Conflicts Over Resources and Opportunities for Resource Sharing in the Save Valley, South East Lowveld, Zimbabwe


By Cecil Machena-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association


The South East Lowveld of Zimbabwe (SEL) is an arena of conflicts with natural resources at the centre of it all. This brief paper is looking at the nature of, causes and the extent of the conflicts and advocates for a framework for promoting stakeholder cooperation and resources sharing as the key game changer for the area.

SEL with altitude between 300 and 600 m above sea level, lies in agro-ecological region V. It is a low rainfall area with average annual rainfall ranging from 450mm to 650mm and droughts are common. Mean annual temperature is between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius. Temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius are not uncommon during summer, especially between September and October. This places great stress on plant growth, particularly rain-fed cropping. This is exacerbated by climate change. Zimbabwe’s climate is projected to become more erratic, with variable and unpredictable rainfall patterns, tropical storms, floods and drought. Droughts are projected to increase in frequency and severity (USAID, 2019)[1]. Low lying areas such as SEL will be severely affected.


SEL presents an interesting case of contrasting land tenure and land use regimes. Privately owned wildlife conservancies, State owned protected areas, large commercial estates (e.g. Triangle and Hippo Valley with 83 145 and 54 200 hectares of land[2] respectively) with irrigation and under freehold title and adjacent communal lands under traditional property regimes are dominant features that define the social and economic structure of the area.

The State owns large protected areas, particularly the Gonarezhou National Park (5 575 sq. km in size), which is now linked to Kruger National Park in South Africa, and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique through the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTP TFCA) opening up opportunities for tourism related businesses in SEL. The private sector owns large wildlife conservancies. The Save Valley Conservancy (SVC), with a total surface area of 3 442 sq. km, is a story of cattle ranching turned to wildlife management with cattle ranchers pooling land to allow for  management of wildlife populations on a landscape scale, facilitated by the provisions of the Parks and Wildlife Act of 1975[3]. The formation of the SVC was motivated by the relocation of the black rhino from the Zambezi Valley in the 1980s following massive poaching. The black rhino was relocated onto private ranches. The Parks and Wildlife Management Authority encouraged the removal of fences separating ranches to increase the range of the black rhino. This led to the formation of the “black rhino conservancy.” The severe drought of 1991 / 1992 which decimated livestock and made cattle ranching unprofitable left no doubt in the minds of the ranchers that the route of the conservancy was the way to go. Other conservancies in SEL include Malilangwe (400 sq. k), Bubiana, Bubi and Chiredzi. In terms of conservation and related tourism business development, SVC constitutes an important core wildlife area for populating surrounding communal areas and supporting rural development in the same way national parks form the backbone of CAMPFIRE programmes. The wildlife conservancies and commercial estates present a great contrast with communities who live in adjacent communal areas.

The map shows the location of communal land and resettlement areas in relation to Gonarezhou National Park and Save Valley Conservancy.


The communities live under communal property regimes. They experience severe hardships and difficult livelihood situations as a result of economic, political, social shocks as well as successive years of climate change induced floods and droughts. These have roots in the colonial history of the country. The colonial administration set up policies and laws that disenfranchised local communities. The communities were evicted from their traditional lands, denied access to resources on the lands they were evicted from and resettled under crowded conditions in communal lands under communal property management regime systems. This caused anger, lasting bitterness and frustrations. The difficult livelihood situations include the following:

  • The communal areas are congested with population densities ranging between 10 and 69 persons per sq. km. Family landholdings are less than 50 ha whereas 400 ha constitute the minimum requirement per family in SEL. This is the threshold landholding size for family cropping and grazing needs to meet food security requirements.
  • There is dependence on rain-fed farming in the face of low rainfall of less than 500mm per year and high temperatures leading to chronic food shortages, food insecurity and poverty. Annual harvest last for 3 months as the small household landholdings fail to support family food needs.
  • There is a high dependence on remittances from urban areas, and support from NGOs and donors.
  • Property rights over natural resources are weak particularly under the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) programme. There are serious constraints for communities in accessing natural resources critical for household livelihoods. The pressure on the natural resources leads to severe degradation of these resources.
  • The vulnerabilities at household and community levels result in the reduced resilience of livelihoods.

Climate change and extreme weather events will worsen the livelihoods situation of the inhabitants of the communal area which is already desperate.

