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2005-06-23

Diamond Giant De Beers Opens First U.S. Store Amid Protests Over Eviction of Bushmen in Botswana

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Diamond giant De Beers celebrated the opening of its first retail store in the United States amid protests decrying the company’s involvement in the eviction of the San Bushmen in Botswana. We speak to the Bushmen organization First People of the Kalahari, rights group Survival International, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, and a De Beers consultant. [includes rush transcript]

Today De Beers diamonds opens its first retail store in the United States in partnership with LV luxury goods. The diamond giant was founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888 and contributed to the formation of the apartheid state in South Africa through its early segregation policies. The company has operations all over the world and produces 40% of the world supply of gem diamonds out of its mines in Africa.

The sale of diamonds frequently fuels conflict in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Congo and elsewhere. So-called conflict diamonds are regulated under the 2003 Kimberly Process, which requires member countries and industry leaders to certify that shipments of rough diamonds are not connected to any ongoing conflicts. Human rights activists say the Kimberly Process is a first step but that working conditions in diamonds mines are still very bad and that there are loopholes in the U.S. Clean Diamond Trade Act.

De Beers says it is in compliance with the Kimberly Process but now the corporation is coming under fire for prospecting the ancestral homeland of the San Bushmen in Botswana. The government readied the area for mining in 2002 by pushing out the San, who are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa and live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Diamond mining is the mainstay of the Botswanan economy, constituting nearly 80 percent of the country’s exports. Botswana is hailed as among the most stable and prosperous Sub-Saharan African nations and the government credits improved infrastructure to diamond revenues. The national diamond company Debswana quotes President Festus Mogae on its web site as saying, "The partnership between De Beers and Botswana has been likened to a marriage. I sometimes wonder whether a better analogy might not be that of Siamese twins."

Despite the rosy outlook, about half of the population remains below the poverty level in Botswana and human rights groups condemn the treatment of the bushmen. Just this week there were reports that government officials detained and beat three bushmen when they were hunting. The Ecologist magazine quotes President Mogae explaining the government decision to relocate the Bushmen. He said, "If the bushmen want to survive they must change otherwise, like the Dodo, they will perish." Following their eviction, the bushmen created an organization called First People of the Kalahari and took the state to court arguing that the government’s acted illegally when it denied basic services to Bushmen who would not leave the Reserve. Nearly 250 bushmen have filed affidavits saying that the government is conducting diamond mining already in the Reserve and a judge will hear their case on August second. The state attorney did not deny the existence of diamond prospecting. He told the court that "If found, such natural resources will be exploited, and we are not apologetic about the future prospecting in any game reserve."

De Beers held a celebrity opening party for its Fifth Avenue retail store last night. While supporters of the San Bushmen picketed across the street, luminaries like actress Lindsay Lohan were feted by the diamond giant.

  • Miriam Ross, spokesperson for Survival International, which works with indigenous people to defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.
  • Gloria Steinem, feminist pioneer and founder of Ms. Magazine.
  • Jumanda Gakelebone, member of First People of the Kalahari.
  • James Suzman, Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University, an expert on the bushman of Botswana, and a consultant to De Beers on community affairs.

The diamond trade is central to the operations of the Bostawan economy and the government will brook no criticism of its economic juggernaut. Recently an Australian scholar at the University of Botswana was deported after the president accused him of communicating with Survival International president Stephen Corry and calling Botswana’s diamonds "blood diamonds."

  • Kenneth Good, professor of political science specializing in democratization. He has written critically on the succession-based presidency in Botswana and the dependence of the Botswanan economy on the diamond trade.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While supporters of the San Bushmen picketed across the street, luminaries like actress Lindsay Lohan were feted by the diamond giant.

LINDSAY LOHAN: Marilyn Monroe is my favorite, and she supported diamonds forever. So I’m supporting them, like her.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in the studio by Miriam Ross with Survival International, a London-based indigenous rights group that organized last night’s protest. Also in the studio, Gloria Steinem, feminist pioneer. She traveled to Botswana, joined the picket line last night here in New York. On the line from Gaborone, Botswana, we are joined by Jumanda Gakelebone, a member of First People of the Kalahari, a Bushman. We are also joined by Dr. James Suzman, Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University, who is an expert on the Bushmen of Botswana and a consultant to De Beers on community affairs. We’re going to begin today with Jumanda Gakelebone, a member of the First People of Kalahari. Can you describe your concerns right now with De Beers and the Botswana government?

