Botswana Extractive Industries and Land Conflict
Christopher R. Besserer
The country of Botswana gained Independence from the British in 1966 at a time when many other Sub-Saharan countries were also breaking away from colonial rule. Botswana, luckily, was left largely untouched by its British colonial rulers and undeveloped when it citizens reclaimed freedom. Today, decades later, Botswana is being heralded as an economic success story among African countries. GDP growth has been increasing at a substantial rate year over year since Independence, even exceeding some fast growing East Asian countries. In this paper, I will examine how and why Botswana was able to avoid conflict within the country over this time period, especially when so many other Sub-Saharan African countries have fallen victim to conflict traps. The mining industry in particular has played a crucial role in helping to foster economic development within the country. When you look at many African countries and resource extraction, one often finds that if there is an abundance of natural resources, there can also be an added risk of conflict. Yet, Botswana has proved to be an exception and it has been able to achieve real, sustained, growth as a result. I will look at how the government has been able to prevent this conflict while fostering the mining industry in the country, an industry that requires extensive land to tap into and mine. Specifically looking at land ownership in Botswana, it is important to note that tribal ownership of land in the country has increased since Independence. Time and again in Sub-Saharan Africa there are many cases in which African governments arbitrarily seize tribal land in order to pave the way for extractive industries and commercial farming endeavors. As a result of these policies, tension and conflict can likely occur as people are pushed off their land without the proper compensation. However, in Botswana we do not see this conflict, in fact we have seen little to no conflict in the 50 years since the country gained Independence. It's under this stability that the Botswana economy has flourished. Looking at everything from the natural geographic features of the country, to the land boards put in place by proper governance, and lastly the nature of its citizens, we can see how Botswana differs from other African countries that lag behind.
Botswana benefits from several natural factors that decrease the odds for conflict without the government or people having done anything to achieve it. The natural landscape of the country, the continued urbanization, and the type of diamonds found in Botswana are all some natural factors that help diminish the risk of conflict within the country. To start, there are two types of diamonds that can be extracted from the earth, alluvial diamonds and kimberlite diamonds. One type is found on the bottom of riverbeds and requires a large amount of human capital to gather. This is the type of diamond you may have seen being extracted and smuggled by rebels in the Hollywood movie “Blood Diamond”. Due to the fact that it requires labor intensive and not a lot of capital, it can be easy for rebel groups or other factions to extract the diamonds and then use that money for arms and corruption. On the other hand, kimberlite diamonds are not found in riverbeds, they require mines be built and are found mainly in mountains. These diamonds require a large amount of capital investment and equipment that only a government can afford and maintain. Botswana is lucky enough to have kimberlite diamonds within the country and very few sites for alluvial diamonds. Therefore, there is less opportunity for rebel groups to take advantage and try to mine diamonds for their own cause. This decreases the odds and incentive of rebel groups to attempt to take control of the diamond resources for their own benefit. Next, the increased urbanization of Botswana has climbed from around 4% living in cities upon Independence in 1966, moving to 17% in 1980, and then climbing past the halfway mark to around 57% in 2005 (UN World Urbanization 2006). This aids an environment where more people are moving to cities and therefore less people are fighting over rural land within the country as a result. This urbanization also aids the population because it is much easier for citizens to gain access to water, education and other social programs provided by the government in an urban environment. It is much easier for the government to provide services and health benefits to those living in a city than it is if the country is sparsely populated in rural areas. Furthermore, there are just over two million people living inside Botswana, a relatively small number. Consider that in Nigeria, there are over 170 million people in an area that is only roughly 1.5 times larger than Botswana, resulting in a population density that dwarfs that of Botswana. This can put considerable pressure on a country in a number of ways and may be a factor in creating institutional fragmentation within Nigeria. However, in Botswana there are much less people vying for land and having competing interests. Another point to note is that the ethnicity of the Botswana people, again we will use Nigeria as a relative comparison. In Botswana, there are roughly five ethnic groups, the largest of which happens to make up 80% of the population, with the next largest at only 11%. Compare that to Nigeria where there are over 200 different ethnic groups and Bostwana appears relatively homogeneous. Now, it is not clear whether a large number of ethnic groups can be considered a root cause of conflict or not. Some research has suggested that it matters not how many ethnic groups there are within a country, but how polarized those ethnic groups tend to be towards each other. So if the 200 ethnic groups of Nigeria are not polarizing, then there is less probability of conflict between them. Conversely, if there are only two ethnic groups within a country and they are very polarized, there would likely be conflict between them. Either way, this much is clear, on a continent that has seen it's fair share of genocides and ethnic conflict, it is certainly an innate advantage for Botswana to have a relatively ethnically homogeneous citizenry. So overall, the natural factors of the country tend to favor a more stable and manageable populace that the government can be held accountable from. These factors have given Botswana a good foundation to take advantage of, and the country has certainly done.
