Elizabeth Munene is a villager from Velemu village in Chilonga, Zimbabwe, and belongs to the Shangaan tribe. In her community, cutting down trees without a good reason is against the rules. The punishment for breaking this rule is giving a goat to the village head, a custom that shows how much the community disapproves of cutting down trees. Mrs. Munene says, “We were taught that deforestation affected our environment.” Instead of cutting down the whole tree, people in her community prune the branches.
Villagers like Mrs. Munene used to rely on firewood and paraffin lamps for cooking and lighting.
Nowadays, the mother of two uses solar panels to cook and use electricity at home. She says, “I was taught that solar power is a clean and smart energy that does not cause pollution which adds to climate change.”
Despite these efforts to live sustainably, Mrs. Munene and around 12,500 villagers in the area are facing eviction because of an irrigation scheme that will destroy over 12,000 hectares of trees. The eviction process started in 2021, and although it has been halted due to community protests, the government has promised to continue.
The government informed villagers that they would be relocated for an alfalfa plantation that would supply a dairy company. The plan was later changed to an irrigation scheme after villagers asked the high court to stop the eviction. Villagers argued that their sacred religious sites and ancestral land would be lost if they were displaced.
The government says the eviction is allowed by the Communal Lands Act. In Zimbabwe, the president has control over communal lands and decides how they can be used and occupied. The result has been a series of protests by villagers.
Villagers in Velemu have an environmental committee consisting of six members who ensure that environmental laws are followed. They encourage people to avoid bush fires and not cut down trees indiscriminately. If someone doesn’t follow the rules, the committee reports them to the village head, who can take the matter to traditional or criminal courts.
The villagers have been conserving their biodiverse area for centuries. This includes avoiding cultivation along stream banks to stop silting up the nearby Runde River. They rotate crops to improve soil fertility, use organic fertilizers, and stop bush fires that destroy forests and grasslands. They also assign separate areas for settlement, fields, and pastures.
Enock Piki’s family has lived in the area since 1963. He says: “The mopane tree leaves provide rich vitamins for our cattle and goats, and the baobab tree houses nests for hornbill birds and other rare bird species as well as endemic small animals like squirrels, snakes, and rabbits. These will become endangered if deprived of their natural habitats by the irrigation scheme’s clearing of land.”
He explains that the villagers rely on the hornbills for weather forecasting. The cries of the birds as they fly east, usually in October, means the rains are coming, and is a sign for farmers to start dry planting. Mr. Piki says, “The sacred birds have never failed us as we study them. If in one year we do not see them or hear them crying, we know there is doing to be a drought.”
The environment minister, Mangaliso Ndlovu, stated that any company planning to conduct business must conduct an environmental impact assessment.
The villagers are worried about the impact of the irrigation scheme on their environment. They’ve experienced deforestation in the past, which left parts of the area barren and only a few bird species remaining. That was when they set up separate areas for fields, cattle grazing, and homesteads. They hope that their environment won’t be scarred again by the irrigation scheme.
This story was adapted from an article written by Tatenda Chitagu for Mongabay, titled “In Zimbabwe, an irrigation project threatens a tribe’s land and trees.” To read the full story, go to: https://news.mongabay.com/2021/10/in-zimbabwe-an-irrigation-project-threatens-a-tribes-land-and-trees/#:~:text=A%20Zimbabwean%20minority%20tribe%2C%20the,baobab%20trees%20in%20their%20area .
Photo: Muhlava inspecting vegetable crops in her garden. Image courtesy of Prosper Tatenda.