Failing institutions: the challenge of governing natural resources in Zimbabwe

A field near Chikombedzi devastated by elephants

The much-lauded book, Why Nations Fail, argued that sustained economic progress only occurs when institutions work. This means enforcement of legal rules, clear secure access to land, regulations that are transparent, bureaucracies that function and of course – emerging out of this – a lack of debilitating corruption. In Zimbabwe, these conditions do not hold.

Like all other domains, this applies to natural resource governance, including the co-management of wildlife. Resource governance in Zimbabwe is largely a decentralised function, with local councils being key players, despite overarching legislation and a national environmental management agency. The functioning of local government is therefore crucial, especially around policies aimed at benefit sharing of wildlife and other natural resources that are on state land.

But with local government failing to deliver and institutions failing, can effective, accountable local management of resources and benefit-sharing with communities function? Can CAMPFIRE – the great Zimbabwean experiment centred on the sustainable use of wildlife – be revived?

CAMPFIRE: sharing the benefits of wildlife resources

The pioneering CAMPFIRE programme (Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) emerged in mid 1980s (formally launched in 1989) as a solution to the classic conflict between environmental protection (through national parks) and human needs and sustainable use. At the centre was a commitment to benefit sharing from the sustainable harvesting of wild animals – through hunting concessions – when they were killed on communal land, so reducing incessant human-wildlife conflict (see photo).

Revenues from hunting were then shared with local communities so that they too benefited from the parks estate and wildlife that spilled over. It was seen as a win-win solution, with community-based approach hailed as the alternative to ‘fortress conservation’. Conventional approaches had repeatedly failed by often violently excluding local people, who built up resentments to national parks and did not buy into conservation efforts.

In Zimbabwe, the CAMPFIRE programme started very much as a community-based enterprise and the state was barely presented. In places like Mahenye on the edge of Gonarezhou, hunters under the direction of a local official would hand out cash to local people and local leaders. This rather paternalistic model later became institutionalised under the Rural District Councils that were established in the late 1980s.  Councils would then handle CAMPFIRE revenues, investing them in the area through particular local development programmes.

However, of late, this system has become largely non-functional. There are limited payouts due in part to declines in hunting revenue, but in particular due to embedded corruption in the system. Hunters rarely declare their full income, council officials are in on deals and money gets diverted to other projects and people are not happy. Today CAMPFIRE is an example of a failed institution, reflective of a wider malaise in the Zimbabwean state.

When we were in the southeast Lowveld recently, including visiting Gonarezhou national park (see previous two blogs in this series, here and here), talking to hunters, parks officials and local communities, the debate about the future of CAMPFIRE was frequently mentioned. Should it be abandoned, accepting that it doesn’t work, or should there be a concerted investment in rebuilding the institutional mechanisms? Which position is taken very much depends on where people sit in the wider debate and how they interact with the park, hunting concessions and the degree to which they suffer conflicts with wildlife. All agree that CAMPFIRE is not working as it once did.

Those who argue for its abandonment have a vision of a protected park (some would say a return to a ‘fortress’ model) with buffer zones where ‘development’ projects could function. While they claim they are not against hunting, they are not keen on it either and have many complaints against the hunting fraternity in the area. Their view is that local government oversight will never work, as almost inevitably budgets are constrained and, even if not appropriated for private gain, the likelihood of local communities benefiting will be limited as resources will be diverted elsewhere. This was a pattern seen through the 1990s when economic structural adjustment hit state revenues hard and CAMPFIRE payouts dwindled, resulting in much disgruntlement.

Those who are in favour of a revival argue that only with genuine revenues – from hunting, but also tourism – coming to the areas around the parks will the long-term sustainability of the resource be secured. The sort of ‘alternative livelihood’ projects being proposed are not enough, as the benefits are small and uncertain. If communities are seen as genuine ‘shareholders’ in the park and the wider natural resource asset – as the traditional inhabitants of the area – then benefits from high value activities need to be shared for wider development. There are many debates about how this should happen, and a general negativity about the state, including local government, is expressed, but the basic CAMPFIRE principle is one that such actors subscribe to.

Reviving community-based resource management means resuscitating the local state   

I want to argue for the revival of CAMPFIRE (or something equivalent), in the name of both conservation and development. Having recently been in Kenya where no such options are available (in part because of the banning of hunting), the alternatives such as ‘community conservancies’ – more the buffer zone community development option – appear to generate conflict and uncertain benefits.

However, before making the case for a CAMPFIRE revival, we first have to look into what went wrong. It means looking at the sorry tale of the decline of the state – and wider institutional capacity – in Zimbabwe over the last decades. In respect of local government, we can see four phases.

