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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Communities want their land back

When the Ian Smith's regime designated a 5 000-square-kilometre stretch of land in south eastern Zimbabwe in 1966 to create Gonarenzou National Park, it did more than promoting conservation.
Rodrick Mukumbira

While the move was meant to curb poaching, new boundaries instead of just protecting animals within, rendered a major blow to efforts of conservation by locking the people outside. Now the displaced communities, the Ndale, Chitsa and Chibhememe, are demanding their land back.

"I am a native of that area," says Kutsu Sithole, a Chitsa, community leader, pointing to a thicket less than a kilometre across the boundary fence. "My parents and their parents were born there and they have the right of going back. We should be allowed to go back to their land."

With the fast track resettlement programme introduced by Robert Mugabe's government some members of the three communities have illegally moved into the parks and settled on the land thy were forced to evict.

The news of the invasion of the national park has been widely criticised by local, regional and international conservation groups with most saying loss of habitat was the number one threat to wild animals than poaching.

While the government condones the invasion of white owned commercial farms, it has not been amused by the incursion into Gonarenzou. It has reacted with force to remove the settlers without success.

Francis Nhema, the environment and tourism minister, with a looming shadow of a possible exclusion in the trans-national park with South Africa and Mozambique in 2002, was forced to issue a statement in which his government condemned the incursion.

"It is important that we protect the integrity of the protected areas," Nhema said in his statement.

At independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe's government tried to reconsider parts of the policies of keeping communities out of national parks. Besides the Ndale, Chitsa and Chibhememe, the government also had to tackle communities in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe, displaced during the construction of the Kariba Dam.

In 1982, it gave limited permission to communities to benefit from sport hunting in wilderness areas outside the parks when it adopted the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE).

Under this programme, safari companies now must pay villages neighbouring the parks a share of profits generated from guiding big game hunters. The hunters are also required to donate the meat from hunts to the communities. This has assisted substantially in curbing incidents of poaching.

Revenue generated from hunting, eco-tourism and photographic safaris is also invested in conservation and the development of roads, bridges, schools and clinics.

But the communities feel this is not enough and that they receive too small a share of the benefits from neighbouring protected areas.

"What has been learnt in the past three decades is that communities outside parks must be allowed to benefit from the environmental goods and services those protected areas produce," says Clever Kacherere, CAMPFIRE Zimbabwe's programme officer. "Only then do we really see sustainable parks and viable communities with proper human services such as education, health and transportation."

Over the past few years the CAMPFIRE concept has been adopted and reproduced in such southern Africa countries as Botswana and Namibia. But conflicts between parks and local communities are not only unique to Zimbabwe.

Disputes can be found all over Africa, says Kenton Miller, vice president for conservation at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

"The continent has a history of displacement of villagers to make way for the establishment of national parks," he says.

Miller is also the chairperson of the international steering committee of the World Parks Congress to be held in South Africa in September.

Miller is concerned that most rural communities near protected areas are receiving few benefits from the revenue generated through tourism activities.

He says what an international tourist is after, these days, is to see the involvement of local communities in the area he is visiting. "Tourists want to be able to learn the culture of the areas they visit and they know that this can be fulfilled by interacting with local communities," says Miller. "And they would rather pay anything to visit places where they are assured of a guided tour by the community."

At the World Parks' congress, which is held once in 10 years, the topic of communities displaced by the creation of national parks will feature prominently.

A number of community leaders are also calling for control over money-generating activities such as running safari operations and building and operating lodges.

"As a community we also need to set up big business inside the Gonarenzou National Park," says Makosi Chibhememe, the headman of the Chibhememe community. "Already there is a private safari lodge operating in the park and we request that we be granted the same opportunity.

In most of the country's five national parks it is only private operators and parastatals like the Forestry Commission that have been granted permission to run safari camps.

"This is the way that our community can benefit beyond the park boundaries, says Headman Chitsa.

WRI's Miller concurs: "Communities need direct input into how national parks are managed. If communities don't feel they are legitimately participating in and benefiting from parks, good management of park resources become impossible.

In the whole of the southern African region it is only the Makuleke rural community in South Africa that owns a lodge in a protected area - Kruger National Park.

The community's land claim was made possible through South Africa's new restitution laws that allow people to reclaim lost land that was originally theirs.

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