14 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Mana Pools - Paradise Embroiled in Controversy

LIKE savannah termites reinforcing their mound ahead of the rainfall season, workers could be seen elaborately thatching the 12 lodges at Mana Pools, Zimbabwe's latest most exquisite up-market wilderness campsite. The lodges have been craftily woven among the trees along the southern bank of the mighty Zambezi River.

Construction of the campsite, to be named after the thickets of creeping bush vines in the area (Vine Camp), is expected to be completed around April next year.

The project, to cost US$500 000, has however, stroked heated controversy because it is within an area classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site.

Zimbabwe only has four locations classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites namely the Victoria Falls, Matopo Hills, Great Zimbabwe and Mana Pools.

For a place to be classified as a World Heritage Site it must be of special cultural or physical significance and deserving protection.

According to UNESCO's guidelines, Mana Pools' natural significance is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.

As a result, the wildlife sanctuary is of importance not only to Zimbabweans, but to the rest of the world as a whole.

Environmentalists are thus fuming over the construction of the lodges at Mana Pools saying the project would threaten wildlife in the area.

Described by others as an area of dramatic landscape and ecological processes that provides shelter to immense congregations of Africa's large and small mammal populations and over 450 bird species, Mana Pools is indeed a wildlife paradise whose irresistible natural charm can easily stir all sorts of emotions.

The project promoters, however, are determined to maintain the pristine state of Mana Pools  a 2 196 square-kilometre wildlife area.

The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZNPWMA), the custodian of all of national parks land covering 13 percent of the country, said it will press ahead with the project, which is a 50-50 percent joint venture between the authority and Acis.

Acis is an Italian firm that has been involved in many other local projects for the past 20 years or so.

Jerry Gotora, one of the ZNPWMA's board members, said concerns around the project were misplaced because it will not interfere with the natural environment at Mana Pools.

"We would like to keep the park as pristinely as is possible, but you require money to keep it in a pristine condition ... They totally avoided cutting down a bush... and this is commercialisation as recommended by the International Monetary Fund," said Gotora.

He said critics were being unfair to the ZNPWMA, which he said was only trying to make the best out of Zimbabwe's God-given natural resources.

"The world that wants to enjoy this so-called World Heritage Site is being unfair to Zimbabweans. For us to maintain this World Heritage site, Zimbabweans must be given credit because this place should have been destroyed a long time ago. We are actually taking money from Lake Chivero to maintain this place. The money we are generating here is nothing compared to what we are generating at Chivero," said Gotora.

"The same world that is telling us not to sell our ivory is denying us the right to make money out of our God-given natural resource. We are trying to create money out of a God-given natural resource without destroying it. Zambia is now making money out of our conservation efforts... I can't charge you US$100 to come and sleep in your own tent under a tree," he added.

Parks regional manager, Tawanda Gotosa, weighed in saying the area was grossly underutilised hence the ZNPWMA had to embark on something that would generate additional income.

While the authority was commercialised more than a decade ago, it is still struggling to remain afloat because of the decline in wildlife-based tourism.

Its fortunes took a turn for the worst after hordes of tourists that once flocked into Zimbabwe before 2000 turned their backs on the country due to political instability. This was compounded by a nine-year long Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species ivory trade moratorium.

The moratorium which ends in 2018 has since resulted in the country generating a 50-tonne ivory stockpile worth US$12,5 million.

With little support coming from both the government and international donor community, the ZNPWMA has very few choices to keep its head above the water.

For example, animal populations have grown out of control, putting pressure on the available land and vegetation such as the Acacia Albida -- a highly nutritious tree for all kinds of animals that is now failing to regenerate itself.

Mana Pools has one of the major concentrations of the world's largest herbivores, the elephant.

At an estimated 120 000 elephants, Zimbabwe now has three times its carrying capacity of 40 000.

What it means is that the objections to the construction of Vine Camp could deny the ZNPWMA an opportunity to generate resources that could have helped absorb some of the pressures from growing wildlife numbers.

While there are potential partners that are keen on working with the ZNPWMA, the authority has found itself torn between environmental concerns and the need to improve its cash flows.

For instance, there are developers who have expressed interest in panning for heavy mineral sand deposits on the river beds of two of Mana Pools' main arteries -- Rekomichi and Chewore.

But their interest has generated a barrage of objections from stakeholders and environmentalists.

HMSDs are commonly used as raw materials in manufacturing paints and dyes; enhancing colour in plastics, paper and rubber; in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; and to produce titanium alloy metals used in aircraft, spacecraft and medical prostheses.

Those opposed to the project said it would result in a serious decline in the population of the endangered species and the other species of outstanding universal value for which the property was legally established to protect.

They cited possible severe deterioration of the natural beauty or scientific value of the property through human settlement that would trigger uncontrolled industrial and agricultural development including the use of pesticides and fertilisers, major public works, mining, pollution, logging, firewood collection as well as human encroachment on boundaries or in upstream areas, which threaten the integrity of the property.

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