Feature: Conservation conflicts: Land use in Zim’s lowveld

Wildlife and people often compete for food such as as fruits

By Ian Scoones

The conservation of biodiversity in places where people also live and farm is not straight forward.

And these dilemmas are quite evident in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe.

The politics of land in this region is much contested and has been for much of the last century. National parks, conservancies, hunting concessions, sugar estates, large-scale farms and small-scale farming and herding all compete for space. Beyond the irrigated estates and farms, it is a dry and hostile place, where carving out a living is difficult.

Wildlife and people often compete for food such as as fruits

This is made more challenging for those living close to areas where wildlife also live, especially as the exploding population of elephants spills over destroying crops in their wake.

All these land uses will be part of the future of the south-east Lowveld near the Gonarezhou park, but can conflicts be avoided or not allowed to escalate and livelihoods not destroyed?. Based on recent discussions in the area, which aimed to offer all sides of the story, including those who are often not heard in conservation debates — poorer farmers and herders have been found living on the margins of the wildlife estate.

Seeking compromises and searching for solutions that involve all parties is essential, whether over controversies about park boundaries and fences or about investments in large-scale farming, as in the Chilonga case. Ignoring local views only creates more conflict and resentment.

This was the lesson learned when the Campfire concept was developed — the importance of sharing benefits so as to have a joint commitment to the future both of wildlife and of livelihoods. This illustrious Zimbabwean experiment has however, run into problems, but learning lessons from these is the route to a more effective approach to conservation, rather than reverting to the “fortress conservation” models of the past.