JUMANDA GAKELEBONE: Yes. Our concern with De Beers and with the diamonds in this country it was that, you know, in the early '80s there was a conversion which was made in the Ncoakhoe and the CKGR. And, by the way, a total of about 90 Bushmen staying then, and we were then — they were then kicked out in 2002 by the government for relocation. And they are making as an argument that now it's not because of diamonds. It is because a couple of ministers who went inside the reserve and are telling us that you have to go out from that place because it’s a [inaudible] of minerals.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did the government deal with your people when it decided to move you out?

JUMANDA GAKELEBONE: This started in 19 — early ’80s. And the eviction itself started in 1997 and 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jumanda Gakelebone, a member of the First People of the Kalahari. Miriam Ross, you’re with the indigenous group, the group that works for indigenous people to defend their lives, spokesperson for Survival International based in Britain. Why did you get involved?

MIRIAM ROSS: Well, Survival has been working with the bushmen for a long time, and the bushmen live across southern Africa, and for hundreds of years, they have been facing slow genocide. The Gana and Gwi Bushmen of Botswana are among the last Bushmen anywhere to be living self-sufficiently by hunting and gathering on their own ancestral land, or at least they were until several years ago when the Botswana government kicked them out. De beers shamelessly prospecting for diamonds has found diamonds on their land, and the Bushmen have been evicted. They’re falling apart as a people. They’re turning to alcoholism in the reserves. They’re not allowed to hunt and gather. They’re being tortured for hunting. Their way of life is being totally destroyed. And if they’re not allowed to go back to their land soon, it’s going to be the end of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen as a peoples, as cohesive peoples. So Survival is asking De Beers to allow the — to pressurize the Botswana government into letting the Bushmen go home. The Bushmen are also asking De Beers not to prospect on their land and certainly not to mine on their land until they’re allowed to go home.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to also get response from De Beers. We have to break, then we’ll come back to this discussion and find out why Gloria Steinem was out on the streets yesterday protesting outside De Beers’s big national opening here in the United States that took place in New York.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We talk about the opening of De Beers in the United States and the protests that took place outside the New York opening that was organized by Survival International. The guests from Survival International, Gloria Steinem, a representative for De Beers, and a Kalahari Bushman speaking to us from Botswana. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. I’d like to bring into the conversation, James Suzman. He’s a Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University and an expert on the Bushmen of Botswana and a consultant to De Beers on community affairs. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMES SUZMAN: Good morning, everybody.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you give us your response to some of the allegations that we have heard here from both the Bushmen and the representatives of Survival International?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, the first thing I’d like to make clear, I guess, is — as you have noted, I’m from Cambridge University, so I’m happy to speak about De Beers, but I’m not — I’m not really a representative of them. As for the issues, the issues that you have raised, as Jumanda noted, I mean, this relocation process began sometime ago in the 1980s. It was in fact based on a policy paper that was developed in 1985, and the relocations that took place in 1997, which were when the main relocations actually occurred, and then later in 2002 were effectively based on the gov — which were the result of the government, which was determined to go through with implementing this particular policy. It was not motivated by diamonds, and it was not motivated, I believe by any kind of base profit motive on anybody’s behalf. Certainly, De Beers were not subject or involved in making this decision in any — any more than it would be acceptable for a foreign company or foreign company to be involved in making social policy in the United States. I think what needs to be done is that this issue needs to be put in its broader context.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us what did motivate the relocations then?

