• Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    Indigenous peoples in Botswana

    The San, the Balala, the Nama, and their sub-groups are the indigenous peoples of Botswana. Although Botswana has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country's indigenous peoples are not recognised by the government. The indigenous peoples are among the most underprivileged in Botswana.

The Indigenous World 2024: Botswana

Botswana is a country of 2,417,596 inhabitants, having celebrated its 57th year of independence in 2023. Its government does not recognize any specific ethnic groups as Indigenous, maintaining instead that all citizens of the country are Indigenous. However, 3.2% of the population identifies as belonging to an Indigenous group. These include: the San (known in Botswana as the Basarwa) who number around 73,586; the Balala (2,661); and the Nama (3,271), a Khoekhoe-speaking people.

The San were traditionally hunter-gatherers but today the vast majority consists of small-scale agro-pastoralists, cattle post workers, or people with mixed economies. Only an estimated 300 San people are full-time hunter-gatherers although many others hunt or gather as a supplement to other food sources. The San belong to a large number of sub-groups, most with their own languages, including the Ju/’hoansi, Bugakhwe, Khwe-ǁAni, Ts'ixa, ǂX'ao-ǁ'aen,!Xóõ, ǂHoan, ‡Khomani, Naro, G/ui, G//ana, Tsasi, Deti, Bakhwe, Shua, Tshwa, Cuaa, Kua, Danisi and /Xaise. The San, Balala and Nama are among the most underprivileged people in Botswana, with a high percentage living below the poverty line.

Botswana is a signatory to the Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and it voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). However, it has not signed the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 (ILO 169). There are no specific laws on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the country and nor is the concept of Indigenous people included in the Botswana Constitution. Botswana’s census does not include information on ethnicity. Botswana took part in the 22nd Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held in New York from 17-28 April 2023. Botswana also participated in the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations from May to October 2023.

Land rights and examination by international mechanisms

The issue of land rights in Botswana was raised frequently in 2023 by citizens and by international mechanisms and agencies.[i] Botswana was a focus during the 43rd Session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which was held in Geneva from 1-12 May 2023.[ii] A final report was published on 23 June 2023 after the full Human Rights Council had considered it during its 43rd session ending on 6 October.[iii] In all, more than 30 UN members recommended that Botswana improve its human rights record. The United States recommended that Botswana “promote respect for the rights of members of minority communities such as the Basarwa or San” and stated that: “We remain concerned that mining, tourism, and agriculture activities are displacing communities like the Basarwa or San, and that these communities are not able to effectively challenge their displacement or equitably access land, and that members of these communities suffer human rights abuses.”[iv] Canada asked Botswana to “protect the rights of [I]ndigenous [P]eoples to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally occupied, used or acquired; protect [I]ndigenous [P]eoples from delocalization threats, and provide access to quality education and timely public services.”[v]

Dr. David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, toured Botswana from 3-11 October 2023. He stated in his preliminary report[vi] that the challenges to Botswana’s citizens’ rights to clean water, health, and nutrition constituted a “human rights crisis” in a country “plagued by poverty”. Twenty percent of the rural population have no access to acceptable drinking water, 23% are undernourished, and 19% have no access to sanitation. Boyd travelled to Maun and Ganzi, and to the villages of Kuke and Habu. While in Kuke, a San community, he watched a long line of people, consisting mostly of women and girls, waiting for one of only two standpipes that provide water for a community of more than 1,000 people. “Water scarcity may force some families to rely on unsafe sources of water. Diarrheal diseases linked to contaminated water and food are a major contributor to under-five mortality in Botswana,”[vii] he wrote.

Due to the climate crisis, Botswana will face both an increase in the number of hot days and a rainfall decline of 10-20% in the coming years. Boyd advised Botswana to invest in solar energy but, if renewable energy projects are planned for territory occupied by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, “their rights to free, prior and informed consent must be respected”. Boyd’s final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2024.

