The move by Government to initiate the long-overdue wildlife-based land reform programme by issuing hunting permits to 25 black farmers — allocated plots at the Save Valley Conservancy in the Lowveld after a delay of nearly eight years — has been the dominant subject of debate in socio-political and economic circles over the past two weeks.
Very few were surprised as they watched while a genuine case of black empowerment was maliciously turned into a political soap opera as haggling between the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe, the Save Valley Conservation Farmers, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, indigenous permit recipients and Government ministers raged.
It soon became clear to those with a discerning eye that the licensing of the black farmers had indeed touched a raw nerve among the white former conservancy owners who have dominated the industry even before independence.
Charges of double dipping, aiding and abetting poaching against the black licence holders by the white farmers were met with counter-accusations of unwillingness to work with indigenous people and outright greed levelled against the white farmers.
Observers say the unrelenting media assault on the wildlife-based land reform by the white farmers within the Save Valley Conservancy marks a new but expected twist to a campaign aimed at frustrating black empowerment.
As Zimbabweans attempt to comprehend the rationale behind the refusal by the current land occupiers to accommodate new indigenous players, the whole debate should be put into perspective.
The facts are as follows:
Government’s Wildlife-based Land Reform Programme Operationalisation Policy Document — a product of the Land Acquisition Act of 2006 — approved three basic models of indigenising the industry.
According to the policy, the first option involves a partnership between the current farmers, the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe and local communities.
The second option involves a joint venture between sitting farmers and the local communities.
This option involves the ceding of 10 percent shareholding to a local trust in a manner to what foreign-owned mines are doing.
The last option, which was chosen as the model of choice for the 25 black lease recipients in the Save Valley Conservancy, has been the source of all the recent brouhaha.
It is an arrangement that involves a three-way partnership between the current farmers, local communities and private indigenous investors.
White farmers preferred the implementation of the second model despite its glaring disadvantages for local people, thereby opposing the Government-preferred model number three, which not only benefits entrepreneurs but also local communities.
The refusal by the white farmers to comply with the country’s laws, which state that beneficiaries of any State land are granted “user rights” in the form of either a lease, offer letter or a certificate of occupation, smacks of outright arrogance and lawlessness.
Close scrutiny of the wildlife-based land reform programme shows that under the second model, local communities benefit very little in terms of participation, capacity-building and community sustainable development given their meagre 10 percent shareholding.
The shareholding structure gives them very little say in how the conservancy venture is run.
Observers also argue that under the model, traditional chiefs and rural community leaders who will sit on the conservancy board are not technically competent but also have very little bargaining power when it comes to agitating for the development of their communities, making the whole exercise piecemeal and cosmetic.
The third model will result in what wildlife management expert and lecturer at Chinhoyi University of Technology Mr Gladman Chibhememe describes as “a comprehensive indigenisation of the wildlife industry that maximises the potential for business innovation”.
Under the arrangement, 10 percent community share ownership is awarded to local communities while the rest of the shareholding stake is apportioned among local investors and the current farmers on an equitable basis.
This means, at the end of the day, locals will hold at least a 55 percent stake.
While the public has been fed falsehoods that white farmers will end up losing their investment and land allocations, it is clear that none of the three models stipulates the compulsory acquisition of land.
The law clearly says the onus to extend the white farmers’ leases or those of black farmers for that matter remains with the “allocating authority”.
However, while caution should be taken during this transitional period given the significance of this key cog of the tourism industry, the question on most people’s minds is: should the nation be held to ransom by a group of privileged farmers?
While there have been loud cries of foul play in the way the leases and hunting quotas were allocated to mostly senior Zanu-PF officials, this should not deflect the debate from the fact that the programme is aimed at ensuring equitable access by Zimbabweans to land and wildlife resources as well as associated business opportunities.
It, however, goes without saying that transparency in the allocation process is a fundamental aspect of the whole exercise that should be at the top of the allocating authority’s priority list.
According to Mr Chibhememe, a single 18-day elephant hunt rakes in no less that US$24 000 for a conservationist while lion and leopard hunts leave the farmer US$20 000 richer.
He said farmers in the Save Valley Conservancy with a land allocation of 10 000-plus hectares usually receive yearly hunting quotas of no less than 10 lions, 10 buffaloes, 10 leopards and an assortment of other game, making the business one of the most lucrative ventures in the tourism industry.
Apart from constructing campsites, artificial watering holes, safari lodges, providing security and paying their workers meagre salaries, the conservationists have very little else in terms of operational costs.
They are also required to relinquish 2 percent of their earnings for each successful hunting trophy to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe.
It remains to be seen whether the white farmers will throw a tantrum and walk down the same road as the former commercial farmers who sought recourse at the now-defunct Sadc Tribunal.
It is the same script, only the actors are different. The former commercial farmers whose properties were designated for acquisition approached the tribunal, hoping it would reverse the land reform programme. The tribunal was all but dismantled at the Sadc summit in Maputo two weeks ago.
Analysts say the Rhodie mentality that was displayed by opponents of the agrarian revolution at the turn of the millennium is the same thinking that informs those who are opposing wildlife-based land reform.