist, professional wildlife guide (Woerden, Netherlands)

Johan Knols is the owner of the planyoursafari blog. He studied tourism in the Netherlands and has been working in the African tourism industry for nearly 15 years. Starting as lodge manager in the Serengeti in Tanzania, he eventually owned his own mobile safari company in Botswana. Johan received his professional wildlife- guides licence in 1998 and was awarded the title of Honorary Wildlife Officer with the Botswana Wildlife and National Parks authority in 2005. During his time in Africa he has managed upmarket safari lodges and has done overland trips in the luxury and semi-luxury sector. At the moment he is a full-time blogger giving tips and advices on everything related to African safaris.


Where There Is Smoke, There Is Fire…And No Water

Published 22nd April 2010 - 16 comments - 3617 views -

Being chased in the name of development


They make fire with sticks, have a great sense of humor, speak a very funny ‘click’-language and the diamond rich Kalahari Desert is their home. They are the oldest inhabitants of the African continent and need a stepladder to look you in the eye. Please meet the San People ( also known as ‘Bushmen’).

I had the opportunity to spend several days with these most amicable people. They took me on porcupine hunts, they told me stories and we smoked too much tobacco together. I sat in awe as they performed their trance-dance under a full moon, feeling thrown back in time by the monotonous clapping of their fragile hands.

But in recent years there is not much reason to clap any more.

Problems start

In 1997 the Botswana government began to evict the bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) with the excuse that it wanted to improve the lives of the Bushmen. What should be said in favor of the government is that it built a complete new village, with a small clinic, a small police station and school, and most importantly with water, on the outside of the CKGR: New Xade (the ‘X’ pronounced by putting the tongue in the front of the mouth against the pallet and flicking it down fast. Try!).

See the Survival International video to get a detailed insight on the issue



At present

The original reasons for the evictions were doubted by many, the Kalahari is simply too diamond rich for that. Proof that the evictions had other motives came in Feb. 2009 when the Minister of Tourism And Wildlife openly admitted  that the CKGR will get mined.

There is more bad news for the Bushmen from the tourism front.

A well known tourism company received the go-ahead from the Botswana Government to build a lodge in, exactly, the CKGR. On the ancestral grounds of the Bushmen. The lodge opened in 2009 without any consultations with the bushmen having taken place.

The company calls itself eco-friendly and it is a public secret that the company is heavily backed by the Botswana Government. Since you won’t get a tourist without having access to water, permission to drill a borehole was granted. And although the water is saline ( I know this from a reliable source), the sight of a swimming pool in the middle of the CKGR must make the eyes of the Bushmen pop.

In March 2010 the well known tourism company went public via the Botswana and Johannesburg stock-exchange, but not before sports giant Puma had bought a 20% interest in it. Now Survival International’s pressure is trying to persuade Puma to abandon its interests since the Botswana company appears to be less eco friendly than expected.

In the meantime, pressure on Botswana’s government is mounting since the UN released a report in Feb.2010 regarding the Bushmen’s Human Rights.

The debate

The CKGR is 50.000km². The Bushmen are few. Surely there is a solution that makes everybody happy. The only thing needed is ‘will’.
That (African) governments want to develop their nations is justifiable. That they want to use available resources for that is logical. That they make decisions for themselves is applaudable . But what is more important, the preservation of an ancient tribe or the welfare of a whole nation?






  • Tiziana Cauli on 22nd April 2010:

    Interesting post Johan. Especially as Botswana has acquired a reputation for being corruption-free and led by a very efficient government. I believe this has helped the government a lot in its trade and aid agreements with foreign powers and corporations. And while the government kept - as it should - using these opportunities to develop the country’s economy, the San tribes’ issue would have remained unknown to the international public had Survival International not brought it up and supported these people’s cause. I guess it would be only fair for the government to give up part of the profits it’s making for the sake of Botswana’s San population, whose culture and society is seriously endangered and risks to be erased completely from the entire region for similar reasons. This is an issue Botswana needs to address - it has being going on for too many years - in order to keep up with the reputation it has built for itself.

