Coronavirus and the Cycle of Conservation Violence in Southern Africa

Zimbabwe’s protected forests are home to some of the most valuable species on the planet, and political ecologist Tafadzwa Mushonga reports that over the past few months while the world has been distracted, illegal resource access and conservation violence has been on the rise.

Image by AJ Robbie on Unsplash.

As the world was brought to a standstill by the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Zimbabwe joined the global order of shutting down its borders and restricting movement from within and outside the country in an effort to control COVID-19 contagion. During this time, illegal resource access and associated conservation violence in, and around, Zimbabwe’s protected forests were expected to decrease due to restricted movement of people.

Predominantly stretching across Matabeleland north province, the country’s protected forests are home to some of the most valuable commercial timber species, non-timber forest products, and wildlife resources. The reservation of these resources between 1930 and 1960 was, however, characterised by violent displacement and criminalisation of people’s livelihood activities.1 Coercive and exclusionary management models, bordered on violent conservation policies, have defined state management practices in both colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, however, not without contestation.Resource-dependent people contest access to land and resources by re-settling or farming in forests, pilfering resources, and sabotaging state conservation programmes. The rise in commercial wildlife poaching, more organised and sophisticated in its tact and enabled by the participation and complicity of adjacent local communities, has presented greater forms of resistance to state violence in the past three decades. In response, Forestry Commission (FC)—the authority responsible for the management of state forests in Zimbabwe, has adopted militarised strategies typified by use of lethal force to enforce conservation.

However, the relationship between state-led violence and resistance has, over the years, been a zero-sum product. People are becoming more resistant with the increasing use of violent tactics, the result—a continuous cycle of conservation violence.

“The relationship between state-led violence and resistance has, over the years, been a zero-sum product. People are becoming more resistant with increasing use of violent tactics, the result—a continuous cycle of conservation violence”

The coronavirus pandemic has marginally altered the cycle of illegal resource access and associated violence. While the national shutdown has temporarily prevented commercial poaching activities, which often attracts more lethal violence, it has, however, not deterred pilfering by local communities. Statistics from the Forestry Commission Security show that zero cases of elephant poaching were recorded in Matabeleland north from the 1st of March to 26th of May 2020. However, pilfering of timber and non-timber resources has increased during the same period. During eighty-seven days before and after lockdown respectively, 10 compared to 15 people have been arrested, 37 versus 51 logs of Pterocarpus angolensis, and 2m3 against 6m3 of firewood have been illegally harvested, while 2 cases of subsistent hunting compared to 12 have been recorded.

These statistics demonstrate that illegal activities and resource securitisation have concomitantly increased during the lockdown. This correlation is likely to persist after lockdown, intensified by the proliferation of commercial wildlife poaching, which is anticipated to surge. Consequently, resource securitisation will intensify, resulting in increased cases of arrests and associated conservation violence.

Tafadzwa Mushonga (centre) with state forest guards and elephants at a waterhole in the background, taken during her PhD fieldwork in Sikumi Forest reserve, Matabeleland, north Zimbabwe in 2016.

These upturns will occur against the socio-economic, socio-political and environmental specificities of Matabeleland province, as well as Zimbabwe’s prevailing broader political economy. The correlated upsurges will additionally occur against larger regional economic setbacks brought by COVID-19, in particular, increasing rates of unemployment. Matabeleland north is one of the driest regions of the country with little to no sustenance of rural communities from commercial agriculture. It is also one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change and problems of scale.

Apart from adverse environmental conditions, the province has been marginalised since independence in 1980. Most noticeable is the poor infrastructure for education. As a result, approximately 12 % of the region’s population aged between 3 and 24 years have never been to school, while about 32% usually drop out.4 Without adequate qualifications, most cannot compete in the shrinking job market. The continuous socio-economic and political challenges in Zimbabwe have coerced many young people to migrate to neighbouring South Africa where they take menial jobs in farms, restaurants, and construction. But, South Africa has its own economic challenges. Unemployment rates are rising, so is the animosity against foreign nationals as witnessed in the past extremely violent xenophobic attacks. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates the situation, with unemployment rates expected to rise to between 40 and 50 %,which translates to over 1 million South Africans losing their jobs. As a result, the South African government has taken a policy position to consider South African first for jobs post the pandemic.

If this policy is implemented, many Zimbabweans working in diverse sectors of South Africa’s economy risk losing their jobs. Job losses may force many to return home, to an ailing economy with nothing to offer. Industry in Zimbabwe was shut down long before the coronavirus pandemic leaving the country reliant on the informal sector. Without jobs, crime has generally increased in Zimbabwe’s metropolises, is expected to continue increasing, and to cascade to remote areas. In Matabeleland region, wildlife, timber, and non-timber related crime presents an easy alternative livelihood option for returnees and is likely to spike. I also project increased partnerships between people living in adjacent protected areas and commercial poachers. Such partnerships have existed before the pandemic but are expected to rise because families who once relied on remittances from their children and relatives working in South Africa will no longer enjoy such benefits, resorting to working with commercial poachers as a way to survival.

“Without jobs, crime has generally increased in Zimbabwe [and] wildlife, timber, and non-timber related crime presents an easy alternative livelihood option, and is likely to spike.”

So, the effect of COVID-19 on unemployment in Zimbabwe, and the southern Africa region as a whole, will easily enable the proliferation of commercial poaching activities. Post COVID-19 lockdown is also a period when state agencies will be reopening the ecotourism industry after being severely affected by the global shutdown. Ecotourism was, before the lockdown, the dominant economic activity supporting the survival and existence of environment-based state agents in Zimbabwe.

Following the persistent economic recession, national treasury no longer supports activities of state conservation authorities. Selling conservation is now an activity that authorities such as the FC predominantly undertake as a means of survival. Inevitably, conservation violence will increase with increasing threats to sources of survival. The cycle of conservation violence is, therefore, likely to be more vicious post the coronavirus pandemic as dependency on resources increases.

1. Kwashirai, V. 2009. Green Colonialism in Zimbabwe, 1890-1980. New York: Cambria Press.
2. Matose, F. 1997. Conflicts around forest reserves in Zimbabwe: What prospects for community management? IDS Bulletin, 28, 69-78.
3. Anonymous Forestry Commission Security personnel.
4. ZimStats. Census 2012: Provincial report, Matabeleland North.
5. Minister Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma Live on SABC news 26 May 2020.

Tafadzwa Mushonga is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship (CAS), University of Pretoria. She is a political ecologist interested in environment and societal issues. At CAS, Tafadzwa is working on extractivism and the environment. She is also part of the team leading the HfE African Observatory.