JAMES SUZMAN: The Botswana government had a very — and this is — this partially ties in with diamonds. Botswana was in 1966, when it achieved its independence, it was one of the least developed countries in, I believe it was the fourth — the fourth most underdeveloped country, according to the United Nations. And subsequent to that, it’s been through a remarkable process of development where you have huge roads and hospitals and schools being built. Within the Botswana national psyche there’s a very strong sense of itself as a society, which has moved from a state of relatively, I suppose, primitive penury, to coin a phrase, to a state of relative — relatively modern affluence. The relocation policy in the central Kalahari is really an extension of this. It is an approach to development. And it was intended, I believe, to be enacted in the best interests of the Bushmen; however, I must add I do think the relocations have been appallingly handled, and that I do not think that these were in the best interests of the Bushmen at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to clarify, Professor Suzman, now, you are paid by De Beers as a consultant?

JAMES SUZMAN: Yes, I am. I am, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: Jumanda Gakelebone, your response to Professor Suzman.

JUMANDA GAKELEBONE: Yeah. [inaudible] is still [inaudible] in saying that it was nothing with the diamonds. But to tell the truth, it is the diamonds. He is right, there is nothing [inaudible] in some part of the CKGR, where De Beers still holds the actuary — I mean, it holds in the license the [inaudible] they have and to do whatever they want. And they renew it each and every year, which shows us as Bushmen that there is something under the ground there, which De Beers is interested in. And if De Beers did know that there’s nothing there, then talk with the government of Botswana and let us stay there. And James Suzman, I don’t know how he counts. [inaudible] with the Bushmen. [inaudible] We are people. We know, we hear what we are told and we can understand. We were told, and we did understand what was said and see what has happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Miriam Ross.

MIRIAM ROSS: Can I just point out in addition to what Jumanda said, that government ministers openly admitted before the international campaign on this issue that the Bushmen were going to be moved or being moved to make way for diamonds. I’d also like to point out that if you visit the resettlement camps, it’s impossible to conclude that this was being done to help the Bushmen, for their benefit, in any way. You know, before they were moved, they were living self-sufficiently. When I visited them, people said to me again and again, when we lived in the reserve, we knew exactly what we had to do when we got up in the morning. We knew where to find food. They lived close to the graves of their ancestors, which are very important to them. Now in the resettlement camps, they have nothing to do all day. You know, they’re bored, depressed, despairing. Alcoholism is an increasing problem, and so is AIDS.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined also by Gloria Steinem, who has a long history of involvement in progressive causes. What drew you to this issue, and why did you get involved?

GLORIA STEINEM: It was a long journey, actually, of about 12 years that ended up with me in my neighborhood picketing because it took my belated understanding that the — that our own indigenous cultures were in many ways the source of the suffragist movement, the vision of a egalitarian, communitarian society. The understanding of what we are robbed of worldwide when these cultures are exterminated began here, took me on a journey to Botswana, into the Kalahari with Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee leader in this country, who was asked to consult on indigenous land rights.

These are cultures of enormous sophistication and importance to everyone in the world. And they are being exterminated. This is, in fact, cultural genocide, as these scholars of cultural genocide have documented in a case that’s being brought before the International Criminal Court.

If Botswana — if De Beers is a good citizen of Botswana, they would certainly call for the enforcement of the law. Not only do they have the right of 50,000 years of continuous inhabitants, but also in the Botswana constitution, it makes very clear that this is their land. Now, on top of that, what makes this especially surrealistic, is that if they got their land back, they do not object to De Beers having access to the mineral rights. They’re not claiming the mineral rights. So, this, you know, is not just about diamonds, it is about a profound, deep racism, a leftover colonial way of thinking, a drastic undervaluing of one of the most valuable cultures in this world. But it’s very, very clear, that this is their land, and they must be returned to their land.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Suzman, your response, of Cambridge University, De Beers consultant.

JAMES SUZMAN: Ms. Steinem actually hit the nail on the head there when she pointed out the fact that this is not an issue about mineral rights, and this has never been an issue about mineral rights. In fact, the linking of this campaign to mineral rights issues really strikes me as some kind of a trick or smoke —- smoke and mirrors to in a sense try and develop greater support within constituencies in Europe and America, rather than some kind of effective dialogue on the ground. Now, I should emphasize the fact that -—

AMY GOODMAN: Gloria Steinem, you wanted to respond?

