Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Save Valley Conservancy, Indigenisation and 'The Lie of the Land'^

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.

The 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).

Further 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. (