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Conservation conflicts: land use in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld

The conservation of biodiversity in places where people also live and farm is not straightforward. The last three blogs have offered some perspectives on the dilemmas faced in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe, and this blog offers an overview.

The politics of land in this region is much contested and has been for much of the last century. National parks, conservancies, hunting concessions, sugar estates, large-scale farms and small-scale farming and herding all compete for space. Beyond the irrigated estates and farms, it is a dry and hostile place, where carving out a living is difficult. This is made more challenging for those living close to areas where wildlife also live, especially as the exploding population of elephants spills over destroying crops in their wake.

All these land uses will be part of the future of the southeast Lowveld near the Gonarezhou park, but how to make sure that conflicts don’t escalate and livelihoods are not destroyed? This was the focus of the most recently published trio of blogs. Based on our recent discussions in the area, they aimed to offer all sides of the story, including those who are often not heard in conservation debates – poorer farmers and herders living on the margins of the wildlife estate.

Seeking compromises and searching for solutions that involve all parties is essential, whether over controversies about park boundaries and fences or about investments in large-scale farming, as in the Chilonga case. Ignoring local views only creates more conflict and resentment. This was the lesson learned when the CAMPFIRE concept was developed – the importance of sharing benefits so as to have a joint commitment to the future both of wildlife and of livelihoods. As the last blog in this series shows this illustrious Zimbabwean experiment has run into problems, but learning lessons from these is the route to a more effective approach to conservation, rather than reverting to the ‘fortress conservation’ models of the past.    

Since this blog series was published during Easter/Ramadan/Passover periods and readers may have missed them, I thought I would have a reprise this week, providing links to all three. Read them together and please feel free to comment on the blogs, whether you agree or disagree. The important point is to have a debate about the future of biodiversity, conservation and livelihoods.

This is a long running discussion, but one that needs more airing across different viewpoints if the ambitions of the action plan on biodiversity to be launched at the forthcoming Biodiversity COP in China are ever to be met.

In case you missed them, here are the three blogs:

The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation | zimbabweland (wordpress.com)

Protected areas: national assets or shared heritage? | zimbabweland (wordpress.com)

Failing institutions: the challenge of governing natural resources in Zimbabwe | zimbabweland (wordpress.com)

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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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 blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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Protected areas: national assets or shared heritage?

What are the roles of protected areas in national development? Are parks national, even global, assets preserved for posterity and for protecting biodiversity, or are they part of a shared, local heritage, where nature and human use must be seen as integrated?

This debate is a long-running one, ever since the establishment of the first ‘national parks’ in the US. Today, it is rising up the agenda again, as advocates for a 30×30 commitment (protecting 30% of a country’s land area for conservation by 2030) gains traction in debates around the ongoing COP15 discussions on the post-2020 global framework on biodiversity to be concluded in Kunming in China later this year.

The rehabilitation of Gonarezhou national park

These were themes that were central to discussions during our recent visit to the southeast Lowveld in Zimbabwe, including a visit to Gonarezhou National Park at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, which followed on from our recent exchange after my earlier blog. Thanks to financing through the Frankfurt Zoological Society from a number of philanthropic foundations, the park is undergoing a much-needed rehabilitation. After years of neglect, the basic infrastructure had declined and the management of what are crucially important ecosystems and biodiverse habitats had lapsed.

The Gonarezhou ConservationTrust is a joint venture between the government (through the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) and the FZS, based on a 20-year agreement from 2017 to manage the huge 5,000 km2 area. Already major changes have happened, including the recruitment and training of many armed guards and rangers, along with the improvement of roads, camping and lodge sites. Although currently the park is receiving significant amounts of external funding as a contribution to its US$3 million per annum running costs, the aim is to break even, boosting pre-COVID income of about $500m per annum through major tourist investments.   

Central to the park strategy is the securing of the boundary, especially on the Zimbabwe side. The erection of an electrified veterinary fence along the whole border has been recently completed, together with the employment of guards to patrol. This investment has been facilitated by government, through the Department of Veterinary Services, although where the money originally came from remains obscure. Although the fence is aimed at stopping animals leaving the park and carrying disease to domestic herds outside, the fence is also part of the park strategy to contain animals and maintain a strong, secure boundary.

However, given that the area is endemic with Foot-and-Mouth and not part of an export zone where ‘disease freedom’ is required, the veterinary rationale for the fence is shaky to say the least (see an earlier blog on this theme). And, in any case, given that the fence is not continuous, as animals are allowed to move into hunting areas and can anyway move up rivers where the fence does not cross, buffaloes (the main FMD carrier) can easily move into the farming areas (and do).

Whatever the origins of the fence, it serves the park strategy well. As was explained to us, the aim is to reduce human-animal conflict (although see the previous blog on the ‘trouble with elephants’), as well as encourage more regulated use of park resources by local people, overturning what was seen as a dangerous free-for-all that existed before. Today groups are allowed in to cut grass and to collect non-timber forest products, but livestock are never allowed to graze inside the park boundary, no matter how bad the drought conditions. The aim then is to keep animals in and people out.