When mixing customary laws and statutory laws of the government, there can often be conflict and pressure over the differences. As this pressure builds up, people that continue to support or practice customary laws may suffer or be taken advantage of by the government and new statutory law. This can be especially true if the government is authoritarian and is not held accountable by the people through elections. The groups that uphold customary law can be in the majority and yet not have a say over what is happening on the statutory side of the law. Conflict can occur when land ownership comes into question and the government makes new laws either privatizing or making the land state owned. Meanwhile, tribes or villages may have been living on the land for as long as anyone can remember under customary law. Upon Independence in Botswana, there were both customary and statutory laws and yet the government has done an excellent job of balancing the two to help mitigate conflict. A large part of this may be due to the fact that Botswana is a functioning democracy and has been since Independence in 1966. We know that a democracy has the ability to cut down on corruption and change the behavior of government. According to Transparency International, Botswana is the least corrupt country within the African Continent, scoring a 5.8 on the index, beating out many East Asian countries and even ranks right behind some Western European countries like Portugal (Transparency International 2010). The good governance that Botswana has been able to maintain and establish since Independence is crucial to economic and social success. This is particularly true of creating institutions that foster accountability to the public, through a decentralization of power within the country. According to one author, “the decentralization process has, for example, championed representative local government which has resulted in many urban councils being dominated by councilors from the opposition national political parties at various times (Hope, 2000). This means that the local governments are sometimes comprised of opposing political parties relative to the national body in power, which can lead to compromise, and more importantly, to checks and balances. This is crucial to good governance within a country, and the local governance helps keep leaders accountable to the people. Apparently, this system has been largely successful, “local residents have been able to provide significant input into the governance of their communities and, through their elected councilors, their concerns and policy preferences have also been articulated and implemented” (Hope, 2000). This is a huge step forward for an African country, seeing as many other Sub-Saharan countries tend to have authoritarian, unaccountable, federal governments and limited local governance. To further this point, we must look into the land boards that have been set up and function as landowners, making decisions regarding land use within the country. This plays an especially prominent role in the relationship between the citizens of Botswana and foreign companies and corporations trying to mine within the country, as well as the government using land for public works and infrastructure projects.
The land boards in Botswana are of particular interest and many credit the creation and function of these land boards as having been the leading force behind economic growth and lowering the chance of conflict. In the country, there are three different land types, tribal land, state land, and freehold land. Tribal land is a traditional land tenure category that exists in rural areas and has been administered under customary rules and is therefore by right the same as customary land (Adams 2003). The way tribal land was administered was through a chief, who was responsible for allocating land to villagers and would do so by allocating to subordinate chiefs who then apportioned the land to ward heads and representatives, and then that group gave land to family heads. It would be very hard to use this system of customary land ownership in conjunction with modern property right laws and the ability of government and corporations to come in and properly compensate for land and gain access to land without conflict. It would be very difficult for the government to gain access to this land for mining or other resource extraction without causing conflict with the tribes or villages over customary law. However, since Independence, tribal land has gone up from 48% of total land, to over 70% at 1998 (White, 1999). State land holdings have been cut in half, from 47% at Independence to 24% in 1998. These numbers are astonishing and unlike what most African countries have seen since their own Independence. Generally speaking, a large number of Sub-Saharan African countries have cut down on domestic tribal land and taken it over, either to give away to foreign companies for commercial farming or for other resource extraction. However, Botswana has seen the complete opposite take place and the land boards can be said to be responsible. The land boards are decentralized and adhere to the Tribal Lands Act and tribal land is held by the land board or administered out on customary grants and common law leases (Adams 2003). So, upon Independence, the State transferred tribal lands from the chief of a tribe or village to the land boards. However, these land boards are not run by the central government or federal government, they are decentralized and localized. This adds local knowledge and local accountability to those in charge of making decisions. There