ReconAfrica continues oil exploration, despite environmental concerns

In July 2023, President Mokgweetsi Masisi declared that the past year’s drought had been especially severe in Ngamiland, the location of the Okavango Delta, a UN World Heritage site that is home to approximately 20,000 members of the San and other minority communities.[viii] Most of their livelihoods, as farmers or workers in the tourist industry, depend on the waters of the Okavango.

ReconAfrica’s Botswana operation, called Recon Energy Botswana (REB), has a licence to explore for oil in the area[ix] but no operations have begun on the ground. REB’s then CEO, Scot Evans, said in May 2023 that: “REB’s work to date has been focused on gathering and interpreting desktop data”. They have completed a “Stakeholder Mapping and Regulation Review” project, holding meetings in 46 villages, and encountering little resistance to the project, according to Evans.[x]

ReconAfrica’s explorations for oil in Botswana and Namibia have drawn worldwide criticism from environmentalists.[xi] In June, a potentially game-changing study was published in a scientific journal asking “whether contamination from drill sites in the lease area could spread through the Okavango River Basin through surface water and groundwater contamination”, which would be especially severe during periods of drought. The authors recommended prohibiting oil exploration and production activities “until future studies can determine the impacts of hydrocarbon extraction with greater certainty”.[xii]

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee considered the Okavango Delta during its annual meeting in September. In its conclusion, it expressed great concern about oil and gas exploration activities in the areas near and upstream from the Okavango Delta that could pose “significant risks to the interconnected water system and the ecosystem and could hence affect the property’s OUV” (Outstanding Universal Value, a criterion for status as a World Heritage Site). UNESCO reiterated its request that Botswana “ensure that petroleum exploration and other large-scale development projects with potential adverse impact on the OUV of the property are subject to rigorous and critical prior review, including through EIAs” (Environmental Impact Assessments).[xiii]

In August, ReconAfrica announced that Brian Reinsborough, an experienced oil executive, had been appointed CEO, replacing Scot Evans, and that several new vice-presidents had also joined the firm. Attending an energy conference in Cape Town in October, Reinsborough said the company would begin a new drilling campaign early next year. He “downplayed criticism from environmental groups”, saying that “when we operate, we operate well, we operate safely, we operate within the guidelines of everything, so the noise out there is just noise”. [xiv]

Hunting and Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) issues

In his State of the Nation speech to Parliament on 6 November, H.E. President Mokgweetsi Masisi stated that, during the 2023 hunting season, revenue for the hunting quota accrued to communities participating in the CBNRM programme “amounted to approximately Twenty-Seven Million Pula (P27 million), which will be used for the upliftment of rural livelihoods”. Many of the communities said that they had not, in fact, received much in the way of economic benefits from the hunting quotas even though some of the animals on the quotas had been allocated to their communities. At least half a dozen communities in Ghanzi and Ngamiland complained formally to the government but had yet to receive a reply by the end of 2023.

Arrests of community members for violation of wildlife conservation laws continued at an increased pace in 2023. Some of those arrested disputed their arrests and obtained the services of lawyers to assist them. In July 2023, a group of people were arrested for being in possession of wild animal meat but they were released a few days later.[xv] Based on Wildlife Department records, at least 16 people who self-identified as San were arrested in 2023.                                                                                 

Community organizes to confront unjust land allocation in Letlhakane

Metsiaela/Buuhe is a ward in the town of Letlhakane that is home to at least 4,000 San people. The word Bakhwe is often used for San in this area, which is in the Boteti Sub-District in the Northeast part of Botswana. The term Metsiaela means “squatter camp”, referring to the fact that many of its residents live in crowded conditions as squatters, having been evicted from their nearby homes.[xvi] In 2006, the government designated Metsiaela/Buuhe as a “gazetted settlement” (official village), requiring a registration process for potential owners, which has excluded many of its residents, making them homeless.[xvii]