While Hugo and colleagues objected to the label of ‘fortress conservation’ in my previous blog, there are clearly many parallels. The increased militarisation of park defences is also a clear trend, again very similar to elsewhere. While from inside the park, it looks like there are assaults from all sides that must be defended against (poachers from Mozambique, villagers seeking grazing from the Zimbabwe side and so on), from the other side of the fence, it looks like a well-defended fortress, and a big change from the more flexible, negotiated (others would say simply unregulated) arrangement that existed before.

Community tensions

The result has been heightened tension with local communities, which have been responded to be a range of outreach and community liaison activities, as well as intensified policing and arrests. The community outreach activities are pursued genuinely and with considerable resources and are led by committed staff from the Trust. There are investments in local infrastructure (roads, a proposed bridge, school rehabilitation), as well as attempts to address human-wildlife conflict (including growing chilli to create ‘cakes’ that can be burned to repel elephants). There is also a commitment to wider dialogue, with platforms created in villages around the park boundary, where grievances can be aired and issues addressed by park officials.

However, there remain problems, as we found when we talked with community members. There is a deep resentment around the change of access, especially for grazing, and multiple complaints that wildlife conflicts are getting worse not better. Many complain that the park does nothing about it. While this is not strictly true, the scale of the challenge is huge. The fence does restrict some animals, but elephants, in particular, don’t have much time for fences even electric ones, and regularly break through. None of the ‘projects’ offered by the park provide a genuine alternative to grazing. With increasing droughts and more pressure on land around the park, the need for relief grazing only gets bigger. While those with big herds (including absentees) are the most affected, it is the smaller livestock owner, who may have just a few cattle and goats, whose livelihoods are especially affected, as they depend on livestock provisioning through drought periods when crops fail.

While community outreach certainly helps open up channels of communication, the local liaison officers are at a bit of loss what to do, as they have no power to address the more fundamental questions around access to land (and crucially grass and water for animals). There is also a slightly naïve approach to ‘community’ involvement, with the assumption that co-opting some chiefs or headmen is sufficient. As was explained to us, sometimes the dialogue meetings are open fights as people rail against the park or – slightly bizarrely – against ‘Hugo’, as the dispute with the new park arrangement has become oddly personalised as if the Trust director owns the place!

The problem is that there are very divided views; different narratives about what the park and the wider landscape are for and the role of people in them. For some, parks are the last vestiges of the wild, natural world, where globally important habitats and species can be protected from human depredation. As part of a core strategy for protecting biodiversity, they are therefore globally important and central to a country’s national assets. Given their wider value as ‘global public goods’, they can also attract funds from outside, including interest from tourists and others able to pay for access. For others, by contrast, parks are part of a wider natural heritage, which has co-evolved together with humans. The landscape is one that has been part of people’s cultural histories, and where grave sites lie and spirits reside. These areas should be protected for use, but humans – through living with and from nature – are the natural guardians of it.  

These views are not easy to resolve, although there is a growing recognition, including in on-going discussions about a post-2020 global framework for biodiversity, that the most protected areas for biodiversity are ones that used by ‘indigenous’ peoples and communities, and that management of ecosystems is always necessary for their protection (just look at what happens when ‘protected’, ‘endangered’ elephant populations explode; see the last blog).

Ways forward?

So, what are the ways forward? Clearly the investment in Gonarezhou is much needed and welcome, but has the Trust adopted the right strategy? Is conflict bubbling away and will it explode at some point? Can the separation of wild nature and people really be sustainable?

As we saw in our own study areas neighbouring the park, land is currently highly constrained – particularly better watered grazing and arable land at the end of a dry season or during a drought (as now). Tensions between wildlife and people will always focus on these ‘key resources’. This means shared use, within and outside the park boundaries is essential. People in the communities must find ways of allowing wildlife to co-exist in their areas, while parks managers must find ways of people using key resources in the park (in certain places, at certain times). It has to be a negotiated settlement, and one that benefits both (conflicting) objectives. Without this damaging conflict will persist.

Creating ‘alternative livelihoods’ in these areas is very difficult, and no matter how many high-end tourist lodges are built this is not going to provide for the vast majority. Such people are not going to be bought off with the odd gardening project or infrastructure investment, no matter how welcome these may be. They need to make a living from the land – and that means livestock grazing and farming. Using aid and philanthropic money to invest in a national park is justified because of its importance for biodiversity protection, but this argument is difficult to sustain if over the fence poverty and even starvation reigns.

Development must emerge in the round – people, wildlife, ecosystems all need to be part of the picture.  The alternative to the siloed approach, where nature conservation is separated from wider development (and attracts the big bucks), is to accept that (no matter what fence is put up), boundaries are flexible. A park such as Gonarezhou is a national (even global) asset, but it is also a shared heritage, amongst all those who value this landscape; not least those who lived inside the park for many generations before its establishment less than 50 years ago.

