The continued economics of biodiversity

Communities are suffering from having insufficient food and water. Companies have inadequate factors of production including energy.

On Wednesday, 3 April 2024, His Excellency President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a State of National Disaster due to what many describe as the "El Nino induced" drought, expected to leave 6 million people with inadequate food. It has been defined by the European Union as "an extreme environmental and humanitarian crisis" for Southern Africa.

As such Zambia and Malawi declared states of emergency well ahead of Zimbabwe. But while all state services, the international donor community, and aid organisations are on high alert to avoid the humanitarian calamity, what becomes of the natural economy as a result of the loss of biodiversity? Biodiversity is the diversity of life, a characteristic of ecosystems. Ecological economics essentially treats the economy as a subset of the ecology.

The balance of ecosystems underpins all economic activities and human well-being. Biodiversity is critical for life ecosystem services including the provision of food and clean water. Due to climate change significant flora and fauna have already been on account of severe weather patterns resulting in devastating losses in both commercial and natural terms. Tourism has suffered directly impacting jobs, livelihoods, and the general economy.

Communities are suffering from having insufficient food and water. Companies have inadequate factors of production including energy.

In 2019 in Hwange National Park, 200 elephants died due to the drought. By December 2023, 100 elephants were already reported dead in the same park due to the late arrival of the rains. All major rivers in the region have or are running dry leaving a trail of unimaginable devastation from Save to the Zambezi and beyond.

With the captured global attention on the impact of climate change and the need for us the inhabitants of the earth to live better, and be more ecologically aware, surely the stage is set for critical reflections on the state of our ecological affairs as a country.

To many, these are just animals, and indeed nature must take its course, but when one understands that wild animals prevent carbon stored in nature from being released into the atmosphere by storing the carbon within their bodies, then the consequences of significant animal deaths become very clear, at least in climate terms. The sustainability of nature at its best is a delicate balance of forces.

The unprecedented and widespread decline of biodiversity through population growth, climate change, poaching, pollution, etc. is generating significant but largely overlooked risks to the economy, the financial sector, and the well-being of current and future generations.

The 2024 World Wildlife Crime Report indicates that Zimbabwe is among 162 countries where wildlife seizures occur, with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 incidents of wildlife crimes reported between 2015 and 2021. The report also outlines the interconnectedness of wildlife crimes and global organized crime syndicates, sounding a greater alarm of tolerating such activities.

When Cambridge Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta first gave voice to the Economics of Biodiversity in 2021, the world was still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zimbabweans more especially were grappling with the effects of rapidly increasing poverty due in part to COVID lockdown measures exacerbated by a protracted economic decline since the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of the 1990s and the economic meltdown of the 2000s.

The two events significantly impacted jobs, livelihoods, health, education and reduced the quality of life for the majority of citizens.

According to the World Bank, only 33% of workers received a salary in 2022, well below regional and global standards. This was because Zimbabwe's critical sectors - agriculture, mining, and tourism had the highest concentration of informal workers. This made it difficult to sustain productivity, limited the tax base, and constrained the government's ability to mobilize domestic resources. The 2024 IMF projections ahead of the introduction of the fifth iteration of a local currency (ZWD, ZWN, ZWR, ZWL, and now ZIG) since 1980, indicated a decline in growth of 3.2% based on the impact of the drought on agriculture production.

The African Development Bank further revised that growth downward to 2% given the same considerations.

In many ways, Zimbabwe’s economy reflects the state of the decline of our natural capital over the years. Defined as one of the most drought-prone countries in the world, statistics indicate that Zimbabwe experienced seven notable droughts and 12 floods between 1900 and 2017. In addition to the 15 March 2019, Cyclone Idai claimed 154 lives and impacted more than 250,000 people, followed by Tropical Storm Charlene and Cyclone Eloise in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Then came the April 2024 State of National Disaster, heralding additional losses to biodiversity, chief among them being deforestation.

As with the dead elephants in Hwange, when deforestation occurs, the carbon stored in trees is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change. Records show that between 1990 and 2000, Zimbabwe lost an average of 312,900 hectares of forest per year. This amounts to an average annual deforestation rate of 1.41%.

