Chimanimani under pressure

If a certain weariness has come to characterize the global response to the African crisis it is not without some justification

There are indeed times when crisis seems to be the one denominator that is common to the whole region, and so, when another incidence is added to the lengthy list, especially one with merely environmental overtones, it is apt to be ignored.

However in matters of environmental politics in the developing world this is an increasingly ill-advised approach. No part of the earth is the sole geographic property of any one state, and gone are the days when the sovereignty of a nation implies a right to destroy its natural heritage. Our collective survival is dependent on a single life support system ,and irresponsible usage anywhere is a matter of global, not individual significance.

Check out a slideshow of Chimanimani Images. Anyone with anything to add please let me know. A more general overview of Chimanimani

The Chimanimani TransFrontier Conservation Area

Such is the case with the ecology of Africa, a zone on the absolute front line of ecological assault. In areas of insecurity, such as the Virunga Forests of the DRC where the last 700 or so wild mountain gorillas are clinging to survival, there is not much that can be said or done to alter the dynamics of the crisis. However, on the remote frontier dividing Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where two cordial neighbors share a common environmental responsibility, it is hard to just shut up and watch as a jewel in the crown of natural ecosystems is wantonly and unnecessarily destroyed.

The particular jewel in question is the Chimanimani TransFrontier Conservation Area, a part of the visionary Peace Parks Foundation that has fallen victim to corrosive local politics, and  become one of the mutest of all the silent victims of Robert Mugabe’s decade long rampage.

Counting Nelson Mandela among its patrons, the Peace Parks Foundation was established in February 1997 with a mandate to unite in cooperation regional nation-states that between them share areas of extreme natural beauty and importance. Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa have since been linked in a number of combined conservation projects that have collectively recognized a number of sites of both national and international heritage.

In theory the Chimanimani TCFA fuses two separate but related conservation areas. The first is the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe that was formed in 1949 by an act of the then Rhodesian Parliament, and the second the adjoining Chimanimani TFCA in Mozambique which has existed since the 2001 signing of a TransFrontier Conservation Agreement between the two governments. This particular protocol, however, has remained theoretical, and recent events in Mozambique have tended to highlight not only inherent weaknesses in the local conservation movement, but in the political structure of the region itself.

The Cause…

Generations of recreational hikers in the Chimanimani Mountains have long been aware of gold clearly visible on the sandy bottoms of the local rivers and streams. This fact has also not been lost on the indigenous people of the area, who used the high mountain trails as a transit between overlapping tribal areas in both Mozambique and Zimbabwe. However, as the deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe began to bite, and as increasing numbers of ordinary Zimbabweans began to feel the effects of crushing poverty, such thin resources started to assume a far greater significance. For most of the decade past there has been a creeping incidence of stream bank and pit excavation, as well as associated panning in areas adjacent to the two parks. Alongside this has been a sense of foreboding that these two vital and yet fragile wilderness areas might fall victim to similar destructive effects of an unregulated gold rush.

Then, in early 2006, reports began to circulate that small groups of people had indeed begun to appear on the east facing slopes of the TFCA, carrying with them the sinister accouterments of a shovel and a plastic dish. Hopes that the spirit of the TransFrontier Conservation Area might immediately be acted upon, and that Mozambican police or army units would promptly respond, were not realized. This lent momentum to a trickle that turned into a flood, and within a matter of months the entire watershed had been completely overrun by people from as far a field as Harare and Bulawayo.

Initially the main concentrations tended to be focused where it began – on the eastern high plains and the slopes of the Mozambique side of the mountain. This lovely area is extremely remote from the centers of administration and is rarely if ever visited by any sort of officialdom. As gold dollars began to trickle in, and as more and more people subsequently flooded into the area, congestion began to be felt as predictably violence and turf wars followed. In response to these pressures newcomers were pressed to search for new ground until inevitably they began to penetrate into the area of the Chimanimani National Park.

The Effect…

At the first signs of this the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management on the Zimbabwean side was quick to respond. Armed detachments of National Parks personnel were hastily deployed to intercept and eject those that had already begun to excavate the leading river catchments. Unfortunately this action immediately fell foul of prevailing political circumstances in Zimbabwe.

Thanks to the pervasive politicisation that has come to infect almost every aspect of life, Zimbabwe is currently not a friendly place to either live or work. The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Chimanimani Village soon found itself embroiled in any ugly tussle with local officials of the Central Intelligence Organization and the Department of Internal Affairs. Both of these, as highly politicized government departments, felt that, with 80 percent plus unemployment nationwide, and 66 000 percent inflation, that there was ample justification in opening up the National Park to exploitation by hungry people. It was hoped that this would ease mounting anger and frustration within the community, and to avoid the obvious potential for a political backlash aimed at the government in general, and in particular the ruling party.

On the side of the Department of National Parks, however, an unlikely hero joined the battle. The Member of Parliament for Chimanimani at the time, Dr. Samuel Udgenge, himself a member of the ruling party, and displaying tremendous courage, opposed the powerful CIO and Internal Affair Department. Along with the Warden Chimanimani, Dr. Udgenge won something of a victory that has so far been held firm. Intensive patrols on the part of National Parks and Wildlife Management staff have continued, supported by detachments of the ZRP Support Unit, which in combination have kept the National Park substantively, although not wholly free of gold panners.