There is a need for what some call an ‘inclusive’ or a ‘convivial’ approach to conservation: shared use, negotiated goals and so less conflictual and violent. In the wider landscape, this must mean biodiversity conservation of critical habitats and species; tourism to allow the widest group of people to enjoy and appreciate these historically and ecologically important areas; hunting, revenue generation and benefit sharing; and shared use of resources, particularly those key resources vital for agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, as well as wildlife. Fences, guns and guards are not the solution, and may even make matters worse.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation

Elephants are some of the most majestic animals in African savannahs, but they can also be the most destructive. This is witnessed dramatically if you travel to Gonarezhou National Park (appropriately, the ‘place of the elephants’) in the far southeast of Zimbabwe, as we did recently at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. As we saw, the areas around water sources are completely hammered, with mopane woodlands destroyed. It is a sorry sight, and the elephants must wander further, including outside the park, to find food.

Too many elephants

Elephant populations have increased dramatically in Gonarezhou (as has indeed been the case across Zimbabwe), with the park populations increasing to around 10,000 animals (some say more). This is around three times the maximum number the park can hold sustainably; although as park ecologists argue they spread over much wider areas, including across large areas of Mozambique to the east. Simple ‘carrying capacity’ estimates don’t work well, but you only have to look at the damage in certain parts of the park to see that there is a problem.

Take a look at the three photographs below of mopane trees, taken on our recent trip to the area, and guess where the vegetation is. One is a protected area, part of a massive conservation effort supported by international money; one is a communal (small-scale) African farming area; and one is a resettlement area, settled by small scale farmers following land reform. The full answers are below, but you probably will have guessed already that the most deforested landscape is in the national park. And the reason is elephants.

Overpopulation of elephants can cause multiple problems. Not only is tree cover destroyed but the whole ecosystem is changed, with knock-on effects for other species, from beetles to birds. Blind ‘protection’ of what is supposed to be an endangered species makes little conservation sense. In these areas, elephants are more of a pest than a protected species.

There are so many of them and they are not happy animals – as we found out close-up when they charged our vehicle (twice). They reputedly become more agitated as they return to the safety of the park in Zimbabwe from Mozambique where poaching is intense. Mines from the liberation war existed along the border for a long time, although most have been cleared, but these also caused elephant rage (and death) when stepped on. And the new electric fence that borders the park within Zimbabwe apparently also gets them jumpy, as they break through to find food in the farms beyond.

Elephants destroy crops and livelihoods

As villagers told us in our study areas near Chikombedzi, just a few kilometres from the park, elephants regularly break through the fence (notionally a foot-and-mouth veterinary fence) or come up the dry riverbeds as the fence does not cross or through the small-scale farms nearby where there is no boundary fence with the park.

Elephants love crop fields and will destroy a whole area in hours. The area along the river is where farmers must eke out a living on small fields, farming sorghum and maize or irrigating vegetables. In this extremely dry area, this is the only place where agriculture is feasible, especially when the rains fail as this year. But this is also where elephants (and buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles and other animals) assemble and cause havoc.

Villagers complain that there is no ‘problem animal control’ efforts by the parks authorities these days, and there is no compensation paid in Zimbabwe, as animals in communal areas are the responsibility of the locals, not the parks, as they can be harvested in line with a quota system as part of the now largely defunct CAMPFIRE scheme (as discussed in a forthcoming blog).

We met Mrs KP, who had moved to her fields in this area to protect her crops. Her young children were staying in the village with relatives, but she was alone defending the last of her sorghum from the nightly raids by elephants. After yet another incursion into her field the previous night, there was little left.

She stays in a makeshift shelter and builds fires at night to ward off elephants. She also has a large torch, which she says sometimes worked to frighten them off. It is a lonely and dangerous life, and she was losing the battle. She told us that there were others nearby doing the same, while others had given up, resigning themselves to hunger or hand-outs instead of getting anything from the fields.

Historical estimates of elephant populations in these areas are a bit shaky, but everyone agrees that today’s numbers are the highest ever, at least since records began in 1975 when the park was established. In the past years populations have been growing at 6% per year, although this may be plateauing.

In the past, elephants could move more easily when fences didn’t exist and population densities were lower. The advent of the ‘transfrontier’ conservation ‘peace park’ area between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique was supposed to encourage ‘connectivity’, and so larger ranges for migratory and larger animals, but there have been limits to this ambition due to poaching, settlement barriers and geopolitics.

Restrictions on culling are causing major ecological damage

So why have elephant populations got so out of control? The major reason is that they are no longer managed as they once were through culling or relocation programmes that helped balance populations with resources. Although Mrs KP is not one of them, there is a clamouring global advocacy on behalf of elephants.

