The political ecology of land and disease in the Zambezi valley

In addition to migration discussed in last week’s blog, the changing politics of land use in the Zambezi valley is another dimension that has affected the incidence of trypanosomiasis over time.

Over the last century, the people of Hurungwe have been subject to numerous external interventions. The Korekore were the original inhabitants of the area, prior to the waves of migration discussed last week. The reasons the Korekore are settled where they are today is a result of the massive engineering project of the Kariba dam, and the creation of the Mana Pools national park in the 1950s and 60s.

Colonial visions of modernity and the need for electricity to supply the growing industries and urban centres of Rhodesia resulted in a major eviction of people who had traditionally made a living along the Zambezi river. Colonial economic imperatives reshaped the landscape, and pushed people into new territories. In the subsequent decades, the Mana Pools area became a significant tourist attraction, generating revenues for the state and for elite ecotourism operators, as well as a symbolic site of ‘wild’ Africa for white residents of Rhodesia.

Surrounding the park a series of hunting/safari areas were established, and particularly after Independence, these became the location for high-end hunting operations. Some of these activities generated some employment for locals, but not much. Ecotourism and hunting was by and large the preserve of a white elite, and money did not find its way back into the local economy.

The Zambezi valley was a major front during Zimbabwe’s liberation war, with frequent incursions of fighters from Zambia and regular battles with the Rhodesian forces. In this period, tsetse control efforts were abandoned, and the fly encroached into once cleared areas. With peace and Independence in 1980, aid programmes supported clearance efforts once again, and the tsetse fly retreated. Combined with migration from other areas of the country (see last week’s blog), and the mid-1980s cotton boom, the habitat for tsetse flies also declined.

But there were countervailing drivers, encouraging an expansion of tsetse habitat too. From the late 1980s, Zimbabwe was at forefront of ‘community-based conservation’ and the CAMPFIRE programme became a world-famous experiment. Revenues from hunting were to go back to the community, and provide much needed support. But CAMPFIRE was premised on generating revenue from animals shot (or sometimes photographed) in the communal areas, where people lived. While providing an economic basis for conserving wildlife, it encouraged wild animals to be closer to people. And since such wildlife are significant hosts of trypanosomiasis, and their habitats the same as those of tsetse fly, the disease consequences of CAMPFIRE were potentially significant.

With the decline in hunting operations with the collapse of the economy and the failure of bankrupt Rural District Councils to share revenues, CAMPFIRE has declined in significance. But there is a new kid on the block, focused not on wildlife, but on carbon. A massively ambitious project – Kariba REDD – was established notionally over thousands of hectares, including in Hurungwe, and in our study area. Making use of international markets for carbon, and linking to the UN REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), the project aimed to put a value on carbon, and reverse the decline in forested area across the Zambezi valley.

Through protecting – and indeed expanding – forests against a notional baseline, other values could be marketed, including an expanded trade in ecotourism and wildlife hunting. Like the interventions that went before, carbon is restructuring disease landscapes too. As carbon has acquired value, the project is increasing incentives both the plant and protect trees. These may expand the habitat of tsetse flies, including into the formerly cleared areas.

Understanding disease incidence, spread and risk requires looking at the underlying structural drivers. These are not just the proximate ones of changing climate, habitat, demography and so on, but can be traced back to much deeper causes. Whether these are the factors that drive migration or incentivise investments in hunting or carbon, these can be linked to wider political economy processes. These may often reach to the global political economy; way beyond the confines of the fields and forests of the Zambezi valley.

A political ecology of disease must therefore take these factors into account. Any appraisal of intervention – whether for forest protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife protection or infrastructure development – must look at these wider webs of power and influence. Without looking at the political drivers of disease, we may never understand underlying causes, or define the most appropriate interventions. As the blogs in this series have shown, ‘control’ interventions may miss their target, if wider questions of land access, migration, economic opportunity and the politics of competing land values are not addressed.

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa work was supported by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme funded by NERC, ESRC and DFID, and the Zimbabwe study was led by Professor Vupenyu Dzingirai (CASS, UZ), working with William Shereni (Ministry of Agriculture), Learnmore Nyakupinda (Ministry of Agriculture), Lindiwe Mangwanya (UZ), Amon Murwira (UZ), Farai Matawa (UZ), Neil Anderson (Edinburgh University) and Ewan McLeod (Edinburgh University), among others.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

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