GLORIA STEINEM: Well, I just want to say that I was not saying it was not about mineral rights, it’s also about racism and other deep, deep misunderstandings of the value of this culture. But the fact is that De Beers is supporting the genocide of this culture. De Beers is allowing itself to be a partner in this genocide, and De Beers is the only way that we have right now of pressuring to make — to make change. It is also mineral rights. And I certainly feel completely clear in calling for a boycott of every diamond, since it’s very difficult to know what is produced by De Beers and what is not, not to mention that it’s a completely artificial market in which the supply is limited, the demand is falsely created. You know, De Beers is complicit here, and it is also about mineral rights.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the diamond trade is central to the operations of the Botswana economy, and the government will brook no criticism of its economic juggernaut. Recently an Australian scholar at the University of Botswana was deported after the President accused him of communicating with Survival International president, Stephen Corry, and calling Botswana’s diamonds, (quote) "blood diamonds."

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Good is a Professor of Political Science, specializing in democratization. He has written critically on the succession-based presidency in Botswana and the dependence of the Botswanan economy on the diamond trade. He also joins us now on the line from London. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Kenneth Good.

KENNETH GOOD: Hello. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about what has happened to you and your work in Botswana?

KENNETH GOOD: Well, it has been shattered quite substantially beginning in February, and then going on remorselessly until the 31st of May, when I was literally bundled out of the country on a flight to Joberg. That has meant that my research has ended. I hope temporarily. I’m appealing against what has happened, but I don’t know that outcome yet. It’s a good — pretty good example of the authoritarianism that’s often blatant but always present in the Botswana political system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your opinion on the discussion we have been having here on whether this — whether De Beers is being brought unfairly into this issue of a long-standing policy of relocation by the Botswana government?

KENNETH GOOD: Well, I don’t think it’s unfairly being brought in, but I would emphasize, along with two of your other speakers, at least, that diamonds is a factor, but a big one, in a multifaceted issue. As it has been said, the removals of San from the CKGR were based on racism, on an arrogance in the ruling elite, that they know best for everybody, in particular, for the despised San, and a belief that this is — well, a knowledge that removing San is nothing particularly new in the Botswana context. It’s gone on for decades, and indeed for centuries.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it you said that the Botswanan President objected so much to that you were deported, and what about this communication you are having with Survival International that seemed to be grounds for your deportation?

KENNETH GOOD: There’s a little bit of confusion from the governmental side about why they acted against me. There have been suggestions that it was because of some research in the production of the paper for a forthcoming book on presidential succession in Africa, where I and a colleague, Dr. Ian Taylor, were doing the Botswana chapter. President Mohai is in his second and constitutionally last term of office, and he would be under the constitution, at the moment, automatically succeeded by his present deputy, General Ian Khama. And a lot of people in Botswana are unhappy about that. They don’t want Ian Khama to become president. And, in particular, they don’t want him to become president without any resort to the people and any vote on the matter. Now, that’s part of it. The other part would be the issue of the removals of San from the CKGR, on which I have also written and spoken and debated with government officials over. Then, suddenly, they used — the mail fist comes out with the velvet diamond glove, and whoomp, I’m out.

AMY GOODMAN: Gloria Steinem, are you calling for people not to buy De Beers diamonds in this country. I mean, we started with Lindsay Lohan, who went down the red carpet last night, and she said Marilyn Monroe was always her idol, and diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

GLORIA STEINEM: It’s wonderful that you started with that song actually, because I think that the diamond industry may have been responsible for the movie. They were the pioneers of product placement, since colored stones were coveted in this country, not diamonds at all. And they created a false market by putting them free into movies. There’s a wonderful book by Ed Epstein about exactly the creation of this market.

AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe.