were some issues upon the creation of the land boards, these local members were often illiterate and did not understand the role of the land boards. The government put resources into training and the education of those elected to serve on land boards. Today, there are standards for anyone who wants to serve on the land board, for instance, candidates have to be at least 26 years of age and no older than 65 and all elected members must receive a certain period of training before assuming the duty (Adams 2003). There are also numerous levels of land boards that can be appealed to in cases of conflict. There is the local level and then one step higher, then ultimately there is the main land board of the country. In total, there are 12 main land boards and 39 subordinate land boards that function together (Collin 2010). Though, the level and complexities of the land board tiered system can be difficult to understand, the devolution of power from a main land board all the way down to a locally elected land board that is responsible for a small area seems to provide accountability and representation for a broad base of land owners. Put another way, “The structure of customary rights urges a peaceful coexistence within the villages. By having a more decentralized system, disputes within these areas can be solved rather quickly” (Collin 2010). For instance, if a corporation wants to come into the country and set up a mine or establish a commercial farm, it must go through and seek approval by the main land board. Conversely, in many other African countries, we see a corporation that deals directly with the federal government or state government, which then confiscates the land from a tribe or village and cuts a deal with a foreign transnational corporation to start resource extraction. This is especially true in countries without democracies because the government is not accountable to the people. Furthermore, when the government can cut deals with transnational corporations, it can then use the profit from those contracts to stay in power through more military spending and corruption payoffs to officials. This can become a vicious cycle and lead to conflict. The government does not feel responsible to the people because it no longer needs tax dollars as revenue when it can gain a lot of revenue from the resource extraction, creating a poor environment for institutions and proper governance. Botswana is able to avoid this by decentralizing and localizing decision making, and by incorporating many tribal leaders and those who practice customary laws into the decision making process. Put in broader terms, “The primary objectives of decentralization include, but are not limited to, overcoming the indifference of government bureaucrats to satisfying the needs of the public; improving the responsiveness of governments to public concerns; and increasing the quality of services provided” (Rondinelli et al, 1983). So, according to this logic, Botswana benefits from decentralization of the land boards, which increases the quality and responsiveness of the institutions to the public and to land owners. This was a huge step for the government to make upon Independence and relative to other African countries, is unprecedented and wildly successful. Many countries are even trying to replicate the land board system within their own respective country. To conclude, the land board system in Botswana has been a contributor to mitigating conflict between different groups and the government by adding participation and accountability to decisions and officials in charge of the difficult task of merging customary and statutory laws and practices.
Although it is worth noting that land boards within Botswana have taken criticism from some. Among the complaints is that there have been some cases of conflict between villagers and land board members. Also, some claim that land board members are not properly educated and are restrained by travel costs; nevertheless the Botswana government continues to improve conditions and standards for the members, which strengthens the role of land boards. However, in my opinion and many others, it seems that land boards, coupled with the natural environment and landscape of Botswana has enabled the country to grow substantially since Independence. Today, Botswana is marveled as a great economic success story in Sub-Saharan Africa and its citizens have largely benefited from that success. I conclude that through a combination of natural factors including the layout of the land, population ethnicity and urbanization, plus the decentralizing land boards and good governance, Botswana has been able to capitalize on this good fortune and use extractive industries to boost the economy and thus benefit its society as a whole.
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Hope, Kempe Ronald (10/2000). "Decentralisation and local governance theory and the practice in Botswana".Development southern Africa (Sandton, South Africa) (0376-835X), 17 (4), p. 519.
Rondinelli, D. A., McCullough, J. S., & Johnson, R. W. (1989). Analyzing decentralization policies in developing countries: a political‐economy framework. Development and change, 20(1), 57-87.
Transparency International. Corruption Perceptions Index 2010. Retrieved from http://www.transparency.org/cpi2010/results
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision (2006). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005wup.htm
White, R. 1999. ‘Livestock and Land Tenure in Botswana’. Conference on New Directions in Land Tenure. The Hague: Africa Studies Centre, University of Leiden.