The communities saw in the liberation war an opportunity and hope of rectifying racially imposed injustices and getting back their ancestral lands. Unfortunately political independence in 1980 did not lead to correcting the skewed access to natural resources. The status quo was largely maintained. This is the reason for the widespread and violent land invasions that took place from 2000 onwards; some twenty years after political independence. This has left a huge dent in the wildlife business of the Save Valley Conservancy with 11 properties being settled on in the southern half. This is also the reason behind the high level of poaching that is taking place in the Save Valley Conservancy. Wildlife poaching in SEL is a respected “profession” in the local community and this defines a level of community defiance to existing conservation laws premised on the communally held feeling that the communities have the right to appropriate wildlife resources within the ranches as they were the original settlers of that land. On the other hand the ranchers look to the law to deter illegal activities. The Ranchers react to poaching activities by increasing the number of patrolling game scouts per unit area without considering social pressures behind resource conflicts with communities. There is a stand-off between the communities and the private sector. What is fairly clear is that the high levels of conflict stand in the way of economic and social development prospects in SEL.


SEL has economic development potential which can be realized by adopting an integrated and multi-sectoral approach to growth by positioning wildlife and irrigation as key drivers coupled with appropriate policy development. In the ecological context of SEL, wildlife is a more environmentally appropriate and economically rewarding form of land use than the current subsistence cropping and livestock production. There is the need to focus on and invest in higher valued land uses, diversification and intensification. This entails investing in tourism ventures, community game ranching, community conservancies and the volarisation of non-timber forest products. – decoupling wealth creation from primary production. This puts both the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWLMA) and the private sector conservancies in a position to influence the direction and pace of economic and social development in the area. These stakeholders need to promote genuine public –private-community partnerships (PPCPs). The partnership between River Lodges of Africa and the Mahenye community is a pace setter. Opportunities in agriculture exist by investing in intensive production under irrigation. Small-scale irrigation systems that were developed and which have stopped functioning need to be rehabilitated and other opportunities sought. Focus should on irrigation for markets at scales from household gardens, outgrowers, to major industrial schemes. The soils are good and irrigation prospects are strong. This will reduce reliance of dryland cropping which has proved to be untenable.

The stand-off between the communities and the private sector needs to be genuinely tackled. The ranchers are detached from the problems communities face and look at the satisfaction of the sanctity of property rights. The unfriendly social and economic situation of the communities in the Valley sets the context within which development interventions need to be gauged and understood. The challenge is to bring about meaningful change to the poor people’s livelihoods. A good understanding of these complex relationships and causal effects provides a window for shaping considerations and crafting development initiatives and interventions that take on board historically shaped perceptions. This calls for investing in and developing appropriate institutions and policies. Institutional development and linkages at different scales (local organisation; co-management; Public – private – community partnership etc. are needed for collaboration and growth.

Clearly, it is important to establish conflict resolution mechanisms which bridge the interests of poor communal and newly resettled farmers on the one hand and Gonarezhou National Park and the wildlife conservancy owners. Ultimately, what is needed is a framework for resource sharing bringing together the right mix of incentives that discourage poaching and the destruction of wildlife habitats whilst at the same time taking care of the livelihood needs of communal and newly resettled villagers. PWLMA needs to take an unequivocal policy position in proffering strong property rights over wildlife to the inhabitants of communal lands. Strong property rights will strengthen community ownership of wildlife resources. Capacity building is needed to help the communities develop strong governance institutions at the local level. This will raise the position of the community to be an important stakeholder and lead to effective community participation, decision making, strategy formulation and implementation and increase benefit sharing. This will put the communities in a position to negotiate for resource sharing with the conservancy owners, PWLMA and other key stake holders and form partnerships in tourism business venture.


The challenge in SEL is to build bridges between the communities, the new settlers and the ranchers and develop a new level of understanding that will usher in and define a new level of meaningful cooperation and collaboration. There is a need for cooperation and partnership between the conservancies, the local communitiesand the new farmers. This may be the only way to create a win-win situation. The Government must not abrogate its responsibility to develop the policies and create the environment for bringing about the socio-economic development of the SEL

[1] USAID, 2019. Climate Risk Profile Zimbabwe. Fact Sheet 7. Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) Task Order No. AID-OAA-I-14-00013.

[2]Mlambo, A and Pangeti E,S (1996): The Political Economy of the Sugar industry in Zimbabwe, 1920-1999

UZ Publications, Harare.

[3] Parks and Wildlife Act (Chapter 20:14)

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