Organisations such as ‘Save the Elephants’ – along with all the major conservation outfits – raise very large amounts of money on the back of the argument that African elephants are endangered and must be protected and that culling  – and worse, hunting for trophies – is inhumane. If your experience of elephants is mostly derived from wildlife TV programmes watched from the comfort of your living room in London or New York, then you can see why such campaigns exist. But this is far from the experience of those living on the edge of Gonarezhou national park, as we discovered.

The result of such lobbying has been a dramatic decline in the ability of ecologists in parks to manage elephants, with devastating consequences as we saw. Currently CITES – the international body that regulates trade in endangered species – only allows for the culling of 500 elephants per year in the whole of Zimbabwe. For Gonarezhou, the quota is only 25. With trophy hunting imports now banned from the UK and elsewhere, the demand for hunting (made worse by the pandemic) has taken a hit too.

In the past, southern Africa was a major hotspot for hunting. However distasteful the practice, the ecological and economic benefits were significant when attention was paid to the distribution of benefits. Hunting revenues – especially from the trophy fee – were large and were (in theory at least) shared with local communities. With quotas carefully designed, the offtake was sustainable and geared to management of the wider ecosystem for conservation and biodiversity benefits.

Poorly conceived bans on trophy imports and hunting therefore are having major negative consequences on conservation in Zimbabwe. The result in Gonarezhou is widespread deforestation and loss of biodiversity. This in turn has dire consequences for poor people’s livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger in highly marginal places, as elephants continue to ravage their limited subsistence crops.

This is not what CITES planned for, nor I am sure what those who spend their hard-earned cash on conservation organisations would want either. But somehow these perspectives – and the real, tragic situation of the likes of Mrs KP – are not heard in the air-brushed, positive spin of conservation lobbying.

New thinking needed

What then is the likely consequence of this strategy of protection at all costs, banning hunting and trophies and restricting culling? It is not pretty. We have seen what can happen before when elephant populations get out of control: when their food runs out, populations crash, with major consequences for the wider ecology. This is what happened in Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the early 1970s when around 5,000 elephants died of starvation over several years. It took decades for the ecosystem to recover. Without management, this may well happen in Zimbabwe too.

The mass starvation of large, intelligent animals is not a pleasant sight, and not a good look for the outcome of ill-thought out global conservation strategies. This is why new thinking about protected areas – and the role of elephants within and beyond them – is urgently needed, a theme picked up in the next blog in this short series.

The answer to the mopane tree quiz (from left to right): A: Communal area near Chikombedzi, with distinct browse line; B: Gonarezhou National Park near Chipinda Pools; C: Edenvale A1 resettlement area. And apologies to regular readers of this blog for the gap in posts. There are quite a few lined up for the next weeks, based on recent fieldwork in Zimbabwe, including two more in this series on dilemmas for conservation policy.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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Frontier politics in Zimbabwe: the Chilonga case

Chilonga, a small settlement in a dry communal area in Chiredzi district, has been all over the news in Zimbabwe over the past few weeks. A huge controversy over a major new land investment has blown up, with rights groups up in arms. There have been high-profile visits from politicians of all stripes, a large presence of security agents, court cases, activist protests and much commentary on the legal twists and turns of the case.

So what is all the commotion about? In late February, the government issued a Statutory Instrument – the now preferred route of governing it seems – announcing that an area 12,000 hectares of land in Chilonga area (including Chilonga, Makosiya, Dzindzela, Chibyedziva and Gwaseche) was to be allocated to a major investment project, focused on the livestock fodder grass, Lucerne (or Alfalfa). The company involved is Dendairy from Kwekwe, who have plans to develop Lucerne production for export. The company, via the Coetzee family, is alleged to have close connections to the President. This, it was claimed, was the ‘Midlands mafia’ in operation, exerting influence in other parts of the country and in this case in an area occupied by Shangaan people, a recognised minority.

Many Chilonga people objected. This was not the first time they had been moved. Originally settled to the north in the area that become Hippo Valley they were moved in the 1960s. Others had been shifted in the 1970s when Gonarezhou national park was established nearby. And now the state was proposing to repeat the upheaval all over again it seemed.  A strong narrative of ethnic discrimination was being aired by locals spoken to by our team. Many swore that they would no longer vote for ZANU-PF, so outraged were they.

Meanwhile, the government claimed that this was a major investment into a poor and marginalised area, an indication that the government cared about the area and its people.  The local chief, headmen and councillors at least publicly supported the project, pointing to the fact that the government had recently rehabilitated the Chilonga irrigation scheme, and that this new project would expand opportunities, including for contract farming.

Challenges to the legal basis of the plan were made, and the SI was changed. To comply with the Communal Lands Act, the basis for acquisition had to be clarified indicating that the land transfer was for an irrigation investment. Most recently, the government has conceded that compensation is due for evictions that affect ‘improvements’ (mostly houses and other structures) under the Act, but pointed out the impacts would be limited and the land acquisition would actually result in very few people’s homes being moved, although large areas of farm land would be required for the new scheme.

