Learning from one’s neighbour: how Zimbabwean communities are being empowered to be better custodians of nature

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Participants reflecting on their observations at the Bamunu Conservancy.

Organised for Zimbabwean nature conservation and local government actors, a NIRAS-supported field trip to Namibia showcased the experience and success of community conservancies in the Zambezi region.

September 15, 2023

In 1989, Zimbabwe launched the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) programme with the aim of empowering communities to manage wildlife on their lands. However, when former President Robert Mugabe’s government in 2005 decided that all agricultural land belonged to the State, it became hard for communities to derive direct benefits from their wildlife governance. Incomes went straight to local and regional authorities, and thus a lot of money never reached the communities.

Zimbabwe’s 2021-2025 National Development Strategy is underpinned by a focus on climate resilience, natural resource management, institutional alignment and devolution and decentralisation of governance. With the goal of improving the livelihoods of its citizens, the Government has committed to reignite the CAMPFIRE programme.

To bolster this effort, the EU-funded and NIRAS-managed Natural Resource Management Programme (TANRM) is being tapped for support. In collaboration with UNDP Zimbabwe and the CAMPFIRE programme, NIRAS facilitated a field trip for relevant actors to see how community conservations are organised in Zimbabwe’s neighbouring country to the west, Namibia.

Sobbe Conservancy, Where Participants Were Informed About The Function The Conservancy Serves As A Wildlife Corridor
Sobbe Conservancy, where participants were informed about the function the conservancy serves as a wildlife corridor.

As the first country to incorporate environmental protection into its constitution, Namibia has invested in the development of community-based natural resource management since its independence in 1990. The first four community conservancies in Namibia were established in 1998. In 2002, turnovers from the conservancies started to exceed investments, proving the economic viability of the initiative. Nowadays, Namibia is well-renowned for its community conservancies. As of 2023, there are 86 community conservancies in the country, 15 of these are in the Zambezi region. 

Conservancies have the authority to manage most things on their land, including starting joint venture partnerships and arresting poachers. Benefits go straight to the members through investments in social development projects. A common investment option is water infrastructure. Though the Zambezi region is located between the Chobe and impressive Zambezi rivers, the land is very dry. But 10 to 12 meters down, there are great reserves of groundwater. The benefits derived from community natural resource management improve access to these groundwater reserves, and thus profoundly enhance the living conditions of conservancy residents. Other common development projects for the conservancies are electricity, school buildings, school uniforms and orphan school support.

More than 20 %

of Namibia’s land is managed by community conservancies.

Almost 10 %

of Namibia’s population lives in community conservancies

33 %

of the conservancy management committee members is female

During the field trip, participants quickly noticed a stark difference between Namibia and Zimbabwe. In the former, land is privately owned. This means landowners not only have stronger bargaining power with the government but also have a level of responsibility over the land they own. In extreme cases, where land is abandoned or significantly neglected, the government may exercise ‘eminent domain’ to acquire the land for public use. Landowners are typically compensated in such cases, but they may lose their right to ownership and control over the land.  As discovered on the field trip, Sobbe Conservancy demonstrated the dilemma posed by private ownership. “There was a landowner who did not want to secede his land to a wildlife corridor unless he was paid a considerable amount of money on an annual basis. In this respect, private ownership can be an obstacle in the development of the required wildlife corridors,” NIRAS Project Director for the project Jan Ivar Streyffert, who joined the field trip, remarked.

Nevertheless, the community conservancies of Zambezi demonstrate the viability of decentralising natural resource management. By providing people with the means and power to govern their lands, thereby decentralising land control, they are able to empower themselves.

This spirit of decentralisation runs deep. Jan Ivar notes that in Bamunu Conservancy, the chairman did not do a lot of the talking. “The microphone was passed around among individuals, allowing them to talk about what they were doing for the conservancy.” He also noticed the enthusiasm participants had as they discussed and engaged in the visits to conservancies.

Tourist Shop Near Katima Mulilo, Where All The Tourist Art And Hand Craft Are Made By The Various Conservancies Trained By IRDNC
Tourist shop near Katima Mulilo, where all the tourist art and hand craft are made by the various conservancies trained by IRDNC.

Field trips such as this one can significantly contribute to a project’s success as seeing what beneficiaries are developing in practice supplements technical knowledge.

Along with instilling awareness of and enthusiasm for building similar initiatives in their home country, these type of field trips also creates a platform for discussion and partnership. Having a diverse group of participants reflects the multi-faceted nature of conservation and land management in Zimbabwe. The group had representatives from the Ministry of Local Government (including the Director) and the Department Director of Wildlife, as well as community members from the Mbire and Chiredzi districts, one of whom was a tribal chief. Bringing these actors together is instrumental to collaboration, and NIRAS hopes to support further initiatives of this kind under the reignited CAMPFIRE programme.

Michael Juel

Michael Juel

Expertise Director

København, Denmark

+45 6021 4830

Jan Ivar Streyffert

Jan Ivar Streyffert

Project Director

København, Denmark

+45 4810 4622