War over safari looting escalates

HARARE - A war between Zanu PF Cabinet ministers over the control of a multi-million dollar Lowveld wildlife business has taken a new twist, with local chiefs demanding the eviction of top officials who have taken over the area.

Government and industry insiders say the fight over Save conservancies has escalated because top politicians are eyeing huge sums of money ahead of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) conference Zimbabwe is co-hosting with Zambia in August next year.

Apart from thousands of delegates, the conference is also expected to draw rich buyers interested in the country’s wildlife.

To show how lucrative the industry is a buffalo bull was yesterday auctioned in South Africa for R26 million and experts say prices are soaring, and that country’s industry is expected to rack in over R10 billion this year alone.

Zimbabwean villagers in the south-eastern districts are about to lose out to powerful politicians who have come out fighting.

With the chiefs travelling to Harare on Monday to plead with President Robert Mugabe’s government against the “indigenisation of the sector”, which spins millions of dollars a year, Cabinet is now expected to intervene in the looting by ruling Zanu PF elites, various sources said.

Environment minister Francis Nhema and Tourism minister Walter Mzembi are at each other’s throats in a fight that has also sucked in Vice President Joice Mujuru, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Under the contentious and ill-timed takeovers of the sanctuaries, several parts of the Save Valley Conservancy have been parcelled out to top party and military officials — some of whom are accused of poaching.

Mzembi, who enjoys the chiefs’ support, says the takeover of the 3 400-square kilometre reserve by 25 of Mugabe’s close associates is tarnishing the country’s image ahead of the major tourism extravaganza.

On the other hand, Nhema says the action is legitimate, as it is meant to empower blacks, although this has angered community members who have since dispatched their chiefs to Harare to register their disapproval of the move.

The chiefs on Monday begged government to spare the conservancy from the controversial policy and accused the Environment ministry of only empowering a few politically-connected individuals at the expense of communities.

Chief Gudo, Felix Chindava, a representative of Chief Tshovani, and Willis Chauke — who stood in for Chief Sengwe — met Mzembi on behalf of their communities.

“The adopted programme, which sadly prioritises a few individuals, is against the concept of broad-based economic empowerment of communities,” stated one of the chiefs.

“The option that the minister and his clique have adopted, under which they partner the sitting tenants, has caused a lot of destruction to the wildlife.”

“This programme neglects the notion of communal empowerment. Our societies are not going to benefit from this scheme,” Chindava told the minister.

“If it is indigenisation they are after, let ordinary people apply so that the leases can be granted in transparency to capable and deserving candidates,” Chauke, Sengwe’s representative, charged.

“This partnership will cause a lot of destruction to the wildlife because as we all know these people have commitments elsewhere and cannot devote their time to this hunting venture” he said.

Chief Gudo said the takeovers had taken locals by surprise.

“As the guardians of the area we were never consulted. It is not proper for government to give thumbs up to this project. How will our subjects respect us knowing that someone else has authority that overrides us in our jurisdiction?” queried Chief Gudo.

“Government must intervene and stop this before we lose our relevance as chiefs,” he said.

Mzembi, who has been called a sellout by fellow party members for resisting the takeovers, insisted that the takeovers by top Zanu PF officials were not in line with the indigenisation programme.

“It is wrong to have minority ownership of conservancies, but it is even more appalling to substitute that minority white with a minority black in the face of a crisis of expectations and thirst for empowerment from our black majority,” said Mzembi after meeting the chiefs.

“Such a move only creates greed and alienation of our masses who are the legitimate broad-based empowerment partners in community share ownership and empowerment trusts as currently being applied in the mining sector,” he said.

Situated along the banks of Save River, the conservancy, respected as a leader in wildlife management and research, is collectively controlled by international investors, white ranchers who formerly ran cattle on the land, local black businessmen and hundreds of rural farmers.

Wildlife lobby groups warn that the takeovers could render futile attempts by the coalition government to revive tourism, an ailing industry that Zimbabwe desperately needs to boost economic revival.

Investors in Save Valley include Italian, American, Dutch, German and South African nationals.

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