  • Anthea on 22nd April 2010:

    Hi Johan

    Gosh - and the facts were kept from those with a voice it seems.  How shocking & ironically tourism if anything is meant to boost these people who could teach any westerner a thing or two about living in the desert!!  Good on you for exposing this.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 22nd April 2010:

    Thank you for this very interesting post Johan. It’s my first time to learn about the bushmen. You were very lucky to watch them in a trance-dance under a full moon. And yes, it’s tragic for tourism or development to happen at the expense of other people’s land and culture.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 22nd April 2010:

    Nothing will surprise me after I saw kind of artificial village for tourists in Thailand, at the border with Burma. They aggregated native people from a few villages dispersed in the jungle into one new village just to get easy access for tourists. Poor aborigines are on display like whores in Amsterdam (or no more, Johan?), including famous “giraffe women”. I was sick after seeing this.

  • Johan Knols on 22nd April 2010:


    The irony of it all is that the Bushmen are not looking for a financial compensation at all.
    I have seen with my own eyes a Bushmen guide who received a ten dollar note tip, he took the piece of ‘paper’, took out his tobacco poach, rolled his tobacco in the note and lit it.
    They just want water to survive.

  • silke on 23rd April 2010:


    indeed that article is of a lot of interest for me. Not even that I always got in confrontation in a namibia forum with people that want to visite the bushmen by guided tourist tours (for me its a human zoo) but also to learn about the bushmen in botswana.
    I do agree that giving new and other perspectives to these people is basically not a bad idea but on the other hand I would perfer to leave them in peace. This tribe is one of the last original tribe that tells living history to the earth .. For me its kind of a miracle that these people has, until now, conserved their way of life and I do admire that a lot..
    Well also good to know for travelling not to go to this lodge ! thats for sure, nothing about eco tourisme !
    Hopefully they have been treatend with respect.

  • silke on 23rd April 2010:

    okay ..

    saw the video afterwards.. respect is a large word !! but I am very glad that they could reach a victory in front of justic even it it is still very hard for them. These people take part in the environement of the CKGR! Leave them in peace !

  • Pieter Kat on 23rd April 2010:

    Hi Johan

    Another thought-provoking post to add to your long list. The Botswana government’s attitude towards the San has always been suspicious to say the least. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was originally set aside as a sort of “homeland” for the San - nobody else could survive there to begin with! However, they were not to be left in peace. Many governments have cast greedy eyes on lands owned by what are “original” or even termed aboriginal people, no slur intended. In South America, in Asia, in Australia, in the USA - lands have been taken and ancient cultures invited to become “modern”. In the USA, “native Americans” have now been given some rights in their reservations - for example they can establish casinos and dont have to pay Federal taxes.

    But perhaps more importantly, Native Americans do have legitimate claims to what wealth lies under their feet. The Botswana government knew what was in the Kalahari long ago. Read the “Cry of the Kalahari” by the Owens’, exploratory drilling was already happening in their days. But the San will not profit from diamonds, oil, gas,or whatever might lie beneath the Kalahari sands.

    Cleverly, the government removed them from their lands with promises of water, clinics, schools. And actually forced them to leave if the truth be told - licenses to hunt were taken away, and their cattle were deemed to be a disease risk to the wildlife.  So now Botswana, the most democratic and supposed example for southern African nations, has joined other governments in complicity to take resources away from ancestral owners. The United Nations is supposedly trying hard to maintain world cultural diversity. Botswana would interpret this as luring the San to New Xade with a bit of water while the riches of the Kalahari are subsequently denied to them - after all, they have “voluntarily” decided to leave their homeland?

    It is shameful and manipulative of people consistently and historically deprived of their rights. International NGOs should pay attention, and not just Survival International.

    That a tourist company, surely fully cognizant of the controversy about the San rights, has now established a camp in the area is to me incomprehensible. The jackals feasting on a carcass is the only comparison that comes to mind.

    Keep updating us Johan, good job!

  • Johan Knols on 23rd April 2010:

    @ Robert,

    We must not forget that tourism sometimes is the only way to generate money for indigenous tribes.
    Although I am not a fan of cultural dances myself, it depends if the indigenous people can remain their dignity when displaying their culture. To make a comparison between prostitutes and aborigines is a bit far fetched, but I get your point.
    Maybe tourism even contributes to the protection of cultures when tribes (indigenous groups) can make money out of it?

