/ 14 June 2013

Zimbabwe ministers battle over conservancy hunting permits

Speaking out: Minister Walter Mzembi.
Speaking out: Minister Walter Mzembi.

Tourism and Hospitality Minister Walter Mzembi and Natural Resources Minister Francis Nhema have clashed over the latter's decision not to grant hunting permits to white operators at the Save Valley Conservancy in favour of mainly Zanu-PF members, the Mail & Guardian has learnt.

The dispute has resulted in the white operators appealing to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) whose general assembly would be jointly hosted by Zimbabwe and Zambia in August. The UNWTO is yet to respond to the appeal.

The Save Valley Conservancy, which spans 3 200km2 in south-eastern Zimbabwe, is an association of more than 20 private properties that were unaffected by the chaotic land reform exercise.

Save initially appeared to have been spared because one of its main founding partners is the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, a wholly state-owned entity, and it also incorporated the Bikita Rural District Council, where it is based, and was 32% owned by black partners.

But upheavals started last year when Nhema handed hunting licences to nearly 30 Zanu-PF and army officials, whom the legitimate owners do not recognise.

The new beneficiaries say that the founding owners cannot lay claim to the wildlife as this was not paid for and they have already received full benefit and should have recouped their costs during the time they operated there.

Challenging the high court's decision
Those who were issued the hunting licences include war veterans leader Joseph Chinotimba, Major General Gibson Mashingaidze, Major General Engelbert Rugeje, Masvingo Resident Minister and Governor Titus Maluleke, Zanu-PF Masvingo provincial chair Lovemore Matuke, Deputy Health Minister Douglas Mombeshora, Zanu-PF's central committee member Enock Porusingazi, as well as Zanu-PF MPs Alois Baloyi, Abraham Sithole, Samson Mukanduri and Noel Mandebvu, who are now being referred to as the "Masvingo group".

Last month, the white conservationists approached the high court to move for the decision to deny them licences to be overturned because they are the lawful owners of the conservancy, but the court ruled that it was not an urgent matter. They took the matter to a higher court on appeal, where it is still pending.

In an interview this week, Nhema dismissed the group's claim on the conservancy.

"They are not the ­owners. We asked them to follow the channel and bring the original owners and register. The other thing is that they went to court and lost, so I am also abiding by the court's decision."

However, Mzembi has a different view.

In a separate interview, he said the matter was hurting tourism. "I can confirm that the issue is untenably injuring the tourism sector as hunting is one of the key tourism consumptive activities. Secondly, it does not assist our cause image-wise as we advance towards hosting the UNWTO summit."

At Nhema's mercy
Mzembi said the government in December resolved that the aggrieved party be issued with permits as efforts to find a lasting solution to the dispute are under way, and he was surprised that Nhema was not abiding by that decision.

"I am at the mercy of what he [Nhema] is doing, and I can't keep quiet because it is hurting tourism. It was resolved in December last year that the permits be issued."

Nhema's decision to parcel out the hunting businesses has also been opposed by Parliament.

In a report, the parliamentary committee on natural resources condemned the occupation of the conservancy by Zanu-PF leaders and military chiefs, saying the process lacked transparency.

The report said the selection of those who would be involved in that venture should have been based on a demonstration of interest and experience in wildlife conservation, a capacity for business development and an ability to contribute to the asset base, among other things.

The MPs had also recommended that conservancies must not be parcelled out to individuals, but rather in the spirit of indigenisation, the natural resources ministry needs to award leases through share transfers, joint ventures and community trusts, positions that have all been disregarded in the latest scheme.

"It is the committee's finding that the allocation of indigenous beneficiaries … was not based on business principles," said the report.