The diamond mining company Debswana owns three diamond mines in the area, in Letlhakane, Orapa and Damtshaa.[xviii] These mining developments have displaced thousands of San/Bakhwe people, and the Botswana Khwedom Council (BKC), led by its CEO, Keikabile Mojodo, has been working with them for years. In January 2023, the BKC wrote a letter to the Ngwato Land Board, which governs land use on the Boteti district level, complaining of the treatment the Bakhwe were receiving from the local Letlhakane Sub Land Board. BKC’s spokesman, Banyatsi Salutu, said there was a long waiting list of Bakhwe who had applied for residential plots but that the plots continued to be awarded to outsiders. Other plots were available for industrial, commercial, or agricultural use but the Bakhwe were not eligible for them, even though many have skills in these areas, because they do not have identity documents.[xix]

“We feel that land allocation should be done fairly amongst all communities in Botswana and many factors must be considered by the Sub Land Board such as preservation of cultural sites and burial places,” Salutu said in an interview.[xx]

On 1 February, it was reported that a 65-year-old man, Tobokane Galesiame, had died when the Land Board came to evict him from his home to give it to someone else. He confronted them but immediately suffered a heart attack. His family and the people of Metsiaela/Buuhe condemned the actions of the Land Board as “monstrous”.[xxi]

In mid-April, not having heard from the Ngwato Land Board, the BKC began preparing to engage lawyers to confront the Letlhakane Sub Land Board with their illegal treatment of the Bakhwe in Metsiaela/Buuhe.[xxii] A short time later, the Ngwato Land Board said they had arranged a meeting with the BKC and with Metsiaela/ residents for 24 April.

When the delegation from the Ngwato Land Board, led by its Chairman, David Modisagape, arrived at the outdoor meeting, they found a group of several dozen community members who had many questions. Kgosi Alfred Petelelo told Modisagape that even though the ward was officially recognized years ago, many of his people were still waiting to register their plots with the Land Board. “You can’t even connect water if your plot is not properly registered!” he exclaimed. The Boteti Region Chairperson of the Botswana Council of Churches, Boitshwarelo Dennis Mopedi, called the situation a social crisis.

Chairman Modisagape conceded that the land allocations were intended to prioritize marginalized groups, the old, youth and disabled. He admitted that the Land Board had been too slow in fulfilling this mission.

Salutu, who attended the meeting, rejected the Chairman’s explanation and accused the Land Board of deliberately discriminating against San/Bakhwe. He said: “There were 896 plots allocated in Letlhakane, and not a single person from Bakhwe was given a plot.” He continued:

Land Board officials arrived here on the 18 November to allocate plots already occupied by our people. Families were evicted from their homes as officers erected pegs for strangers. We want the Land Board to reverse this decision. We’ve long applied for ploughing farms but were told the land was not for farming; today the same land is being allocated to elite members of the society for integrated farming and feed lots.[xxiii]

There was no further information during 2023 about the Land Board’s response to issues raised by the meeting and BKC’s complaints.

In August 2023, Ketshwering Galeragway, the Boteti District Council Chairperson “expressed deep concern regarding the mushrooming of squatters from the Basarwa community” whose numbers. he said. had increased to 6,000. He called on community leaders to help the squatters.[xxiv]

Outstanding challenges from previous years

One important issue that had not been resolved by the end of 2023 was what to do about the body of Pitseng Gaoberekwe, a resident of Metseamonong in the Central Kalahari, who had died in December 2021. The Appeals Court had ruled that his body had to be buried outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a position which Mr. Gaoberekwe’s family had appealed to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2023. At the end of the year, Mr. Gaoberekwe’s body remained in a morgue in Ghanzi.