  • Johan Knols on 23rd April 2010:

    @ all,

    I just had an interesting conversation with someone in Botswana. My source said that it is not fair to blame a tourism company for the fact that the government itself wrote out the tender for two lodges in the CKGR. I tend to agree with that, although the tourism companies have a moral duty to decide whether or not they build on disputed terrain.

  • silke on 23rd April 2010:

    hi Johan,

    I do agree that it seems not to be “fair” to blame tourism company but before installing in an area like the CKGR they should be aware of the context and the circumstances to install there.. I guess they have been perfectly informed about the combat for the San people.
    Afterwards its only a question of conscience, but unfortunately almost only a question of money and business.
    If these people really think “eco” ... they could have made a deal with the gouvernement that allows the San people to stay on their land, always a question of negociation !
    Like you said : moral duty !

  • Johan Knols on 23rd April 2010:

    Hello Silke,

    The problem is that members of the government are somehow involved financially with the tourism company in question. So the company, even if they wanted to, could never have made a deal with the bushmen.

  • silke on 24th April 2010:

    well thats for sure, but they could have made a deal with the gouvernement to protect the bushmen.. Thats call suspending clauses (in french) .. I know maybe thats only in my dreams because toursim companys are there to make money. but they still are in moral guilt.. So if they dont want to be blamed they should have made up “fair contracts” ... and this kind of negociation could have made clear to the governement that there is kind of international respect for the bushmen. In my eyes the CKGR is much more interesting, even for tourists, if there is still a orininal structure.. Why is it always black or white?? Thats the hole probleme.. Ecotourism should mean progress with modern facilities all in respect and harmonie with the original environnement. and the bushman are taking part of the environnement. This could have been benific for all parties of negociation..

  • Johan Knols on 25th April 2010:

    Hello Pieter,

    I feel that the Botswana government made a enormous mistake by assuming that the Bushmen would claim part of the profits once diamonds would be mined.
    Instead of this assumption they should have looked for alternatives. Leave the Bushmen in the Kalahari (maybe move them into a different area of the enormous reserve) and make sure that mining could still go ahead without infringement on this ancient tribe.
    Now the government has created a snakepit for itself that could backfire in the form of worldwide protests. And who knows, because of denying the Bushmen water, they might even get the idea of indeed trying to get part of the diamond money once mining starts.

  • Pieter Kat on 26th April 2010:

    Hi Johan:

    Wouldn’t that be nice? Then instead of the usual situation where original people have become poverty-stricken waifs in other places around the globe where they have been evicted from traditional lands and their culture lays in ruins,the San could actually have the means to decide for themselves what their future should be. Without pressure, and with a nice fat trust fund.

    You probably read that DeBeers is contemplating decreasing the amount of diamonds they will put on the market - they say they are running out of sources just at a time when they think there will be a surge in demand from China. Of course they will put up the prices as well, so the Kalahari diamonds will be worth even more.

    International scrutiny of this whole San situation needs to be increased while Survival International is doing a great job. Let’s hope more questions will be asked of Botswana in the future, though governments tend to dig in their heels rather than offer apologies and reverse course to correct wrongs. But companies can only maintain wide-eyed innocence for so long, especially those dependent on an increasingly well-informed public? And those who can afford to stay at the Kalahari lodges are well capable of affording a computer and internet service…

  • Johan Knols on 29th April 2010:

    Hello Pieter,

    The irony is that I personally believe that the Bushmen are not after money. What do you think?
    Secondly, we can’t blame the Botswana government for playing the diamond game according to international laws (of economics). So if they hang on to their stocks to raise the price, so be it. BUT….
    What really got me wondering was the post of Luan on food shortages in the world ( Look at the map! Remember how Botswana is always seen as the example of sub saharan Africa? With an average annual income of more than $8000,- per inhabitant, it is obvious that the wealth is spread in an uneven way as a lot of people still have hunger in one of the richest countries on the continent.

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