By Takura Zhangazha*
On the surface of it, it would appear that the political dispute over
the Save Valley Conservancy in South Eastern Zimbabwe is yet another
story of 'illegal land-grabs'. It must however be said at the onset that this is an
understandable perception given the controversy and violence that has
come to be associated with our government's land reform policies since
the year 2000. The fault for such a perception resides with the same
said government and I do not hold a brief to assist it in changing how
its policies are viewed globally or domestically. It is however
important that the issue of the Save Conservancy not be lost in the
conundrum of typical debate about land conflict and/or reform in
Zimbabwe. This is because it is more complicated than what is
currently being placed in the public domain.
Evidently, and as
has been reported in the media, there are four points of conflict over
and about this safari area. The first being that of the broad policy of
the Zimbabwean government to pursue indigenisation of the national
economy. In this, the government has insisted that all sectors of the
economy must be placed into indigenous ownership. Given the fact that parts of
the conservancy are managed by some local state and private entities in partnership with foreign nationals, it
appears that the Zimbabwe Community Areas Management Programme
for Indigenous Resources (Campfire) is not immune from indigenisation . In response, the European Union has issued a warning
that it may renew sanctions on Zimbabwe over this matter. This of course
is in keeping with the contemporary narrative of our
government's international relations and domestic policies.
second point of conflict over the Save Conservancy has been between
the political parties in the inclusive government. The two MDCs in government
have denounced not only the broader methodology of economic empowerment but also
specifically the takeover of the conservancy through the same policy and
by persons perceived to be functionaries of Zanu Pf.
This also leads us
to the third and rather surprising node of conflict surrounding this
matter. This being that of the Zanu Pf intra-party divisions over the
allocation of parts of the conservancy that have reportedly required the
intervention of Vice President Mujuru. The fourth and perhaps most
important point of dispute over the Save Valley Conservancy has now been
reported as coming from traditional chiefs who are arguing that any
redistribution of the land there must not be only for the bigwigs but
must benefit the community.
This claim by the chiefs should however be accepted with caution as it is not clear whom and whose interests they are representing. Fundamentally however, all of the four nodes of disagreement
have some sort of tentative acknowledgement that whatever happens, the
conservancy must benefit the 'community' and this is a point that must
be debated honestly.
The general narrative about conservancies
has been about preserving wildlife both for environmental reasons or
alternatively touristic and game hunting profitable endeavors. As akin
to our forestry protection policies,which are largely a carry over of
colonial policy, conservancies are protected particularly from what
have been perceived to be the 'marauding' locals who are deemed to have
a limited understanding of either the environment or the wildlife that
they live in close proximity with. (Hence some of the statements from
the incumbents at the Save Conservancy that some of those that wish to
take over do not understand a thing about running safaris).
still, even those that have been in partnerships or those that intend to politically take over the conservancy have not shifted in their
approach to the same 'local community'. As it was in the beginning of
the laying of the boundaries between villages and the wildlife/forestry areas
before independence, so it has remained. This even in the aftermath of
the once much celebrated Campfire which has demonstrated the patent
ineptitude of many a rural district council since its inception in 1989. In
effect, all players in this new environmental/safari tourism cum political contest have
essentially become part players in what is referred to in some academic
circles as the lie of the land ( an unquestioning acceptance of
statistical data from environmental and other NGOs that Africa's rural poor
damage their own environment). This has been the underlying reason why local communities are barely in with a chance of benefiting from such projects. This is especially so when one looks at the example of displacements of people from Matopos to the Gwaai Shangani forests and their subsequent placement under another Campfire project in their new locations after independence (ostensibly to protect the elephants and other wildlife).
In extending its indigenisation
programme to conservancies, the government has not demonstrated a
thorough re-examination of its Campfire programmes thus far and
is not necessarily seeking to depart from 'colonial' policy
understanding of the interaction between environmental/natural resources and the country's
citizens. The Save Conservancy debacle is the latest proof of this. To
seek to merely want to replace existing owners of the wildlife sanctuary
and assume that is 'progress' is thoroughly inadequate. Simultaneously
to talk of community share ownership trusts without a thorough
re-examination of Campfire's successes and failures is to give false
hope (if any) to communities in the vicinity of the area.
The primary challenge is now not only about managing the narrative of investor confidence ahead of the Untied Nations World Tourism Organisation conference. Instead, it is of the urgent need for the country and government to depart from the exclusionary policies of the colonial past not by way of displacement or replacement but by wholesale democratic reform of the manner in which our natural resources are managed in the best public interest. This would begin with an evident understanding that what is happening in Save is a proverbial case of the grass suffering while the elephants fight in order for things to remain the same.
^ Phrase 'Lie of the land' title taken from the title of the book by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, eds. The Lie of the Land: Challenging
Received Wisdom on the African Environment Oxford: James Currey and
Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1996.
* Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity. (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)