GIRIYONDO BORDER POINT, Mozambique (AlertNet) - The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park is a shining example of what can be achieved when countries put their national egos to one side and cooperate to protect their natural assets, says Baldeu Chande, administrator of Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park and a former national basketball star.
The tall and lanky Chande is well known in southern Africa’s Portuguese-speaking nations, not only for his sporting prowess but as a hands-on environmentalist.
“This transfrontier park represents many things, but the key reason was peace with nature and among neighbours,” he tells AlertNet at the Giriyondo border point where the heads of state of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique signed a treaty establishing the joint park, which crosses national boundaries, in 2002.
In the second half of the 20th century, conservation policies had often had the opposite effect, of creating strife.
Mozambican villagers of the Massingir-Velho area near the Limpopo National Park, for example, often saw their livestock fall prey to big cats and their crops trampled by elephants. And in the 1960s, nature protection schemes displaced local communities, including the Chitsa in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park and the Makuleke in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
“Managed as separate entities, the parks were a continual source of conflict between communities,” says Chande.
The birth of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park required the three nations, members of the Southern African Development Community, to make political compromises, Chande adds.
More than 350 km of fence, which marked political boundaries and prevented animal migration, were uprooted, over 5,000 wild animals were relocated, and a border-control and tourism system set up.
The conservation area, described as southern Africa’s “green lung”, is 35,000 sq km - roughly the size of the Netherlands - and encompasses the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.
There are plans to expand it in the next decade to cover 100,000 sq km, which would make it the world’s largest wildlife conservation area.
The first major change observed after the fences were removed was the migration of 1,000 elephants, with the animals reclaiming historic trails.
Conflicts over natural resources have also been alleviated since the park came into being, including latent tensions over water, experts say.
The 1,750 km Limpopo River runs through four countries, forms long sections of South Africa’s northern boundaries with Botswana and Zimbabwe and flows into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The river basin, which drains an area of around 415,000 sq km, is prone to water scarcity and drought, particularly along its northern bank.
The Limpopo is “a lifeline for the people who live alongside it”, according to Horst Vogel, an official with the German state development agency GIZ who works on trans-boundary water management in the region.
“Its water is common property but unequally distributed, and as such harbours potential for conflict,” he says. But the cross-border park is helping to keep reduce that risk, he says.
“A high degree of transparency in the work being done is helping to strengthen the trust of all players in the trans-boundary cooperation, and (helping them) to approach challenges such as water scarcity and the effects of climate change collectively, in this way avoiding conflicts in the long term and promoting peace,” Vogel explains.
On the banks of the Oliphants River, near the Letaba River campsite in South Africa’s Kruger park, Chande’s conservation comrade, Lamson Maluleke, a representative of the Tsonga-speaking Makuleke people, tells how members of his community were forcefully evicted from the northern Pafuri section of Kruger National Park in 1969.
They found it difficult to cope in their new home in Ntlaveni, where the climate was drier and conditions were cramped, leading to malnutrition, social problems and deadly ethnic clashes with the Venda community.
The Oliphants River, which meanders through the transfrontier park and is part of the Greater Limpopo River Basin, holds divine significance for his people, says Maluleke.
“We identify ourselves with rivers. Our livelihoods and survival are dependent on water and that is why we live near rivers and practice agriculture and fishing at the same time,” he explains. “When we were denied access to land and the river, we suffered.”
In 1996, however, the Makulekes’ fortunes changed, and they won back their land when South Africa’s land restitution laws were implemented.
The legislation awarded the Makuleke people some 24,000 hectares of land endowed with rich wildlife resources. A further 5,000 hectares outside the park is also under the community’s watch.
For their part, the Makuleke community gave a binding guarantee that they would stick to eco-friendly tourism ventures and conservation best-practice. Under the 50-year deal, they were granted rights to enter into public-private partnerships with conservation businesses, but they cannot use the land for farming or residential purposes.
The Makuleke have collaborated with blue-chip tourism entities such as Wilderness Safaris, which runs a 36-bed luxury tourism lodge and is seeking to open another three upmarket lodges soon.
The community receives 10 percent of turnover from the tourist lodges, and there have been additional benefits in the form of jobs, scholarships and the construction of schools, clinics and other facilities.
A joint management board of community representatives and South African National Parks members was set up to govern wildlife in the region. And the Makuleke also have a communal property association with an executive committee elected every two years.
“We are the landlords in that area,” Maluleke beams. “We are custodians of the land and all the resources in it on behalf of humanity.”
According to GIZ’s Vogel, the conservation business model used in the transfrontier park encourages local people to view its land, rivers and wildlife as assets. It aims to promote peaceful co-existence among the park’s communities, who derive their livelihoods from natural resources supported by its ecosystem.
Chande explains how approaches have changed over the decades. “In the 1970s and 80s, we had this conservation philosophy which was more focused on protection than conservation. A new paradigm emerged in the late 1990s, where it was deemed important to engage communities in conservation,” he says.
“This one has stuck to this day, as it embodies communities at peace with nature and at the same time they see the value of the national parks and rivers.”
Wanjohi Kabukuru is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental affairs and based in Nairobi, Kenya.