How it all started: ZELA’s Background and Growth Trajectory


Compiled by Mutuso Dhliwayo-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

This is a continuation of last week’s edition which can be accessed here


ZELA ‘s breakthrough in terms of laying the foundation for organizational growth and development came in 2003 when it received an institutional grant from the Ford Foundation Office for Southern Africa to implement a project titled;Towards Environmental Justice in Zimbabwe and Sustainable Management of Natural Resources: A Research and Advocacy Initiative or simply known as the Environmental Justice Project. [1] The grant enabled ZELA to kick start it’s programming in earnest. Before the Ford grant, ZELA had one full time employee and was renting a small office at Muvingi and Mugadza law firm. However, with this grant, the organisation was able to recruit additional staff members on a full-time basis.  The staff members included three lawyers[2], a fully qualified accountant, a secretary and a messenger. It was also able to acquire bigger officers and buy office equipment.[3]  The Ford Foundation grant did not have an organizational vehicle and the organization relied on the good will of members for transport.[4] The goodwill from members was only helpful when we were programming in towns and the areas that had good roads. When programming in remote rural areas with poor road infrastructure, ZELA staff member relied on public transport. In 2004, ZELA secured another institutional grant from Hivos to co-fund the Environmental Justice Project. Both the Ford Foundation[5] and Hivos supported the second phase of the Environmental Justice Project from 2006-2008.

One of the biggest contributions of HIVOS to ZELA’s work was the support towards Organisational Development Process (ODP).  When HIVOS started supporting ZELA’s work in 2004, the Administrative Council managed the affairs of the organization. However, the concern was that members of the Administrative Council, who were mainly the founding members of the organization, also sat in the Board of Trustees. This set up created a conflict of interest which was not healthy for transparency, accountability and good governance in the management of the organization.  HIVOS Foundation is one of the donors that had some very serious misgivings about this set up and its implications on governance. While others expressed a concern, they were not prepared to provide the resources for organizational reforms. HIVOS offered to provide both financial and technical support for the process with a view to enhancing transparency and accountability in the governance of the organization.

The ODP began in 2005 but not without difficulties. Founding members who were part of the Administrative Council were suspicious of the objectives and the intended results of the ODP.  To some extent ZELA was still in its infancy operationally having commenced full programming in 2003 and not sustainable both institutionally and financially.  There was also fear of being ousted by the new board members who may not share the vision of the foundation members and the values of the organization.  These concerns were reflected through the lack of enthusiasm in the ODP at its beginning and the failure to implement the recommendations immediately after the completion of the ODP in 2006.  However, although there was some initial suspicion to the ODP, ZELA founding members gradually embraced it.  Steps to implement the outcomes of the ODP earnestly began in 2007 and were completed in 2009.  Members realized and appreciated that for the organization to grow financially and become sustainable as a going concern, the ODP was a necessary evil. 


Until 2009, ZELA’s main programming was on environmental rights as human rights[6] under the successive phases of the Environmental Justice Project.  This focus could be argued to have been purely on environmental governance.  In 2009, ZELA made a strategic decision to broaden the focus of its programming to natural resources governance and not just environmental governance.  Natural resources governance is defined as:

The rules, laws, institutions and processes through which a society exercises powers and responsibilities to make and implement decisions affecting natural resources and natural resources users and to hold decision makers, implementers and natural resources users accountable.[7]

Environmental governance is part of natural resources governance.  In this strategic shift, ZELA identified a core group of rights that best express or represent natural resources governance.  These are Environmental, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [EESCR]. The Ford Foundation Office for Southern Africa played a very important role in this strategic shift of focus.

In 2009, ZELA approached the Ford Foundation for further extension of the Environmental Justice Project. [8]  However, during the discussion for the extension of the grant, the Ford Foundation made it clear that although ZELA’s proposal was a good initiative, it was no longer fitting within the Foundation’s thematic areas of programming under which ZELA had previously received funding. [9] The Foundation’s focus was now mainly on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  ZELA had for some time also been thinking of expanding its focus but had lacked the brevity and incentive to do so. For a long time, ZELA had been approached by the Mutoko communities affected by black granite mining on a number of times but we always found excuses of not working with them as we thought it was not our area of focus.  As such, it is best to view the discussion with the Ford Foundation that influenced ZELA’s focus more as a “convergence of interests” than one in which it was forced to change its focus. The discussions also coincided with the diamond rush in the Marange Diamond Fields in Manicaland Province, which had some very serious impacts on communities’ EESCR.

The strategic shift of focus has opened a world of opportunities for ZELA. ZELA’s flagship programming under the Extractive Industries Programme (EIP) was as a result of this strategic shift in 2009. The EIP has enabled ZELA to programme from a natural governance perspective and not just from an environmental governance perspective and to enable to contribute to democracy, good governance and sustainable development using natural resources as a lens.  Over the past decade or so, it has become very evident that natural resources have a role in addressing Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit. Depending on how natural resources are exploited and the revenues generated and managed, they can either promote or undermine democracy and the rule of law.  To a large extent, ZELA’s ability to remain relevant to national development and being sustainable has mainly been as a result of this strategic shift on focus. Without it, maybe today ZELA would have been history rather than making history as it is currently doing.

