An image of the country's flag.

Botswana is a peaceful, prosperous, stable country with nearly universal access to clean water, education and health care. However, a high rate of income inequality and poverty concentrated in rural areas are blemishes on Botswana’s otherwise superb record of sustained economic growth and social progress. Harsh climatic conditions, limited arable land and a fragile ecosystem make it very challenging to increase the incomes of the rural poor. The challenge is even greater because Botswana’s legal framework governing rangeland provides incentives to privatize and fence communal grazing land through the development of leasehold ranches. This legal structure favors the concentration of ranching on large tracts by wealthier and more powerful people, causing the poorest households to lose access to land, water and veld products on which their livelihoods depend. As a consequence, the remaining accessible communal land is vulnerable to overuse and land degradation.

Botswana’s increasingly prosperous, increasingly urban population puts ever-greater pressure on the country’s natural resources through its growing demand for food, land and fuel. This pressure has resulted in rangeland degradation, soil erosion, loss of grazing habitat, deforestation, overexploitation of wildlife and wood, water pollution, bush fires, and conflicts between people and wildlife. Of particular concern is the country’s forest land, which lacks the protection of a legal framework accompanied by natural resource governance capacity.


Botswana’s regular reviews of its land and natural resources policies and legislation, and its practice of governing through comprehensive six-year plans have kept a focus on land issues and resulted in some of the more progressive land legislation in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, as experience with the country’s legislation accumulates, some gaps have appeared that donors in general and USAID in particular could assist the government in addressing:

  • Attention to the Legal Framework to Support the Rights of Women and Marginalized Groups. The government of Botswana undertakes review of its land and natural resources laws and policies on a regular basis. In 2005, the government noted the need for laws and revisions to existing law that promote more equitable land distribution, address land conflicts and strengthen systems and institutions for land management. The National Development Plan 10 (NDP 10) (2010–2016) notes that progress was made in support of women’s rights in the country, but identifies education and health as areas experiencing change. No progress is identified in the area of protecting and improving women’s rights to land and other natural resources. During the NDP 10 period, land sector programs will focus on providing land for development and improving the productivity of agricultural land. Only one program, which focuses on supporting small- scale farmers, appears to target women and other marginalized groups.

Botswana’s formal legal framework has lagged behind Botswana common law on the support of women’s equal rights to land. For example, the laws governing marriage and marital property contain vestiges of the traditional presumption of male power over family and marital property. Provisions such as those requiring the agreement of both spouses regarding the management of marital property leave room for coercion and abuse. Botswana’s Supreme Court articulated the principle of nondiscrimination in the case of Unity Dow but had to invoke international law for legal foundation. In response to a call from women’s rights activists for a systematic review of legislation to remove discriminatory provisions, the government responded that women have sufficient avenues to raise claims of discrimination. However, such avenues are not accessible to the majority of women, who lack the education, financial resources, knowledge, and assistance necessary to assert their legal rights, especially when the legal grounds are inadequate. In addition, the laws governing grazing land have proved to be inadequate to protect the rights of the small herders, nomadic and semi- nomadic groups, and others relying on access to grazing land for their livelihoods.

The time is ripe for Botswana to revisit its legal framework governing land rights, consider revisions to reflect the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination, and ensure that leasehold grants of large tracts of grazing land do not deprive people of their livelihoods. A revised legal framework can be used to assist the Land Boards in ensuring that women have equal access to land allocations and leasing opportunities. In addition, traditional leaders will have support for reaching nondiscriminatory decisions on the division and inheritance of property, and an enhanced framework will ensure that decisions regarding leasehold grants of grazing land are subject to effective participatory processes and open to challenge.

  • Support for the Rights of Marginalized Populations within the Decentralized Land Administration and Governance System. Botswana has been a trailblazer in the devolution of powers over land-rights management to district-level and sub-district-level Land Boards. However, the process has often left minority groups (e.g., women, those infected with HIV/AIDS, the economically-disadvantaged, ethnic minorities) without power and representation. In addition, in most areas Land Boards have not taken up the responsibility that traditional leaders once had for consulting with their communities and engaging in the overall planning of land-use and management of natural resources. Government and quasi-governmental institutions that are not accountable to local communities are exercising the authority granted to the district Land Boards. Donors, including USAID, can assist the government in its efforts to provide capacity building and legal literacy campaigns to district and subordinate Land Boards, with the objective of strengthening the decentralized structure and helping local institutions meet their responsibilities to serve all Botswana’s people.
  • Strengthen Traditional Institutions. In its report before the Seventh Africa Governance Forum, Botswana expressed the desire to improve its capabilities by enhancing the role of traditional leadership and actively engaging traditional leaders in governance and development processes. USAID has significant experience working at community levels with community-based natural resource management and can use its experience and relationships to assist the government by expanding capacity-building for formal and traditional institutions to include current land and natural resource rights issues.
  • Evaluation, Refinement, and Expansion of Community-Based Conservation Management. Botswana has developed a variety of community-based conservation programs primarily focused on wildlife resources but also including some experience with forests and rangeland. USAID has been involved in initiating and helping Botswana execute many of these projects and has substantial experience with community-based natural resource management in other countries. Now may be an appropriate time for USAID to collect experiences and identify lessons learned and best practices. That evaluation could inform the design of larger programs that extend community-based management to larger areas of grazing land and other natural resources, including forest land and water resources that the poorer and most marginalized groups rely on for their livelihoods.


Botswana has enjoyed continuous peace and stability since its country ranks as the least corrupt African nation. Ninety percent of the population has access to clean water, education, and health care. Botswana has one of Africa’s $6470 in 2008, yet also one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality. Forty-seven percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and 97% of all poor Twenty-four percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS. Average life- expectancy is 38 years.

Botswana is a semi-arid country with harsh climatic conditions and a fragile ecosystem. Arable land is extremely limited, and livestock is the primary source of subsistence and income for two- thirds of rural households. The legal framework governing Botswana’s rangeland incentivizes privatization and fencing of communal grazing land through development of leasehold ranches. These ranches and the benefits of privatization are concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy and powerful people; many of the country’s poorest households have meanwhile lost access to land and natural resources such as water and veld products on which they depend for their livelihoods. The remaining communal land is vulnerable to overuse and degradation.

Botswana’s population is becoming more sedentary and concentrated in its urban areas. Demands for food, land, and fuel are increasing. Threats to natural resources include rangeland degradation, soil erosion, loss of grazing habitat, deforestation, over-exploitation of wildlife and wood, water pollution, bush fires, and conflicts between people and wildlife.

Published / Updated: June 2010