WHILE some stakeholders have with cautious optimism welcomed President Robert Mugabe’s resolve to deal with the latest demonstration of greed by senior Zanu PF officials and army commanders who have grabbed wildlife conservancies, uncertainty lingers over the fate of Save Valley Conservancy.
Report by Herbert Moyo
Tourism minister Walter Mzembi must have felt a deep sense of vindication after Mugabe reportedly tore into army commanders and senior Zanu PF officials at a recent politburo meeting for grabbing lucrative safari landholdings in the Save Valley Conservancy, the largest private wildlife sanctuary in the world, for self-aggrandisement.
Mugabe ordered all army commanders and senior party officials who invaded conservancies to move out immediately, while demanding that all conservancies must now be turned into national parks.
Consequently, there would be massive evictions of army commanders, ministers, senior civil servants and top Zanu PF officials from safari areas across the country which they had expropriated and are making a killing through hunting activities and even slaughtering animals to sell meat.
Mugabe reportedly described the bigwigs as “greedy”, and his choice of words was in sync with Mzembi who was criticised by his Zanu PF colleagues for daring to say the latest land seizures were counterproductive and would dent the country’s image ahead of next year’s United Nations World Tourism Organisation Conference.
Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo confirmed the politburo had set up a committee including Environment minister Francis Nhema, Mzembi, Lands minister Herbert Murerwa and Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo to look into the feasibility of turning the conservancies into national parks, and also propose models that ensure communities also benefit.
While players in the country’s tourism industry — showing signs of recovery following Zimbabwe’s prolonged socio-economic meltdown accompanied by near-pariah status — have applauded Mugabe for putting his foot firmly down on the wildlife land grab, they are wary the decision to transform the conservancies into national parks, which like other parastatals have been performing dismally, a move they fear would be ruinous to the conservancies.
Given that infrastructure in national parks is run-down and rampant poaching is the order of the day, it is difficult to appreciate how turning conservancies, which have been well run by a combination of foreign investors and locals, into national parks would assist costly conservation efforts, continue to attract much-needed tourists and benefit local communities.
Sources in the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) board told the Zimbabwe Independent this week the department of national parks and wildlife recently admitted in a board meeting they have failed to run national parks. The Ministry of Tourism and the ZTA are now advocating a broad-based approach, which would ensure continued investment into the conservancies in partnership with local communities.
Mzembi, who has been fighting for the reversal of Nhema’s controversial “wildlife reform” policy, was thrilled by the president’s decision to withdraw the leases from “greedy” individuals, saying it demonstrated commitment by the government and Zanu PF to empower local communities, preserve wildlife and promote tourism.
“Without being briefed on the policy outcome including the terms of reference, if what is being reported that there has been a policy shift from empowering individuals to a broad-based approach is true, then this is exactly what we have been fighting for,” Mzembi told the Independent this week.
ZTA boss Karikoga Kaseke said his organisation supports broad-based initiatives and expressed eagerness to appear before the committee to make recommendations on the suitability of transforming conservancies into national parks.
However, MDC-T Masvingo provincial secretary Tongai Matutu blasted Zanu PF, pointing out it should have been cabinet, not the politburo to decide on the conservancy battle. He described the decision to convert all conservancies into national parks as “tantamount to nationalisation which is not part of government policy”.
“It will only accelerate looting, poaching and other forms of asset stripping,” he warned, “as national parks are a parastatal headed by political appointees who have no culture of transparency in their operations but sing for their supper,” he said.
For Matutu, the best way forward would be to adopt a model which facilitates the empowerment of local communities, like the share-ownership trusts, in partnership with foreign entrepreneurs. Chiredzi chiefs Tshovani and Gudo have concurred, accusing Nhema and Masvingo governor Titus Maluleke of going against the concept of broad-based empowerment by prioritising a few individuals and falsely claiming chiefs had endorsed the appropriation of conservancies.
Vice-chairman of the Save Valley Conservancy Wilfried Pabst also agreed with the chiefs.
Pabst said they had already fully complied with indigenisation because two-thirds of all properties in the conservancy have indigenous partners and they had the full support of another parastatal, Arda.
“The chairman of Arda, who has a property within Save, is also the chairman of Save and I am the vice-chair,” he said.
“The wildlife-based land reform policy Maluleke refers to and which has been waved in our face for years does not exist. However, Save Conservancy general manager David Goosen said there should be a balance of interests in handling the issue. “This is obviously something big and it has to be debated because there are a lot of factors to consider including balancing the government’s desire for indigenisation against the need to attract and retain foreign investors, as well as ensuring local communities benefit from the proceeds of conservancies in their areas, in addition to ensuring sustainable conservation of wildlife resources.”
Goosen said the country should be looking at crafting policies to turn more of Zimbabwe’s arid areas in natural farming regions four and five into conservancies, noting this would not only promote tourism and conserve wildlife, but also ensure employment for thousands of jobless locals.
So while some will breathe a sigh of relief at the eviction of “greedy” Zanu PF heavyweights whose presence in conservancies was threatening to decimate flora and fauna and cause environmental degradation, there is still uncertainty on what will happen to world-renowned Save Valley Conservancy.