  • At Independence, Zimbabwe inherited the colonial model, with a separation of administration of communal areas (formerly ‘African’ Tribal Trust Lands) from what were the former white, European areas. The focus on communal area development was serious in the early years, with a new cadre of district administrators, many ex-combatants from the liberation war, recently retrained in places like Birmingham in the UK. There was a deep commitment and passion for development and the early ideas around CAMPFIRE emerged in this context. Through a number of experimental initiatives, such as Mahenye, CAMPFIRE gradually grew and became more institutionalised. Commitment, trust, local networks and a sense of doing something different – and proudly Zimbabwean -drove the effort. These were all firm bases for a later institutionalising of a successful model.
  • The colonial anomaly of rural administration was addressed in 1988 through the formation of Rural District Councils, with jurisdiction over both communal areas and the large-scale farms. This potentially offered a larger tax base, boosting the limited revenue that local councils had beyond the subventions from government – such as beer halls and the like. In the districts where wildlife use was possible, CAMPFIRE became an additional and important revenue stream. With major capacity building efforts occurring with local government (from the UK government and others in places like Gokwe), local government took on a new lease of life and professionalism. This was the hey-day of CAMPFIRE as the system moved from an often informal and highly context specific arrangement to one that was more institutionalised. In this period, institutions of the local state seemed to be (largely) working.
  • This gradually changed from 1991, when the government agreed the economic structural adjustment programme with the IMF. The restructuring of the state meant that revenues flowing to local government declined dramatically. Just to cover recurrent costs, many councils diverted any revenues – including those from CAMPFIRE. This meant that dividends paid out to communities declined too, with many commenting on how the system was not supporting local commitments to natural resource management. At the same time, of course, resources linked to national parks declined too, and despite the quasi-privatisation and the creation of the National Parks Authority, things barely improved. With limited poaching controls, commercial poaching increased (particularly following de-mining efforts and the end of the hostilities in Mozambique) and local people were able to use the parks for small-scale hunting and grazing. Hunting operations meanwhile flourished, with high-paying customers enjoying the Zimbabwe experience, but the use of such revenues for benefit-sharing among local communities was very patchy.
  • By the late 1990s, this pattern had become embedded in the functioning of local government. With the economic crisis that has stretched from this period until the present, exacerbated by ‘sanctions’ and continued economic mismanagement by the state (and what some dub the party-military complex), the operation of CAMPFIRE has almost ceased on the ground. The struggle now was not just to cover recurrent costs, but many council officials sought to supplement increasingly unrealistic salaries by corruptly making use of funds. Alleged deals between council officials and hunters on concession terms and bid arrangements have meant that money once destined for CAMPFIRE communities was diverted. Today there is no systematic pattern of payouts and although there may be ‘projects’ funded from government sources, combined with donors and others, these are isolated, not sustained and ineffective. In other words, the core institutional capacities that allowed CAMPFIRE to thrive before have been lost. It is a sorry state of affairs, but a pattern replicated across government.

What are the reasons for this state failure? It is not just greedy venality of government officials – the usual narrative about ‘corruption’ – instead, we have to look deeper, especially if the aim is to revive the state and its functioning. The forced restructuring, the decline of state funds, sanctions affecting aid flows and the lack of accountability and transparency in the system all contribute, and this has accreted now over 30 odd years. There is much petty corruption, widely sanctioned, that is just for survival (you cannot survive off a government salary), but this is small compared to the larger diversion of funds. The problem is that the wider acceptance of taking a little in order to make things happen (and keep people alive) seeps into a broader lack of accountability, allowing the big fish, protected by political patronage, to get away with it.

Rebuilding the state from below

It sounds like a hopeless situation, beyond a solution. Some continue to argue for moving functions of the state to (quasi-)private arrangements hoping for an efficient, technocratic solution. But experience suggests that this does not provide the answer. Rebuilding the state from below will be a slow, difficult process but it is vital, as only the state can provide the forms of accountability and reach that successful resource governance (alongside many other functions) requires. For CAMPFIRE to be revived there has to be capacity to oversee tenders and contracts, offer distributions and regulate wildlife in clear, transparent ways. And this requires trust, representation and accountability mechanisms, alongside broad coverage, which only a state-led system can offer.

The task will not be easy, as the decay has been allowed to persist for so long, but rebuilding state functions is not impossible. Starting small, building on existing relationships, focusing on successful efforts, encouraging participation from the people and rewarding those who make things happen are all requirements. Why not start with the revival of CAMPFIRE, focusing on marginal areas where wildlife resources are rich, such as in the southeast Lowveld near Gonarezhou where it all started? Just maybe this can be an example for the revival of state functioning in Zimbabwe more broadly. Whatever happens in the elections in 2023, this has to be the major challenge for the future.

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

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