The same sort of prompt action and commitment has, however, been completely absent on the part of the responsible authorities in Mozambique. In the four years that have passed since the first incursions were reported the illegal panning of the stream banks, and later the excavation of pits and sink holes, has continued unabated ,and has by now wreaked catastrophic levels of destruction. It is currently estimated that no significant part of the approximately 2000 square mile area of the TCFA remains unaffected. It is impossible to overstate the utter and total devastation wrought on the natural environment by this invasion, that is estimated to run upwards of 30 000 people, and nor to quantify the loss of plant and wildlife that it represents.

Criminal neglect in Mozambique…

Trying to get a response on the matter from either the responsible government directorate or the TCFA coordinating committee proved initially to be very difficult. After considerable effort the TFCA Chimanimani Coordinator, Ana Paula Reis, in a short comment, was prepared to confirm that illegal gold miners were indeed operating in the Chimanimani TFCA, but she did not know how many. A survey was conducted in December 2006, she told me, the findings of which were discussed in February 2007, upon which it was agreed merely that ‘law enforcement’ was required. Since then nothing further has been attempted, and no fresh practical initiatives have yet appeared on the table.

Notwithstanding the acceptable limits on critical reporting, this fact is extremely disappointing. The TransFrontier Conservation Area program  is not resourced by an impoverished central government, as is the case with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Zimbabwe, but by the outreach of the Peace Parks Foundation the World Bank and a number of other interested individuals and organizations. If the genuinely embattled authorities in Zimbabwe are able to mount a viable defense against this assault on an internationally recognized conservation area, there seems little reason to assume that the relatively well-funded authorities in Mozambique cannot do likewise. Mozambique possesses a large regular army and there is no reason to suppose that it is unequal to some kind of a credible border security operation.

In response to this, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager for the TFCA Project, Madyo Couto, was quick to point out that the Chimanimani National Park has enjoyed the benefit of 60 years of development which the Chimanimani TFCA does not. It is also a fact that within the seven years of its existence, no meaningful access into the area has been established and no substantial facilities put in place. As a consequence very few tourists are able to visit the area which means that almost no revenues are generated. Moreover the area is now such an unmitigated eyesore that tourists cannot reasonably be encouraged to visit it anyway, even if they could. This is the bottom line, and the Chimanimani TCFA as it relates to Mozambique might with some justification be regarded by all concerned as a bit of a white elephant.

The Solution…

So what is the solution? As with the theory of Malthusian catastrophe, there probably is no solution remaining in the short term. Direct exploitation of the environment is, and always has been, the only means available for people to deal with the immediate effects of crushing poverty, and in the face of overarching political expedience, corruption, lack of development, illiteracy and poverty, the environmental message is not only meaninglessness but also insulting.

The root cause of the problem is the political collapse in Zimbabwe. Ordinary Mozambicans who depend downstream on the water of polluted rivers have no particular love for their suffering neighbors. That violence and lawlessness has followed in the wake of the gold rush has simply added to the stresses of a situation that seems to have overwhelmed local law enforcement.

In the meanwhile, in achieving what it has, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Chimanimani has surmounted enormous odds. These were not only political resistance within powerful government departments, but the severe financial constraints caused by the Zimbabwean economic recession and the alienation of that government from any sources of foreign funding. It is vital that this effort be continued and supported and not be allowed to crumble in the face of these not inconsiderable difficulties. One quarter at least of the magnificent Chimanimani Mountain has been preserved, and a gene pool now exists for the eventual regeneration of the damaged TFCA when the effects of the gold rush have either run their course or been stopped.

This is not to say that the slow-germinating plans of the TFCA Coordinating Committee for the deployment of a dedicated and armed force to permanently secure the area are not worthwhile, they are just too late, and are maybe more than anything a bit of a smokescreen. And certainly in the spirit of international cooperation it urgently needs to be acknowledged that the Chimanimani is not two separate conservation entities but one mountain and one ecosystem. Moreover, if it happens that the only viable access to the area exists through Zimbabwe, then this ought not to be an excuse for inactivity in Mozambique but rather an opportunity for cooperation between two related countries and two mutually compatible conservation bodies.


In conclusion, therefore, even though pleading the cause of logistical difficulties and fledgling organizations is not wholly misleading, there is nonetheless a strong case for those in Mozambique to be doing more – much more. Divisive and difficult politics in Africa will never be far from the surface, and although the problem may originate in Zimbabwe, it is directly affecting Mozambique. The Ministry of Defense therefore needs to muster some resources for the defense of sovereign territory quite as the National Directorate for Conservation Areas needs to motivate itself to conserve. Most importantly, however, the Coordinating Committee of the TFCA program needs to remove itself from its donor purchased vehicles, get its boots on, and be true to the mandate of TransFrontier Conservation. Even if it is unable to directly impact the problem, bearing in mind the problem has wide regional political overtones, it needs at least to be seen to be trying.

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  • mikegale

    Thanks for the article. This is the first decent analysis of the situation that I’ve seen (even though I’ve been aware that there is a problem for some time). (Thanks to Dave Lane for pointing me at this page.)
    Many years ago I remember “poachers” used to enter the mountains from the Mozambican flatlands, in fire season. Really fit guys, they could jog over the mountains for hours, bow and flintlock in hand. They could out run us “fit?” schoolboys any day. My impression is that what they did was not too much at odds with the environment. (Even though the only sign of elephant were rather old piles of well weathered poo!)
    I for one don’t think all is lost. If a policing presence can become effective the land can recover. I think we could rustle up a small army of willing helpers to fly in from around the world for “rehabilitate the Chimanis” holidays. A big issue is getting both Renamo and Frelimo on side with the idea, given the real threat of another civil war.