An ongoing challenge facing the Indigenous communities of Botswana and other residents of the country is that of climate change. Several Indigenous Batswana attended the COP 28 meetings in Dubai where climate change solutions were discussed as part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (30 November-10 December). One Indigenous community member remarked that the San and other minorities were heavily affected by climate change but were not a part of the Botswana Climate Change Network where these matters were discussed at the local and national levels.[xxv]

And, last but not least, Indigenous community members argued that they were still being affected by mining activities in the country, one example being the copper-silver mine known as Khoemacau in northern Ghanzi and southern North West District, where people who were relocated out of the mining zone had yet to receive alternative land.


Robert K. Hitchcock is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Judith Frost is an independent researcher who has done extensive work on San issues in southern Africa. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Maria Sapignoli is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Milano, Milan, Italy. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[i] Masisi, H.E. Mokgweetsi, 2023 State of the Nation Address to the First Meeting of the Fifth Session of the Twelfth Parliament, 6 November 2023. Gaborone: Government of Botswana; Government of Botswana, 2023. Botswana National Spatial Plan, 2023

[ii] UN Human Rights Council, Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Forty-third Session. “National Report Submitted Pursuant to Human Rights Council Resolutions 5/1 and 6/21: Botswana.” 17 March 2023.

[iii] UN Human Rights Council, Fifty-fourth Session. “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Botswana.” 23 June 2023.

[iv] US Mission to International Organizations in Geneva. “U.S. Statement at the Universal Periodic Review of Botswana,” 3 May 2023. https://geneva.usmission.gov/2023/05/03/us-statement-at-upr43-botswana/

[v] Phakedi, Pearl. “Botswana human rights record UN recommendations.” Weekend Post, 17 May 2023.

[vi] Boyd, David, United Nations, OHCHR Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. “Statement at the conclusion of country visit to Botswana, 12 October 2023.


[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Indigenous Peoples Planning Framework, Annex 1, Table 4: “Community Trusts in Botswana’s Northwest District (Ngamiland),” November 2022, United Nations Development Programme.

[ix] ReconBotswana. “Latest updates on Reconnaissance Energy Botswana’s project in the Kavango Sedimentary Basin.” The Botswana Gazette, 22 November 2022 (advertisement).

[x] Bame, Piet. “Study completed on oil production.” The Voice, 30 May 2023.

[xi] See Botswana sections in previous issues of The Indigenous World.

[xii] R. Sheldon et al. “Potential groundwater contamination from oil drilling in the Okavango.” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth. 20 June 2023.

[xiii] UNESCO, World Heritage Convention. “Okavango Delta, Botswana, 2023.” https://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/4322/

[xiv] Roelf, Wendell. “ReconAfrica’s New CEO doubles down on Okavango exploration in 2024.” 12 October 2023, Climate and Energy.

[xv] Information from First People of the Kalahari, 28 July 2023.

[xvi] Kologwe, Obusitse. “Basarwa fight Land Board over human rights violations.” Sunday Standard, 17 January 2023.

[xvii] Kabelo, Dipholo. “The Bakhwe Uprising.” The Voice, 2 May 2023.

[xviii] Wikipedia, Letlhakane.

[xix] Sapignoli, Maria. “Bureaucratizing the indigenous: the San peoples, Botswana, and the international community.” Archivo Antropologico Mediterraneo, 12 December 2023.

[xx] Kologwe, Obusitse. “Basarwa fight land board over human rights violations.” The Sunday Standard, 17 January 2023.

[xxi] Mokgwathi, Leungo. “Tragedy: R.I.P. Tobokane Galesiame.” The Voice, 1 February 2023.

[xxii] Ontabetsi, Khonani. “Basarwa in fresh forced relocation.” Sunday Standard, 21 April, 2023.

[xxiii] Kabelo, Op cit.

[xxiv] Basimanebotlhe, Tsaone. “Mushrooming of squatters worries Boteti chair.” The Monitor, 28 August 2023.

[xxv] Job Morris, San Youth Network, personal communication, 15 December 2023.

Tags: Land rights, Business and Human Rights , Climate, Human rights, Conservation



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