This is our land

Our informants suggest that, despite the assurances, most people are against the plan. This is less to do with the project per se but objection to the imposition from ‘Shona’ outsiders. This comes on the back of a longer history of dispossession and discrimination against Shangaan people, as they see it. Having lost access to sacred sites in Gonarezhou national park and the sugar estates they do not want to lose their last areas, such as the sacred baobab tree at Dzindzela where they conduct rainmaking ceremonies, Bendezi mountain where rituals are undertaken or the sites where their ancestors are buried.

This is a struggle around identity and cultural autonomy not just land and Lucerne. As someone put it: “We are stuck in a small place that is ours, it’s a good place and we love our land. This is our land. The Shona people have plenty of land, surely they can grow their Lucerne grass there”. With good rains this year, the locals have got impressive yields from the heavy basalt soils, expecting to deliver large quantities of maize and sorghum to the grain marketing board.

Some locals don’t believe that this is a project about grass growing at all, but involves an attempt to develop mineral deposits in the area. In the last few years there have been several mineral rushes, as people have come to the area to undertake alluvial mining of gold or the harvesting of precious stones. Locals say that the big bosses have noticed this and now they want to claim the riches.

As ever in Zimbabwe there are rumours that the Chinese are involved and that they have found a particular drug and medicine in this grass that they use in China, so all the profits will be exported and the locals will be exploited just as labour. Rumours swirling around the villages of course feed into local uncertainties and concerns, adding to the objections.

Not everyone objects of course. Some farmers in the area are apparently quite happy about the project, and see commercial opportunities through contract farming. Some observe that the Chilonga irrigation scheme has been rehabilitated in line with government promises. This is a big deal in a poor, dry area, even though scheme has had a chequered history with periods when it was left in disrepair due to state neglect. The promotors of the scheme however are in the minority and, according to local informants, most do not trust the government and outsiders.

The heavy-handed legalistic approach by the state, without concern for local sensitivities, has resulted in wide resentment. Politicians of course respond that they are for all of Zimbabwe, and the local people in this area are Zimbabweans first, not Shangaans. But this doesn’t completely wash. Ethnic histories have deep roots in Zimbabwe, and people do not offer a generous comparison between colonial and contemporary impositions: they are seen as the same, exploitative intrusions from outsiders.

Living on the capitalist frontier

The concerns raised by the Chilonga people are not just about the Lucerne project. The Lowveld is a frontier of expansion of politically-driven capitalist projects. Today, the Chilonga people are hemmed in from all sides and this is only the latest threat to livelihoods.

To the north are the sugar estates run by the Tongaat Hullett company, with areas expanding as deals are struck on new land. To south and east is the Gonarezhou national park, now run through the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, a partnership with national parks and supported by Frankfurt Zoological Society and other investors, which is re-establishing a fortress-style conservation approach, with big investments in electric fencing. To the east are the conservancies around Chiredzi and notably the private conservancy, Malilangwe, which also has invested in greater security after land invasions in the early 2000s. To the west is the sprawling Development Trust of Zimbabwe (DTZ) land, stretching as far as the Beitbridge road, now state land once linked to Joshua Nkomo’s estate and with areas leased to the notorious local investor, Billy Rautenbach. Just next to these lands too are the displaced people from Chivi who were moved to this area following the established of the Tokwe Mukosi dam. Like the Chilonga people they must compete with much more powerful forces in this frontier.

The Chilonga Lucerne project therefore must be seen in light of this wider story of frontier expansion and selective capital accumulation going alongside dispossession and enclosure. Frontiers are the last opportunities for the extension of capitalism and are usually occupied by those who are marginalised, politically, economically and ethnically. Frontier politics therefore refashion property, institutions and social orders in ways that new arrangements are defined, with powerful forces and capital always having the upper hand. This is what is happening all over the Lowveld, including in Chilonga.

Communal land rights

The Chilonga story has also raised the long-standing question about the status of ‘communal land’. These areas, once designated ‘reserves’ or ‘tribal trust lands’, are state-owned land where residents have usufruct rights. These are governed under the Communal Lands Act, which offers some protection against expropriation by state or private projects; although as Lovemore Madhuku explained in a fascinating SAPES dialogue recently, the 2013 Constitution supersedes these provisions requiring the state to provide further protections, as well as compensation.

As communal land, long-term residence and community institutions do offer a level of tenure security and sui generis rights, with day-to-day land governance left to traditional leaders who have wide-ranging powers. These of course have been widely criticised as being gender discriminatory and often arbitrary but, contrary to the claims of some, communal area dwellers do have rights to their land and the state cannot arbitrary remove them without consultation or court challenge.  

