Five years ago on Dec. 25, a procession of 4x4 vehicles rumbled across thick sand into the heart of the Kalahari Desert, home of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen. Bushmen had lived there for millennia, but since 2002, the democratic Republic of Botswana had besieged the Bushmen, cutting off water, destroying supplies and welding shut their only deep well.
The siege was all part of a master plan, modeled after America, to move indigenous people off their homelands, and onto government reservations, in order to make room for more lucrative diamond mining and eco-tourism in the depopulated wild landscapes left behind.
But Botswana hadn't expected a few hundred Bushmen would remain, defiant and intransigent. Over 30,000 years these people had evolved sophisticated coping mechanisms that had let them thrive there, long before any governments showed up. So, despite Botswana's agenda, Bushmen returned to the old ways of survival in a dry land, ranging far and wide, hunting and gathering as the ancestors had taught their elders.
During the course of a crippling regional drought, Botswana officials grew increasingly impatient, and soon armed government patrols surrounded the last Bushmen camp to force a choice: surrender forever, or stay and die. Unwilling and unable to compete with her own family for food and moisture, Qoroxloo broke free. She escaped to gather on her own. Four days later, her body was discovered with a bag of wild food. She could have eaten it and lived; apparently she was saving it for others.
Nervous officials rightly feared they might be liable for an innocent's death. So they forcibly removed her corpse for a state autopsy, and then held on to her body, trying to bury her in a city cemetery at state expense. Qoroxloo's family fought back over seven weeks, and eventually Botswana's citizens -- an AIDS-ravaged people who knew and valued mourning and funerals -- were moved to join their cause, tipping the scales.
The government relented, and dozens of Qoroxloo's family and friends joined the long trek home. On Christmas Day families reunited after years apart. They cried with joy and sorrow and put Qoroxloo's remains in the sand. They covered the mound with thorn branches to keep off hyenas, and blew smoke over the grave and hoped the ancestors would welcome her into the spirit world.
The next day the sky broke open, and pouring rains ended the long hot drought.
It was the first and last bright day of truce, of peace and humanity in a dark, 10-year struggle for recognition and respect for indigenous peoples' basic human rights.
Bushmen soon won victory in a High Court ruling that said the land was theirs. But the government continues to use water as a weapon, denying Bushmen access to a well even as it drills new boreholes for wildlife and pumps water for Wilderness Safaris, so that company can offer tourists showers and a plunge swimming pool on the Bushmen's thirsty land.
My New Year's dream?
Even if emissions stopped, climate change is baked in. Expect extreme snowmelt, evaporation, drought and deluge. Indeed, climate adaptation is water adaptation, and there is no one on earth better at adapting to water stress than Kalahari Bushmen.
Botswana may think it has the Bushmen's fate in its hands. But if the most resilient people on earth are scattered and destroyed, that same fate may await the rest of us.
James G. Workman is an award-winning journalist and former writer for statesmen ranging from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to Nelson Mandela. He is the co-founder of SmartMarkets LLC and author of "Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought." Read his blog on Red Room.
My Wish for 2011 -- An AOL News Year-End Special
We asked a dozen top writers to share their wishes for the New Year. Click on any headline to read what they hope will happen in 2011.
- Better TV News – By Barry W. Lynn
- A Better World for My Daughter – By G. Willow Wilson
- More Companies That Don't Suck – By Dave Logan
- More Progress for Women – By Talia Carner
- A Just Transition to Clean Energy – By Jeff Biggers
- Closing the Happiness Gap – By Catherine Ryan Hyde
- Honor for the Kalahari Bushmen – By James G. Workman
- The Courage to Ask Questions – By Sonya Huber
- More Adoptions – By Brett Battles
- A Smile, Freely Given – By J.T. Ellison
- We Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road – By Rebecca York
- A Better Next Decade – Kate Clinton