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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 and is based on conversations with our team based in Masvingo, Mvurwi, Matobo, Gutu, Wondedzo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba for compiling and supplying the photos.

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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 and is based on conversations with our team based in Masvingo, Mvurwi, Matobo, Gutu, Wondedzo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba for compiling and supplying the photos.

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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