The solution for some is to offer individualised or village-based tenure in the communal areas, arguing that this would offer improved security over land. For sure, the Communal Lands Act is a remnant of the colonial era and, as argued by Mandi Rukuni and others over many years, the updating of legislation around communal areas is clearly required, especially to offer land rights to women.

Whether securing private land rights in communal areas would offer tenure security is however far from certain. Compulsory acquisition, just as with the land reform, is always going to be possible, and if minerals are found, the Mining Act supersedes everything – another colonial inheritance. What has been missing in this case, as Prof Madhuku argued, has been the following of due process, ignoring the Constitution and avoiding administrative justice. It is not new legal arrangements that are needed, but greater political accountability and commitment to existing laws and Constitutional provisions.

Visions of development

Today there still are many competing and powerful players with interests in the Lowveld, many with strong political connections. What voice do local Shangaan farmers and herders, the original inhabitants, have in this context? Political representation is weak and channels for dialogue are limited, while participation and consultation too often is performed through consultants in the pay of investors. Development plans are concocted in far-off places and investments come from outside the area led by those with limited idea about the local history and politics, and the passions with which these are expressed.

The Chilonga case has highlighted the importance of having a wider debate about visions for development in the Lowveld; and this must involve local people leading the dialogue. This applies as much to the Lucerne project as it does to the expansion of conservation areas linked to the park, hunting areas and conservancies, new projects in the DTZ area, accommodation of those displaced by dam development and new land allocations in the huge sugar estates.

The Lowveld has always been the site of struggles over competing visions, centred on divergent framings of ‘wilderness’ and ‘modernity’. Dating back to the allocation of extensive hunting lands in the early colonial era and the establishment of the emerald green sugar estates by the earliest settlers in Triangle, these debates have been central, and conflicts with local Shangaan people have recurred. As Will Wolmer described in his important 2007 book, From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions, such contrasting perspectives on landscape are also struggles over land and politics.

Zimbabwe has signed up to the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on land and tenure, as well as the African Union’s land policy. These are all frameworks that are meant to govern the acquisition of land for investment. They were developed in the wake of the massive explosion of land grabbing that occurred across Africa after the fuel, financial and food crises of 2008, and are aimed at governing investments in ways that assure due process (including formal consultations, and free prior informed consent). They in turn provide guidelines for states and investors for effective processes of compensation, reallocation of land and community support. Such frameworks are not anti-investment, but recognise that effective investment must occur under conditions that are acceptable locally, otherwise they will come unstuck, as so many did after Africa’s initial land rush.

In its eagerness to rush ahead with the Chilonga project and to provide opportunities for capitalist expansion on the frontier, Zimbabwe’s government has overlooked its national constitutional commitments and wider international obligations, as different powerful actors and multiple ministries were involved in a process of issuing executive orders without appropriate parliamentary and other scrutiny.

For now, given the controversy, there seems to be a pause. This is a good time to relook at these wider agreements, and learn from this episode. This might be a moment too to explore more broadly the diverse visions of the Lowveld, including how new investments in commercial agriculture and the expanding conservation estate sit alongside more traditional uses and local priorities.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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The return of fortress conservation: why excluding people means biodiversity conservation will fail

The recent UN biodiversity summit reported disappointing results. Not one of the 20 indicators set a decade before were met. In many quarters, there is a growing cry for more assertive measures to protect and extend biodiverse rich areas; a return to ‘fortress conservation’ where an increasingly militarised approach is recommended. This is a big mistake and will undermine local people’s commitments to conservation.

The privatisation and securitisation of national assets: conservation grabbing

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe, a pioneer in community-based conservation through the CAMPFIRE programme, is returning to a fortress conservation approach, enlisting foreign, private-sector partners to re-fence parks and keep people out, if necessary through lethal force. A number of deals have been struck, including with African Parks, supported by (ex-)British royalty, in Matusadona National Park and with Frankfurt Zoo in Gonarezhou National Park in the south (since 2017 under the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust).  There are plans afoot for other joint ventures in park areas in Zimbabwe, with external support providing a much-needed boost to the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s (Zimparks) depleted coffers.

In parallel to this expansion of parks areas, international donors have sponsored the training of game rangers, via the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, including of the now-famous group of heavily armed female game guards, trained by a (white, Australian) special forces soldier who had served in Iraq. As women conserving nature and battling crime, the group, dubbed ‘the brave ones’, have been widely celebrated (and ruthlessly stereotyped) in the media (also see this BBC video to get a flavour and more here).

The effective privatisation (under 20 year leases) of the conservation estate and the taking over of huge areas of the country by foreign organisations (Gonarezhou alone covers 5,053 km², while Matusadona covers 1,407 km2) has not had the sort of scrutiny that higher profile ‘land grabs’ have had. In fact, outside the particular areas, most people don’t even know this is happening. In many respects the deals make sense. The state is broke, there is a need to protect such national assets, and a partnership with outsiders allows for the rehabilitation of infrastructure, paying of staff and continuing the conservation work on behalf of the government (which still holds a majority stake).