GLORIA STEINEM: Yes, yes, and it’s one tragedy layered upon another tragedy, I fear. And it’s time to end it and to realize that the San Ncoakhoe, the so-called Bush people, are in fact the real diamonds here. They are the precious culture. They are what we need in this world. They have such knowledge of pharmacology, of healing, of conflict resolution techniques, of how to live, of how to raise children, of how to — these are the things that are now being painfully reconstructed in this country after the annihilation of our own first peoples and trying to rebuild this. This is present there. It is continuous still. It is now in its most fragile state. And De Beers and all of us have a enlightened self-interest, a long term self-interest in standing up and saying these cultures must not be annihilated. We need them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Miriam Ross, I’d like to ask you, the perspective that the relocation started long before the agreement of the government to enter into partnership with De Beers, but you have been able to document that as early as the 1980s. There was a initial discovery of diamonds in Gope, and that De Beers entered into a joint venture back then with Falconbridge. Can you talk about that history since the diamond industry is so secretive as it is, and so it’s so hard to get information on the development of sites and prospects for companies like De Beers, which is a private company at this point, so therefore, it doesn’t have to report to stockholders.

MIRIAM ROSS: Yes. Well, De Beers found diamonds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, on the Bushman’s land, in the early 1980s. It was in 1986 or 1985, mid-1980s that the government made the decision public that they were going to evict Bushmen. The final surveys were completed in 1996, and it was one year — less than one year later in 1997 that the first wave of evictions began. In their environmental impact assessment that De Beers commissioned themselves, which was published in 1999, it was stated that it was very likely that further exploration activity for diamonds would take place in the reserve. And in 2000, Botswana government ministers were saying "We’re going to move the Bushmen because of diamond mining." When the campaign started focusing on diamonds, then the denials began.

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument of the Botswanan government that the diamonds that they profit from go to dealing with the very serious issue of HIV/AIDS in Botswana, go to dealing with the infrastructure and saying that these are not blood diamonds, these are not conflict diamonds. Gloria Steinem?

GLORIA STEINEM: Well, whose HIV/AIDS? I mean, the resettlement camps are atrocious, are breeding grounds of disease, of AIDS, of tuberculosis, of starvation, of malnutrition. I mean, you know, it’s — it’s ridiculous to say, it seems to me, that you create the problem that you then make profit to solve somewhere else? They’re still sacrificing a whole group of people there, and something that is a culture that is an international global treasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. There’s a lot we have to discuss. If, Professor Suzman, you’d like to give one last comment as De Beers’s consultant.

JAMES SUZMAN: Actually, I’d like to have given quite a lot of comments, because it seems there’s been much said in error in the program. What I would like to draw people’s attention to is the fact that there are 100,000 people San people living in South Africa. And this 100,000 people are unquestionable the most marginalized of any ethnic group in the region. And what is needed is a genuine dialogue with local governments, and this is not just in Botswana, but also Namibia, a genuine dialogue between local organizations and governments on this issue and something which leads to some kind of productive resolution.

I think it is rather trite and fanciful to start talking about this issue as an issue of maintaining and saving a disappearing culture, which is what seems to appeal to Western audiences. I have been working for 15 years on rights issues with the San, and I was a participant in the formation of First People of the Kalahari many years ago. What is needed in the region is to deal desperately and urgently with the issues which are confronting the San today. And these issues are to do with securing secure livelihoods and dealing with issues such as HIV and AIDS, and it is not to do necessarily with the maintenance of a hunting and gathering culture. It is to do with basically giving people the opportunity to live their lives in a productive and open sense, and to continue their cultures in the way that they would like to do it. It is not — it is not, and I’d like to make sure that this is well understood —- it is not a question of -—

AMY GOODMAN: It is not a question of —

JAMES SUZMAN: It’s not a question of people seeking to damage San interests in the pursuit of wealth. I should add that De Beers has actually entered the development partnership with the largest San organization in Botswana representing as many as 25,000 San. And this is the Kuru Family of Organizations, and it has likewise received the positive response from the working group of indigenous minorities in southern Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we have to wrap it up as we move on with our next segment. It’s the beginning of a discussion. And I thank you all for being with us: Dr. James Suzman, Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University, a De Beers’s consultant, speaking to us from Britain; Jumanda Gakelebone, who is a First People of the Kalahari, speaking to us from Botswana; Professor Kenneth Good, who was just deported from Botswana, was a professor at University of Botswana; Miriam Ross in our studio here in New York, of Survival International; and Gloria Steinem, who was part of the protest in New York outside the opening of the first De Beers store in the United States here in New York. She has traveled to Botswana.

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