Hunting Justice

Matthew Canfield, Drake University

Review of Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari by Maria Sapignoli (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Maria Sapignoli begins Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari, by describing a curious sight: a recently drilled borehole with a shining plaque next to it, which she saw while visiting a San community that had only recently been allowed to re-enter their home territories inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana. The plaque bore the name of the NGO Survival International, and this message: “This borehole celebrates the struggle of the CKGR for survival, and for their right to their ancestral land. It was made possible by thousands of supporters around the world. For tribal peoples—for all of our humanity” (p. 7). While one might expect to find a sign acknowledging donor support near any development project, this plaque is different. It not only testifies to the San’s struggle to occupy their ancestral territory and access basic services, it also reveals the critical role of transnational allies and global tactics in their fight for justice. Yet Sapignoli quickly discovers that the borehole hardly works. It neither pumps enough water for the San nor for their animals. As a result, many are forced—in search of water—to return to the land outside the CKGR where they had once been forcibly resettled.

The borehole, its plaque, and its inadequacy together epitomize the ongoing struggle of the San, who are among the world’s most famous indigenous hunter-gatherers. Long oppressed by the Tswana majority of Botswana, the San have been struggling to return to territories from which they were removed in the 1990s and 2000s. In their quest for justice, the San have worked with international NGOs and foreign donors to form new advocacy organizations, appeared in the numerous United Nations processes, and litigated several cases in Botswana. By detailing what she terms the San’s “omnivorous approach to activism,” through historical research and ethnographic fieldwork across these various terrains of struggle, Sapignoli describes how the San negotiate their identities and values while engaging with new organizational forms, legal institutions, and repertoires of collective action. She neither celebrates law as a tool of counter-hegemonic emancipation, nor a depoliticizing weapon of dispossession. Rather, she illuminates the subtle ways in which these webs of law have continuously reconstituted the terrain of domination and resistance for the San.

Sapignoli conducts her analysis by following a single case across a variety of plural, overlapping legal regimes. The extended case analysis allows her to trace how the San strategically assert their sovereignty in relation to colonial and national property regimes, state law, and international law. Each chapter focuses on one of these distinct areas of legality, but read together they reveal both the continuities of colonialism and the transnational dimensions of even the most remote, local-seeming struggles.

The CKGR was created by the British during the twilight of the Bechuanaland Protectorate in an effort to protect the lands of the “Bushmen” from encroachment by nearby farmers. Yet almost as soon as the Reserve was created, the newly independent state of Botswana began to limit the San’s access to the land within it. When the San adopted new hunting, agricultural, and pastoral practices the Botswana government used this as an excuse to suggest that the San were no longer engaging in “traditional” practices and instead to prioritize conservation, tourism, and mining within the Reserve. In 1997, the first of several forced relocations to towns outside of the CKGR took place, and they continued into the early 2000s. The Botswana government stopped referring to the “Bushmen Problem”—a designation that emphasized the San’s ethnic and tribal difference as the reason for their social exclusion—and began describing the San as “Remote Area Dwellers” in need of development. They justified the dispossession of the San by claiming to aid remote communities in developing agricultural and pastoral practices outside the CKGR, even as the San demanded to return to their territory and make their own decisions about their livelihoods.

It is in this context that Sapignoli examines how the San adopted the concept of indigeneity. Botswana, like many African countries, insists that all of its inhabitants are “indigenous” and refuses the San’s special claim to collective rights. Nevertheless, the claim of indigeneity gave the San access to new international allies and resources. It also offered a framework for meaning-making through which they continue to articulate claims for recognition. Yet claiming indigeneity, Sapignoli shows, also caused friction with existing forms of San identity and the organizations that supported these. For example, donor-driven demands that San NGOs have specific forms of leadership and record-keeping were often incompatible with the egalitarian forms of organization and distribution of resources that the San had previously practiced. Similarly, at the UN, the San struggled to effectively use the concept of indigeneity, which had been developed to describe other colonial contexts.

Despite these challenges, the San succeeded in raising their international profile and in garnering allies and resources to help them pursue domestic litigation. Sapignoli ethnographically analyzes the case Sesana and Others v. The Attorney General of Botswana (2006), the longest in Botswana’s history, which challenged the 2002 removals from the CKGR. With assistance from international NGOs such as Survival International, the San won an ambiguous and limited victory for a small number of those removed from the CKGR. Although the High Court allowed 182 people to return to their territory, the government has continued to inhibit the San’s free movement in and out of the CKGR and limited their access to basic services. In an effort to enforce the Sesana ruling and expand their access to services, the San have engaged in what Sapignoli describes as “litigation chains,” which have become a critical mode of political action. While ongoing litigation and consistent participation in the United Nations have not resolved the San’s problems, Sapignoli nevertheless suggests that both have been critical to the San’s struggle. Indeed, all of these legal tools have not only helped shine a spotlight on injustices and reaffirm the legitimacy of their claims, they have also become critical to the San’s identity and subjectivity, she argues.

And their struggle continues. Attentive to the stakes and nuances of the San movement’s legal politics, Sapignoli’s deeply engaged ethnography shows readers not how law captures and contains the strategies or imagination of San activists, but rather how it serves as a critical resource for articulating claims, mobilizing resources, developing leadership capacities, building identities, and achieving some sort of accountability against state actors. The multiple tools of law, which have only expanded with global legal pluralism, may not be counter-hegemonic, but they nonetheless have offered a fragile hope to the San in their long struggle for justice.

About Leo Coleman

Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, and the book review editor for the Political and Legal Anthropology Review. He is the author of A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi (Cornell UP, 2017), and has written about infrastructure, modernist anthropology, urban politics, and architecture in journals including American Ethnologist, Anthropological Quarterly, and Comparative Studies in Society and History. leocoleman.org.

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