However, what happens with such partnerships is that it’s not only the money that is on the table, but a very different way of thinking about conservation. Despite the rhetoric (and conservation organisations are good at this) about community consultation and involvement the experience of these efforts has largely been one of rewinding to an older era of colonial-style exclusionary conservation.

This is a wider trend, as documented by the excellent BIOSEC research programme  (video here) and shared most recently at a great POLLEN conference plenary session. Militarised conservation efforts to tackle ‘wildlife crime’ deploy technologies – from drones to military hardware to surveillance systems – which are used to assert an increasingly security-led style of conservation, casting locals as poachers and game wardens (now armed to the teeth) as saviours. This of course plays into a wider Western racialised narrative about conservation being about protecting wildlife and excluding and removing local (usually black) people.

The lessons of the community-based conservation era from the 1980s, where Zimbabwe was probably the world leader in both ideas and practice – are fast being lost. Yes of course CAMPFIRE and similar programmes had their problems. Questions were raised about who got the benefits, what a ‘community’ really was and whether this relied too much on conservation through iconic species that had a hunting value. But the basic principles that conservation gets nowhere unless local people are on board are as valid as ever.

Fortress conservation in Gonarezhou

A recent extended phone conversation with a colleague living near Gonarezhou park highlighted that the new Frankfurt Zoo led initiative is certainly more fortress than community conservation, with the effort focusing especially on species conservation (elephants and wild dogs are heavily profiled, as is the reintroduction of black rhinos). For sure, there are a variety of community support initiatives in the surrounding areas and there are ‘community liaison’ and extension officers employed. Around 300 game rangers have been employed by the park, many from the local area, and others are employed in building projects in new tourist facilities. This provides local benefits, but also provokes tensions. There have been some education programmes (the Chilojo Club), although framed in ways distant to local vernacular understandings. And there were extended, largely performative, consultations in the local area explaining the project, with multiple consultants employed.

But the complaints are multiple. The new electric fencing – which is expected to surround the park and stretch as far as Save Valley Conservancy – has prevented cattle grazing in the park, especially in drought periods. Animals are impounded and fines to reclaim them are high, and in many cases they are never returned. While there are periods when groups of villagers can come and cut grass, this is expensive if transport is hired but insufficient for fodder supplies, although good for thatching. People are having to reduce their cattle numbers due to lack of grazing, which is causing serious hardships. The fences were supposed to keep elephants out, but they continue to cause crop damage, even death in the area, as their numbers continue to expand and the electric fence is either destroyed or becomes non-functional when the solar panels are not working. The lack of compensation payments for elephant damage is a long-running complaint. The argument is that CAMPFIRE should pay, but this produces very little revenue and much of it is not distributed to the wider community. And the long-promised community projects have failed to materialise beyond a few school projects and savings clubs, adding to disgruntlement and rumours that others have pocketed the cash.

The strict, armed policing of the park boundaries causes friction with the local communities as boundaries used to be flexible and more negotiated (indeed some, such as by the Chitsa people in Sangwe, highly disputed). In the past, rangers would turn a blind-eye to those who came and hunted small animals as a source of livelihood, using only dogs, spears and snares. Many have returned from South Africa having lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and are having to survive off substance hunting. Locals complain that they are treated just the same as the organised hunting syndicates who run from Mozambique and are involved in heavily-armed poaching, using AK47s and cyanide poisoning. This they argue is completely different, and deserves policing, but it is local people who seem to be arrested and jailed most. The conflicts between the park and the local communities are increasing, as park rangers clamp down and the challenges of the COVID-19 period increase. This is creating tensions and threats of violence in the community, as local people employed as rangers arrest locals. Despite the ‘out-reach’ activities and commitments to ‘community’ development, trust it seems is at a low ebb; as my colleague put it “there is a war between the park and the locals”.   

As with all fortress conservation approaches, the conservation area is separated from people. Low intensity hunting and grazing uses are banned and resentments rise. Militarised security operations signal that this is not your land, and the only people who now use the park and its surrounding hunting areas are extremely rich outsiders, who are mostly white; many of whom are investing seriously in tourist facilities with external capital in Gonarezhou. The park thus becomes a place of privilege not a national asset, and biodiversity conservation becomes dissociated from people’s practices – and something to resent not participate in.

From protecting areas to supporting people

The obsessive targets of the conservation lobbies to expand conservation areas – from a current global 15% of land area to 30%, and for some even 50% – miss the point. Expanding these areas through massive conservation led ‘land grabs’ in places where people are poor and landscapes are made us of – and the biodiversity within them – will fail. They have before, which is why a rethinking of colonial conservation models took place 30 years or more ago.

Instead, the targets should not focus on areas or in most cases even species, but on people. How about a 100% target for incorporating local people into biodiversity management practices by 2030 instead? Many of the villagers surrounding Gonarezhou already do this to far a greater extent than most of those who arrive on planes or live in towns who visit the now highly protected island of biodiversity.