As a result of the strategic shift in focus and under its EIP, ZELA has been able to programme on a wide range of issues. These include the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, the Publish What You Pay Campaign, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Zimbabwe Mining Revenue Transparency Initiative, Community Share Ownership Schemes and Trusts, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Southern Africa Resources Barometer Principles, Africa Mining Vision, Tax Justice Campaign and Community Human Rights Monitoring and Alternative Mining Indabas. It has also been able to work with a broad range of stakeholders that include Government Ministries and Departments, Parliament through the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees, CSOs, and Community Based Organistions, business, workers and the media. 


ZELA has achieved a number of successes since it became fully operational in 2003 under its various programmes and projects.  Some of the highlights of its successes are as follows:

  1. Training and capacity building of communities

From its inception, ZELA has always been conscious of the fact communities are the backbone of its work. It is communities’ rights that are affected by the exploitation of various natural resources. Natural resources exploitation results in the violation of communities’ EESCR. To that end good governance of natural resources is not possible without the effective participation of communities especially in a politically polarized environment like in Zimbabwe and this is why ZELA placed communities at the center of its work on natural resources governance. When the Environmental Management Act was enacted into law in 2003, ZELA in collaboration with Environment Africa and then Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources through the Environmental Management Agency, embarked on a massive environmental law education and awareness training campaign throughout the country’s provinces raising awareness about the new law and its provisions on environmental rights. Through training and capacity building, communities in ZELA’s areas of programming are now aware of how the exploitation of natural resources affects their EESCR. Most importantly, the training and capacity building have equipped communities to be aware of how to assert these rights, claim and enforce them against the various policy and decision makers and other actors. The fruits of this training and capacity building is very evident in the actions being taken by communities in the Great Dyke, Chiadzwa community in the Marange Diamond Fields, the Great Dyke and in Mutoko North and Save Odzi. This has enabled communities to be active players in natural resources governance rather than being observers.

  • Registration of Community Based Organisations to exist as legal entities

Realizing the centrality of communities in natural resources governance, ZELA embarked on a process to register communities to exist as legal entities in the form of trusts. One of the justifications that is given by the state and the private sector for marginalizing communities from natural resources governance is that they don’t exist as legal entities and that this makes it difficult to deal with them when making decisions. To address this gap, ZELA embarked on massive programme to register Community Based Organisations to exist as legal entities. As legal entities, CBOs are able to organize, mobilize and approach donors directly for funding. The first CBO that ZELA registered was the Chibhememe Earth Healing Association (CHIEHA) in 2004. To date, ZELA has registered over forty CBOs in urban and rural areas. Registration of CBOs as legal entities is very empowering as they are able to speak on their own on issues that affect them.

ZELA was criticized heavily by colleagues in civil society who saw the strategy of registering communities to exist as legal entities as shooting ourselves in the foot. They argued that once communities are empowered as legal entities, they would no longer need ZELA as an agent for funding and programming. However, ZELA argued that if communities didn’t need ZELA, then that shows that they have been empowered which is the objective of its work. However, today ZELA is happy that community empowerment is today being recognized by CSOs and funders as the way to go in Zimbabwe’s democratization process rather than focusing on CSOs only at the national level.

  • Training and capacity building of Members of Parliament

ZELA’s work involves influencing laws, policies and institutional frameworks to be responsive to the needs of natural resources dependent communities and that the exploitation of natural resources contribute to economic development and poverty reduction. Legislators are therefore very central to ZELA’s advocacy work on natural resources governance because of their legislative, representative and oversight roles.[10] While legislators have always played their legislative, representative and oversight roles to their constituencies, ZELA’s successes have mainly been to bring a paradigm shift where they do so from an EESCR perspective.

Under the Legislative Environmental Representation Project or Member of Parliament Project[11] and the Enhancing Political Representation and Public Participation in Environmental Governance Project [12] and other various initiatives, ZELA has been able to work with members of Parliament especially from the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees on Mines and Energy and Environment and Natural Resources to build their capacities to effectively represent, provide oversight and legislate on the EESCR of their constituencies . The training has been mainly in the form of offering legal, policy and technical expertise and assistance, providing information through policy briefs, creating of platforms for legislators through outreach visits to meet and dialogue with their constituencies on various natural resources governance issues and helping them to prepare papers for presentation at national, regional and international platforms.

The effectiveness of ZELA’s capacity building was very evident during the 7th Parliament of Zimbabwe when the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Energy under the chairmanship of the late Edward Chindori –Chininga was declared the best performing Committee of Parliament in 2012 and 2013. They raised pertinent issues on natural resources governance and produced two well-researched reports that today continue to shape and influence the national discourse on transparency and accountability in the mining sector.[13]

  • The other success is that ZELA has become a thought leader in natural resources governance. Unlike other CSOs that work on certain aspects of natural resources governance, ZELA’s work is more holistic and comprehensive through a wide range of initiatives which include the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, the Publish What You pay Campaign, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Community Human Rights Monitoring, the International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa, the African Initiative on Mining, Environment and Society, Africa Mining Vision, African Coalition on Corporate Accountability and the united Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Alternative Mining Indabas. 

