December 13, 2006


I just read this article about the Kalahari San (a.k.a. Bushmen, a.k.a. !Kung, a.k.a. about a million other things over the course of several centuries of inquisitive ethnography) winning a court battle over the right to live in their traditional territory in the Kalahari Game Reserve. As is becoming increasingly common when I read anything that has anything whatsoever to do with intergroup relations, I'm lost in an endless sequence of recursive caveats and second thoughts and can't, ultimately, really support either side.

Politically speaking, the court case was about the eviction of San people (it's not clear from the article which ones, as there are dozens or hundreds of San groups in the Kalahari) from the land they have occupied for the recorded past, to be resettled on other land not included in the Kalahari Game Reserve. It's like North America Redux.

Ecologically speaking, it was about the problem that you get when a parcel of land is set aside as a game reserve and people who rely on hunting for subsistence are allowed to live in it, namely, they hunt the animals which are supposedly being preserved.

Anthropologically speaking, it could be about relationships between non-indigenous majority governments and indigenous minority groups. But it could also be about deciding whether the San are basically monkeys, whose presence in the game reserve is all part of the glorious circle of life and should be included in it, or humans, whose presence is necessarily a threat to the animals being protected by the game reserve and who should be obliged therefore to stop hunting them.

It's more of this postmodern postprocessual poststructuralist postwhateverthefuck oversensitive second-guessing apologism. I can't wholeheartedly support the San in their successful attempt to get their damn land back even though they've been quite clear that they want it and will work to make it happen, because I'm concerned that by doing this they've managed to cast themselves, not as conscious and effective agents staking their claim on what is theirs, but The Children Of Nature who ought to be left in their blissful isolation from modernity. Note the heavy tone of sarcasm there; they are not the children of nature unless you're a damn hippie and believe that all humans are children of nature, and the San have never been in blissful isolation from modernity even before they became the darlings of nostalgic ethnography, they've lived in contact with herders and farmers on the edges of their territory as long as those groups have existed. Obviously that's no good reason why they shouldn't stay in their purportedly blissful lack of isolation precisely where they've chosen to be. But I can't help but get a feeling that they've just fought a court case over whether to be kept in dependent marginality on the territory to which they were moved or to be museum exhibits living in an artificially frozen* bubble of Look Kids This Is What Nature Looks Like, Observe How The Apeman Stalks The Eland. I don't much like either plan, in fact.

*Ask me about the movement of habitats during periods of climate change sometime. Southern Africa becomes warmer, forest turns into grassland, grassland turns into near-desert and near-desert turns into full desert. In a couple of hundred years the climate of the game reserve will be entirely different, the game they're trying to preserve will be going extinct from changes in vegetation, but the borders of the reserve are set and won't move just because of something as unreasonable as being unable to sustain the fauna it was set up to sustain, and then the San will either have fought to stay in an untenable subsistence situation and starve or they'll be living in an artificially conserved zoo because nostalgic guilt won't allow those responsible for the game reserve to stand back and let the bubble of preservation get wiped out because development on all sides gives the habitat no place to shift into. How the fuck is that for a sentence? My point is that the game reserve will ultimately change due to large-scale climate change, and so on a long enough scale it's counterproductive for the San to fight to remain in it: it won't always be there for them, and now unlike the rest of history there's noplace left to move into when it's gone. But to try to make sure that it will still be there would be a) more or less impossible as it's fighting against the trends of the entire global environment and b) very much like keeping the San in a zoo along with all of the giraffes and elephants and weird little antelope things.

In short, it's a pretty Pyrrhic victory and its cultural implications creep me out. But on the other hand, if your society is pretty much screwed anyway, I applaud the decision to get screwed in an active, politically involved way instead of a passive one.

I'm a pretty big killjoy, aren't I?

Posted by dianna at December 13, 2006 01:06 PM

This reminds me a lot of a case from the '70s, Wisconsin v. Yoder. Briefly, in Yoder an Amish community sued Wisconsin to prevent the state from forcing their kids to attend school beyond the 8th grade. The argument was that high school education conflicted with their religious beliefs, and therefore requiring education through 11th grade was a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.

The case had a feel very similar to the concerns you're describing about the San. Where you describe the San as putting themselves in a situation such that they'll be perceived as like animals in a zoo, the Supreme Court treated the Amish communities as a historical theme park, like Colonial Williamsburg. The communities were treated as a historical recreation, a window to our agrarian past, and no consideration was given to the autonomy concerns that justify mandatory education for everyone else. The communities got what they wanted, but at the cost of being somehow less than full-on American citizens.

With respect to the San, the article makes it seem, and feel free to correct me if my impression is inaccurate, as though they were living off of government support on the reservations, but had some degree of self-sufficiency on the preserve. Given that, I can certainly understand the desire not to be dependent on hand-outs, even if life on the preserve is ultimately unsustainable. They might as well enjoy it while it's still there.

Posted by: Zach at December 13, 2006 02:29 PM

Hey! The San's lawyer is named Gordon Bennett!

Posted by: Zach at December 13, 2006 02:30 PM

They might indeed as well enjoy it while it's there, but there's still the problem that if they enjoy it, it will be less there than if they weren't living on it. They're hunters, remember. And if hunters are allowed to live on and hunt in a game preserve, it starts to fail its mission of, you know, preserving game.

Posted by: Dianna at December 13, 2006 06:10 PM

Why didn't anyone mention that I got distracted and misspelled Kalahari less than ten words into this post?

Posted by: Dianna at December 13, 2006 06:11 PM

I suppose, given that the Botswanan Supreme Court's put a stop to the government's relocation plan, that the only solution would be for the government to try to regulate the San's hunting and hope the regulations stick. That doesn't help the San much in terms of independence, though, if they're maintaining a hunter lifestyle while the government carefully restricts which animals and how many they're allowed to kill.

Posted by: Zach at December 13, 2006 07:35 PM

Yeah. Basically, there's a fundamental conflict between the goals of conservation, subsistence, autonomy, and dignity. Here I go with freakin' dignity again.

Posted by: Dianna at December 14, 2006 01:39 AM