Stated in terms of flora and fauna the concept of natural economy appears to excuse actions such as the pervasive drilling of boreholes especially in urban areas in recent years by people in search of alternative sources of water, both reducing the levels of and polluting underground water, contributing to the imbalance of nature. Not forgetting above-ground pollution in the form of plastic waste and other substances such as diapers etc. As a result, Zimbabwe has experienced a rise in epidemics.

According to the European Union typhoid, cholera and measles left an estimated 2.6 million people, including 1.7 million children, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in 2024. The conversion of wetlands into residential and commercial real estate is also impacting negatively the environment rendering obsolete natural forms of filtration and purification to reverse pollution utilizing natural swamps, and effectively destroying the biodiversity of birds, insects reeds, etc. whose natural habitat is within these wetlands.

Nature is an asset and without it, the very foundation of our economic ecosystem crumbles thus reducing our already fragile economies to ruins. The glaring failure is that we were taught that the principles of supply and demand focus merely on the production and accumulation of capital (roads, buildings, ports, machines) and human capital (health and education) where a greater consciousness of nature as the foundation of production needs to be established.


A failure to prioritise processes governing ecosystems effectively, will result in continued economic decline and the total destruction of our natural economy through the depletion of our biodiversity — resulting in the absence of balance. Ultimately the role of Governance extends to all sectors of the society not just the politicians or NGOs but also the private sector and communities who must exercise principled stewardship over our natural ecosystems and the resources within.

Current tensions from the protracted deliberations between government and communities over issues of compensation for human-wildlife conflict-related losses of human life, livestock, crops, and other assets build on historic neglect of the perspectives of indigenous communities in the management of resources. This is reflected in national laws undermining any inherent sense of community stewardship.

These issues are, however, starting to be addressed in line with the government's devolution policy, and the Parks and Wildlife Management Bill gazetted earlier this year is paving the way. However, more work is needed to harmonize the broader legal framework. For example, in the eyes of the law, the same penalty is levied for snaring an animal for sustenance where a man needs to feed his family, and for killing wild animals for commercial gain, such as poaching.

What then is the community incentive to protect their biodiversity and act as the first line of defense against poaching? The decimation of Zimbabwe’s rhinoceros in the past decade is a testament to this legal conundrum, especially for a country with the fourth-largest rhino population in the world. Only recently have traditional leaders been brought into the fold to manage ecosystems and protect the interests of local communities who live on wildlife boundaries. Historically these interests were ignored.

The forced removal of indigenous people to make way for the Kariba Dam majorly disrupting the flow of the mighty Zambezi river and the surrounding landscape, or the encasement of the Gonarezhou National Park in the middle of the Save in the late 1970s now serve only as stories to enhance the tourist experience. Yet, that trauma lives on in communities and in nature, impacting both the economy and the lives of those touched personally by these travesties.

However, the reality is that the cost of environmental management and conservation is not cheap. A cost greatly increased for Zimbabwe by the effects of poaching in neighboring Mozambique, pushing elephants and other animals into Zimbabwean territory exceeding the natural carrying capacity.

The reality is that without donor funding to act as a catalyst for development and to protect the biosphere most of what remains would probably already be lost. More importantly the integration of remote communities, largely untouched by modernisation in far-flung areas like Mbire and Mahenye, would be even slower despite the development mantra of "leave No-one behind".

In Mbire, a lack of genetic diversity has resulted in people born with three-toes, and in Mahenye household sizes easily exceed 10, with families of up to 18 children. These areas have limited opportunities for youth, with little to no education available, thus impacting their future and any possible economic dividend. Ironically, much indigenous knowledge is also being lost simultaneously, denying future generations local knowledge perfected over decades maybe even centuries.

Whereas, global poverty has been based on levels of income, and life expectancy, championed over millennia by global development bodies, maybe poverty should in fact begin with nature. As Professor Dasgupta said: “Estimates of our total impact on Nature suggest that we would require 1.6 Earths to maintain the world’s current living standards.” Indeed, humanity’s demands on our natural capital are unsustainable. It is however still possible to claw back and reverse some of the damage that we have already done and restore our national and regional ecological economies.

  • Ukama is a governance and communications specialist with experience working in the development, public and private sectors across sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, she heads communications for DanChurchAid Zimbabwe, the lead partner of the Utariri integrated biodiversity, climate change and livelihoods programme across the Zambezi Valley. She started her career as a journalist and has served as editor for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) - a member of the World Bank Group, and was head of communications for the African Union Foundation.


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