A massive $6 million planned structure next to the rainforest’s VIP entrance could cause uproar with environmentalists, already seething with anger over an open-air restaurant built at the public entrance.
The development is seen as a threat to the natural settings of the rainforest which could result in Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, losing its World Heritage status.
Documents at hand showed the grand plan by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and Shearwater, a private adventure company, which established a restaurant, merchandising and information kiosk at the entrance, is to construct a massive complex, including an auditorium and conference room, at the VIP entrance.
The parties signed a 29-year-long build, operate and transfer agreement, which commenced on September 1 2009 and will run until 2038, for the VIP entrance project.
ZPWMA will own the property at the expiry of the agreement. According to the memorandum of agreement between ZPWMA and Shearwater’s parent company, Innscor Africa Limited (IAL), the latter shall provide retail and merchandise, photographic and DVD production and sales, food and beverage and transport (eco-friendly electric soundless golf carts for the elderly and invalids), at the property.
IAL will also run a DVD auditorium and conference room. In addition, the company will show documentaries on the geology, history and the 12-month cycle of the Victoria Falls.
IAL will provide funding for the project while the authority shall “ensure that the project is acceptable by all local, national and regional stakeholders . . . ensure that the project management committee and the Unesco World Heritage Committee concur with the developments”.
Environment and Natural Resources Development minister Francis Nhema has already approved the project.
The revelations came at a time environmentalists and the business community in the premier tourism centre are campaigning to have the developments at the public entrance reversed, arguing that they were disturbing the rainforest ecosystem.
Victoria Falls was declared a national monument in 1937, a protected area in 1952 and a World Heritage site in 1989.
The VIP entrance project, which should commence soon and be completed in 2012, has courted controversy given that construction will start a few metres from the banks of the Zambezi River.
Shearwater public relations manager Clement Mukwasi confirmed the VIP entrance project but said his organisation would ensure that it was done in an environmentally friendly way.
“The VIP gate is a commitment we have entered into. We have a contract and we are going to develop the place. We don’t expect negativity on the project because we have learnt our lessons and we will consult all the stakeholders in a manner they want us to,” he said.
However, Environment Africa chief executive officer Charlene Hewat, whose organisation has embarked on an intensive campaign against the open-air restaurant project, said the rainforest was in danger because of the developments.
She said there was need for wide consultations and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be carried out before the project was approved.
Hewat said the open-air restaurant was against the Zimbabwe-Zambia joint management plan of 2007 which put “a complete moratorium on the construction and development of all tourism infrastructure, facilities or services within the World Heritage zone”.
The management plan was put in place when Unesco threatened to delist the rainforest after a Zambian investor tried to build a hotel and golf course on the shores of the Zambezi River.
Hewat said when the original project was submitted to stakeholders for approval it was presented as an upgrade of existing infrastructure.
She said a proper EIA was not done.
“However the final development was of a much larger scale, with the building of new infrastructure and by so doing, governing legislation has been breached and the stark reality is we could once again be faced with the threat of being delisted.”
Mukwasi however said the open-air restaurant project was above board and that all stakeholders, including Environment Africa and the business community, some of whom were now speaking against the project, were advised of and approved the project.
He said the opposition was part of business politics and had nothing to do with the environment.
“The uproar is caused by mainly competitors; it’s not an environmental issue. Environment Africa was consulted, they endorsed the project and it was built in their presence. From June to September when we were constructing we had no complaints.
Complaints filtered in on September 27 when we had a trial run. I think people should be ethical enough to accept competition,” he said.
Mukwasi said measures had been taken to preserve the environment including a “comprehensive” EIA, adding that all known existing legislation was followed.
“The restaurant was constructed between two existing buildings which are the toilets and information areas. It’s not in the rainforest. It’s a refurbishment of the entry to the rainforest. The material used (pole and thatch) blends with the environment. The colours blend well, the seating capacity is reasonably small,” he said.
“The buildings are within tree height, and in fact, they have beautified the entrance to the rainforest. There also has to be a distinction between a core zone and a buffer zone; we built in a buffer zone and it’s allowed.”
Despite the controversy surrounding the project the restaurant is popular with tourists.
The visitors’ book only has one negative comment in which one tourist felt that the food was too expensive.