As in the important debates about ‘convivial conservation’, perhaps local people and vernacular conceptions of conversation should have a greater say and more substantial involvement in the futures of such shared assets. Without this, the biodiversity and conservation targets for the next decade will certainly be missed too.  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo credits: J, Chikombedzi and IAPF


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Lowveld politics

The controversy surrounding the ‘indigenisation’ of shareholdings in the Save Valley Conservancy involving ZANU-PF big wigs has been revived again in the past two weeks. Although much of this is old news, several new developments have taken place, including the granting of hunting licenses to the new joint venture ‘owners’ and mounting pressure on aid donors to reimpose sanctions ahead of the hosting of the major UN international tourism conference in Zimbabwe next year. Also, local chiefs, including Chief Tsovani and Sengwe, have weighed in, complaining directly to the President that local people have not got a good deal from the conservancy arrangements as well as the resettlements on the sugar estates. Meanwhile, in nearby Chisumbanje, Billy Rautenbach’s ethanol project looks in trouble, as the government refuses to require ethnanol mixes in fuel, and local opposition around the reclaiming of ARDA land and the eviction of farmers mounts.

Lowveld politics remains hot, and the complex political wrangles that characterise Masvingo in particular are never far below the surface. Behind the headlines there is a more complex story. As Takura Zhangazha explains in a recent blog for African Arguments, the intra-party conflicts within ZANU-PF are an important context, as the public spat between former Gutu South MP Shuvai Mahofa and tourism minister Walter Muzembi clearly shows.

As is often the case, there is more going on below the surface, and a more in-depth analysis of political dynamics is needed. Such an analysis of lowveld land struggles is provided in a paper just out in African Affairs. The new paper called: “The new politics of Zimbabwe’s lowveld: struggles over land at the margins” was written and researched by Ian Scoones, Joseph Chaumba, Blasio Mavedzenge and William Wolmer. It explores the contrasting story of land struggles in the lowveld outside the ‘fast-track’ areas of Masvingo province, and draws conclusions on the implications for understanding the relationships between the state and citizens on the margins of state power: all issues highly pertinent to the recent rush of press commentary on the area.

Based on over a decade of research in the area, the paper focuses on three high profile case studies – Nuanetsi ranch, the Save Valley and Chiredzi River conservancies and Gonarezhou national park. For each case, the article examines who gained and who lost out over time, from entrepreneurial investors to well-connected politicians and military figures, to white ranchers and large numbers of farmers who have occupied land since 2000.

In Nuanetsi ranch, controlled by the Development Trust of Zimbabwe, an ambitious plan to create a massive irrigated sugar plantation and ethanol plant was proposed by the notorious Billy Rautenbach, a staunch supporter of ZANU PF. Yet, land invaders had occupied huge areas of land, and removing them was difficult. The paper documents the twists and turns of the story, as Rautenbach’s investment plans shifted, and finally the informal settlers were granted the right to stay. Land invaders also moved onto the world-renown lowveld conservancies, but the major challenge to this white, elite enclave came from a high profile grab by politically well connected politicians, military figures and traditional leaders, who were granted leases and most recently hunting licenses. This elite grab was contested by the conservancy owners who rejected the claims that this was ‘wildlife based land reform’, but also local people who wanted to settle the land for farming and cattle rearing. Finally, in Gonarezhou national park, a group led by Headman Chitsa invaded an area that they claimed was a veterinary corridor. They were told to move, but stubbornly stayed put, arguing that this was their land, and it was linked to an ancestral claim. A stalemate persisted for more than a decade, and the villagers were seen to be a block to the realisation of the high profile Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which promised infrastructural investment and tourist income. In the end, again, the villagers’ persistence won out, and they were granted permission to remain on what the parks authority finally agreed was indeed a corridor not the formal park.

In all cases, the paper identifies a dynamic of elite accumulation and control over resources, led by quite different groups, that has been resisted by shifting alliances of land invaders, war veterans and local political and traditional leaders. By documenting this struggle over time, we demonstrate that in these marginal areas, outside the formal ‘fast-track’ land reform programme where more formal administrative-bureaucratic procedures came to operate – local communities retain the capacity to resist state power and imagine alternative social, economic and political trajectories – even if these are opposed by powerful actors at the centre, from the president downwards.

While much discussion of recent Zimbabwean politics has appropriately highlighted the centralised, sometimes violent, nature of state power, this is exerted in different ways in different places. A combination of local divisions within political parties, bureaucratic discretion within implementing agencies and local contests over land create a very particular, local politics in the lowveld, at the geographic margins of the nation. As the paper shows, this offers opportunities for a variety of expressions of local agency and resistance which temper the impositions of centralised state power, and suggesting diverse, as yet uncertain, future trajectories of land control.


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