ZELA’s thought leadership is not just in its ability to innovatively replicate these international initiatives at the national level but also in its ability to lead and coordinate. For example, ZELA is hosting the Publish What You Pay Zimbabwe Coalition, coordinating the participation of Zimbabwean CSOs in the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme through the Civil Society Representatives in Zimbabwe Mechanism and participates in several working groups, is a steering committee member of the Alternative Mining Indaba[14], is a steering committee member of the African Coalition on Corporate Accountability, coordinated the participation of CSOs in the Zimbabwe Mining Revenue Transparency Initiative. [15] ZELA was also chosen as one of the CSO’s representatives in the ZMRTI Multistakeholder Group, the Zimbabwe Mining Revenue Transparency Initiative Oversight Group.

  • ZELA has also been able to successfully create a platform for engagement by the various stakeholders in the mining sector through the Alternative Mining Indabas (AMIs). Since 2012, ZELA has been holding the national AMIs on an annual basis which is aimed at providing safe spaces for stakeholders like CSOs, CBOs, legislators, traditional leaders, mining companies and the media to dialogue on various issues related to natural resources governance. In 2013, ZELA added Provincial Alternative Mining Indabas (PAMIs) platforms for stakeholders to interrogate issues related to the mining sector, which feeds into the national AMI.
  • ZELA also coordinated the participation of Civil Society Organisations working on the Land and Environment sector in the constitutional reform process. The inclusive Government of Government of National Unity was formed as a result of the Global Political Agreement that was signed between the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) and the two Movements for Democratic Change (MDC) formations.[16] Constitutional Amendment No.19 provided for the setting up a Select Committee of Parliament to spearhead the constitutional reform process with the mandate to hold public hearings and consultations leading to a referendum within the first 18 months of the inception of a new government.  The National Association of Non Governmental Organisations (NANGO) coordinated the participation of CSOs in the constitutional reforms process under the Civil Society Organisations Constitutional Reform Coordinating Mechanism (CSOCRCM). Leading organisations in NANGO’s various thematic areas of programming were chosen to coordinate the participation of these sectors in the constitutional reform process. ZELA led the Land and Environment sector. The major focus of our work was to ensure that the envisaged Constitution enshrined rights that are expressive or reflective of natural resources governance.

The new Constitution of Zimbabwe, which was adopted in 2013, now has an expanded Bill of Rights, which includes EESCR as fundamental human rights. One of the biggest challenges that organisations working on natural resources governance faced before the adoption of the new constitution was that EESCR were not justiciable.  This is no longer the case and this is due to ZELA and other organisations’ efforts during the constitutional reform process.


The ZELA story is testimony of what can be achieved when there is focus, determination, passion and commitment. While the development and growth of the organization has faced a number of challenges, the founding members, board, management and staff have remained resolute in ensuring that the dream remains alive. ZELA has been able to survive until this long by being adaptive and innovative in its programming so as to remain relevant in national development.  Without this, the dream could have died a long time ago. 

[1] This was a US $ 200 000 2 year grant and Professor Owen Lynch was instrumental in convincing the Ford Foundation to give us an opportunity although ZELA had no track record for managing such a huge grant. Professor Lynch was as helpful in securing the grant as instrumental in securing the grant for ZELA as he was in its formation.  His commitment to the cause was unparalleled

[2] Mutuso Dhliwayo resigned from his post as a legal officer from Environmental Africa and Makanatsa Makonese also quitted private practice while Shamiso Mtisi was already working for ZELA on full time basis as Projects Coordinator. George Gapu, Tumai Murombo and Josiah Chinherende continued in private practice at Scanlen and Holderness, Muvingi and Mugadza and … respectively but were involved in ZELA’s work on fulltime basis

[3] The office equipment included 1 photocopying machine , 3 printers, 5 desks , 15 chairs, 1 fax machine, bins, trays and garden tools

[4] Makanatsa Makonese and Shamiso Mtisi availed their vehicles for ZELA business

[5] The Ford Foundation support to ZELA’s work which started in 2003 is still on going

[6] See ZELA’s aims and objectives under section 2 of the Deed of Trust and Donation

[7] Patti Moore, Xuemei Zhang and Ronnakonon Triragon, 2011

[8] The approach was made under the new theme “ Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative.

[9] Discussions with Nikki Naylor on the 29th of March , 2009.

[10] Cite the relevant constitutional provisions

[11] This was supported by the World Resources Institute from 2002 until 2004

[12] This project was supported by the European Union from 2009  to 2012

[13] Cite the two reports

[14] ZELA played a leading role at the 2015 regional Alternative Mining Indaba. See the 2015 Alternative Mining Indaba Agenda available at


[16] The Agreement was signed on the 15th of September 2008

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