By Tendai Ruombwa
MUTARE — People claiming to be veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation took advantage of the land reform programme launched by the government in 2000 to settle around the Vumba Mountains for farming purposes.
They are also indiscriminately cutting down trees, cultivating on river beds and illegally killing game for the pot. The settlers camped in the mountains in 2004 and have resisted all efforts to evict them. One of the farmers Zvenyika Chigodora vowed to stay put saying only President Mugabe can move them.
“As you can see we are preparing more land for the next season. We fought the liberation struggle so we could farm on these fertile lands. The President gave us a chance to be land owners during the land reform program.
He accused the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) which has been trying to evict them of being imperialists working with the West to reverse the gains of the liberation struggle. “Mugabe is the only person who will tell us what to do”, he said whilst clearing land for cultivation.
Hectares of land have been cleared for farming and the settlers have erected small huts. The settlers are farming on riverbeds causing siltation and gullies in the low lying areas. When this reporter visited the area the settlers were at ease contrary to reports from the EMA that they are preparing to vacate the area at the end of June.
Villagers in the area say the illegal farmers are being protected by Zanu PF and have been used to terrorise other villagers in an effort to retain the Mutare South constituency during general elections expected late this year or early next year.
Onismo Maengahama who operates an indigenous tree sanctuary said the destruction of natural environment had been worsened by people who invaded the area that was not suitable for habitation but are left alone for political gains.
Headman Amos Nyamakari whose area was invaded by the more than 30 families said all farming infrastructure like irrigation pipes in the area are being destroyed and if the invaders are not moved the area could soon be turned into a desert.
“Before these people came the forests were dense and we harnessed irrigation water for our horticultural produce from the Nyamakari and Nyamataka rivers. Now they are cutting down trees, farming on mountain slopes and along riverbeds, this is causing land degradation and is also worsening siltation of the rivers whose water is the source of livelihood for the whole village.”
He added that rivers now run dry before the rainy season and this is affecting irrigation farming by horticulturalists that have relied upon the rivers for many years.
Kingston Chitotombe the Manicaland Provincial Environmental Officer with the EMA concurred with Headman Nyamakari. He said attempts to move the farmers over the past three years have failed. He however said his organisation is not giving up and will take action.
“The settlers have caused untold harm to the environment. We gave them a deadline to vacate the area but they pleaded with us to let them harvest their crops. If they do not move after that we shall move them forcibly. We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Tourism and the police”
Asked why it has taken close to eight years to relocate the farmers Chitotombe said the issue was delicate and hence there was need to address it in an amicable manner, “We have held a number of meetings with the farmers concerned and other stakeholders but the problem is where to move them and who will build new homes for them. As EMA we have no capacity to build them houses.”
An official from the Manicaland Provincial Administration office who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation said though some officials from Zanu PF like Fred Kanzama the local Member of Parliament are advocating for the removal of the farmers they are conniving with them to stay put as moving them will cost his party support.
Vumba in Mutare South is one of the six constituencies won by Zanu PF in Manicaland in the last general elections. Fred Kanzama narrowly won the seat. He distanced himself from the illegal farmers saying;
“I am not aware of any illegal farming taking place I have only heard it through the grape-vine, my hands are clean and the law should take its course. As ZANU PF we are a law abiding party and no one should be allowed to drag the party into disrepute for their selfish gain”
However Mutare Rural district information officer Josphat Manzini said the illegal settlers were landless people and proper steps should be taken to resettle them.
“We are aware of the damage they are causing to the environment but we cannot treat them as animals. We are making the necessary arrangements to relocate them and we are still working on the modalities. It will be naive to say they are political activists because the land reform program is a government initiative and not a Zanu PF program- any Zimbabwean who wants a piece of land benefit.”
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