Dendairy, Shangani villagers tiff requires holistic approach

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THIS past week witnessed a new twist to the ongoing land dispute in Chiredzi district where at least 1 000 families are reportedly facing displacement to pave way for a lucerne farming project by Dendairy Enterprises. Chiredzi Rural District Council chairperson Edward Matsilele was reportedly chased away by enraged villagers when he visited the area to discuss the issue.

Authorities view the project as a national initiative that will help the country to generate foreign currency and contribute to the development of the national herd and dairy industry through provision of forage and feed.

However, the local community has been voicing objections to the project, which they argue will displace them from their ancestral land and disrupt their livelihoods which are mainly centred on rain-fed farming. For some villagers, this will be the second displacement as they only settled in this area in 2014, after being displaced for the Tokwe-Mukosi Dam construction.

This has bred outrage, resentment and disillusionment within these communities who feel that they are up against an inconsiderate coalition of political, business and central government elites selfishly pursuing profits without regard to the cultural and socio-economic rights and welfare of already marginalised locals. Based on the interactions I have had with these communities, firstly as a native and also through the Community Alliance for Human Settlements in Zimbabwe, their dislike of the project is based mainly on three reasons.

Firstly, the communities feel that the project lacks inclusivity and transparency as it uses a top-down approach whereby political heavyweights and government authorities backing the investor are imposing their will on the communities without consulting them. The community members are unaware of the proceedings with only a handful of leaders, such as councillors, hearing about it in the meetings such as the one attended by Local Government minister July Moyo and chaired by Masvingo Provincial Affairs minister Ezra Chadzamira on April 30, 2020.

With the project shrouded in secrecy, the local communities are afraid of being shortchanged as happened to their counterparts in the Tokwe-Mukosi and Chisumbanje projects, both of which are within 200km proximities.

Secondly, the villagers fear loss of their cultural identity. The communities are predominantly members of the minority Shangani tribe, with a unique and rich culture premised on a strong connection to their ancestral land.

They dread that displacements or relocation will alienate them from their ancestors and erode their culture. In the words of one community leader, the project “threatens our very existence as a people”.

Thirdly, contrary to the authorities’ view that the project will bring development, the communities are afraid that it will destroy their livelihoods, render them landless and homeless and plunge them deeper into poverty.

They have not been informed about where they will be relocated to and they also see as unfair and manipulative, the investor’s offer to compensate only for structures that would have been destroyed and to give each affected villager two hectares of land to farm lucerne grass and sell it to the same investor. They fear a repeat of the Tokwe-Mukosi scenario where some of the villagers displaced for a dam construction six years ago have not received any compensation up to today.

The communities are vowing “to do everything legally in our power to oppose this project in order to protect our ancestral lands, our posterity and our communities from further deprivation and impoverishment”.

However, as is the case with the Chisumbanje and Chiadzwa villagers who tried to resist displacements by the ethanol production and diamond mining projects within the past decade, this defiant stance sets Chiredzi villagers on a collision course with the authorities who are determined to see this project proceed. This creates a complex situation with political, economic, human rights, peace and livelihood dynamics and ramifications concurrently playing out at both local and national levels.

This delicate situation requires cautious navigation and proactive interventions to balance economic development with the protection of cultural, socio-economic and human rights of this already marginalised minority community.

The following three measures can help to sustainably address and solve this delicate situation.

First, there is need to build agency among the affected communities and enhance their capacities to utilise existing mechanisms to protect their cultural and socio-economic rights as citizens and as a minority group. These mechanisms include the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, constitutionally-mandated to protect citizens’ rights, and other international conventions such as the United Nations Guide for Minorities, which mandate governments to protect minority citizens’ human and cultural rights.

Second, there is need to create multi-stakeholder dialogue between the affected communities, the investor and government. This dialogue should be based on mutual respect and understanding and seek win-win outcomes based on compromise, consensus, engagement and inclusivity. Broad-based participation of the marginalised communities will bring transparency, accountability, clarity and improved understanding of the context, dynamics and social and economic impacts of this project, all of which are critical in coming up with durable solutions to this conflict.

Third, there is need for research to identify, explore and understand best practices and models that have succeeded elsewhere in cushioning communities affected by development-induced displacements such as the ones looming in Chiredzi. This exercise should involve review of current national policies and/or formulation of new ones based on internationally encouraged principles of free prior informed consent, fair and adequate compensation, inclusive socio-economic development and relocation instead of displacement of local communities whenever development projects happen.

This will create benchmarks for amicable resolution of current and future conflicts arising from land-based investments. It will be a crucial step towards implementation of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, popularly known as the Kampala Convention, which Zimbabwe has already signed and ratified, but is yet to domesticate and implement.

Francis Mukora is a public policy analyst and social justice activist. He writes here in his capacity as the research and advocacy co-ordinator for Community Alliance for Human Settlements in Zimbabwe.

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