Transnational sovereignty grabbing and evictions from the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park for wildlife conservation and tourism, Mozambique and South Africa

The ongoing establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park — a transboundary conservation initiative between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique - has been hailed by many environmentalists as a bold and innovative model of protecting wildlife across international borders (see Box 7.2). The megapark has been marketed as “a kingdom of animals like no other in the world” by South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation, a major driving force behind the park’s establishment, alongside the African Wildlife Foundation. Only two days after the signing of the international treaty in December 2002, part of the boundary fences that separated the three countries was removed, and wild animals - such as elephants and other large mammals — were subsequently transferred from South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) into the Limpopo National Park (LNP) (Rodgers, 2009). Suddenly, the customary land rights of communities living within the LNP were in limbo.

Box 7.2 The creation of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park

In the late 1990s, South African conservation officials began to meet with counterparts in Mozambique and Zimbabwe to discuss possibilities for joining South Africa’s Kruger National Park with adjacent parks and lands in neighbouring countries. After successful deliberations, the tri-country Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) was established in 2002/03. While Zimbabwe had a pre-existing park (the Gonarezhou National Park) and two other conservation areas to bring to the table, post-conflict Mozambique had no formally protected areas to contribute. Hence, with strong pressure from South Africa, Mozambique transformed a defunct colonial hunting reserve - known as ‘Coutada 16’ - into the Limpopo National Park (LNP). The German Development Bank (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau - KfW) provided the initial funding to the Mozambican Ministry of Tourism to instigate the creation of the LNP and support the process of ‘voluntary resettlement’ of local communities from the park.

Before the LNP’s designation in the early 2000s, Mozambican officials had proposed that the reserve should become a multi-functional zone that would allow co-existence between wildlife and humans. The area of about one million hectares is inhabited by more than 31,000 people. South African state and environmental NGO officials, however, insisted that the core zone be declared a more restrictive protected area requiring the removal of resident communities. Their argument was that inhabitants would disrupt the feel of wilderness that could bring tourism revenues and that they would threaten wildlife in the Kruger National Park (whose last remaining residents had been forcefully removed under the apartheid regime in the late 1960s). After South African demands prevailed, Mozambican officials also began to justify the relocation of communities from the park on the grounds that this was for their own safety, as the LNP was being restocked with ‘dangerous’ wildlife from the Kruger National Park.

Source: Lunstrum and Ybarra, 2018

A large part of the original inhabitants of the area covered by the LNP had already been displaced by Mozambique’s long civil war from 1977—1992, yet there remained a significant number of local settlements, particularly concentrated within those areas that promised the highest potential for tourism and wildlife protection (Rodgers, 2009). When residents heard about the establishment of the new park, some reacted with threats of violent action against wildlife and tourists. Mozambican park officials assured them that they would not be forced to relocate from LNP, as forced displacement was unacceptable to the major donors. Funding from the German Development Bank (KfW) was contingent upon the relocation process being entirely voluntary.

Yet villagers’ main livelihood activities — farming, livestock rearing and hunting - were considered incompatible with the LNP’s conservation objectives. Therefore, park officials had to look for more subtle ways to make people move out of the park. The strategy of choice was to gradually tighten park regulations in order to limit villagers’ livelihood options and also remind villagers that they would have much better livelihood opportunities elsewhere and would be safe from dangerous wildlife if they moved (DeMotts, 2017). While many park residents were in fact concerned about the dangers posed by roaming elephants and other large wildlife, most of them did not trust government officials due to prior experiences with forced displacement, hence the resettlement process was delayed by several years.

In 2003, the LNP management commissioned a so-called ‘Resettlement Policy Framework’ which drew on international best practice, i.e. the World Bank’s safeguard policy on involuntary resettlement, which includes such principles as (1) avoid or minimise involuntary resettlement, (2) pursue resettlement as a development project, (3) engage in extensive consultation with communities, and (4) establish fair and rigorous grievance mechanisms (Rodgers, 2009). Two communities were eventually resettled - one in 2009 and the other in 2011 - following a series of consultations and after giving informed consent as a whole community, although there had been individual voices of dissent (Otsuki, Acha and Wijnhoud, 2017). The resettlement action plans had foreseen adequate compensation for all material losses, but did not take into account less tangible losses, such as leaving graveyards behind or losing access to traditional plants and animals that were only found in the core zone of the park (Witter and Satterfield, 2014).

While the agreement promised the provision of better housing, infrastructure and farmland — which were the main reasons why the community gave their consent - one of the communities had not obtained farmland nearly five years after the relocation and had to negotiate land access with a neighbouring community (Otsuki, Acha and Wijnhoud, 2017). The LNP management insisted that it was up to the respective district to provide farmland for the resettled people, while local government officials asserted that it was the community’s own responsibility to make requests for land allocation to neighbouring communities. As a consequence, there was rising resentment within the community against the park officials and the local government (Otsuki, Acha and Wijnhoud, 2017). This case begs the questions of whether one can speak of ‘voluntary’ resettlement in a situation of limited choice and false promises.

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