You are here

Natural resources
Unfolding humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe  

Unfolding humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe

Facebook logoForward logoTwitter logo

When the Tokwe-Mukosi dam wall in the Chivi basin region in Zimbabwe breached in early January of this year, the government had found a perfect excuse to expel 18,000 people who had been living there since they were born. Now, they are trying to survive in a transit camp 150 kilometres away from their homeland. Poor sanitary conditions will likely cause “a disaster”, according to a government official.

By Davison Mudzingwa and Francis Hweshe

As the villagers sit around the flickering fire on a pitch-black night lit only by the blurry moon, they speak, recounting how it all began. They take turns, sometimes talking over each other to have their own experiences heard. When the old man speaks, everyone listens. “It was my first time riding a helicopter,” John Moyo (not his real name) remembers. “The soldiers came, clutching guns, forcing everyone to move. I tried to resist, for my home was not affected [by the flooding], but they wouldn’t hear any of it.”

This is how the long, painful and disorienting journey started for the 70-year-old Moyo and almost 18,000 other people who lived in the Chivi basin region in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province. When heavy rains pounded the area in early January, the 1.8 billion cubic metre Tokwe-Mukosi dam wall breached. Flooding followed, destroying homes and livestock. The government, with the help of non-governmental organisations, embarked on a rescue mission. However, soldiers also evacuated homes in high-lying areas that hadn’t been hit by the water.

Graves of the forefathers
According to Moyo, whose home was not affected, the government saw the flooding as an opportunity, as it had been trying to relocate those living near the Chivi basin for some time. “They always said they wanted to establish an irrigation system and a game park in the area where our ancestral homes were,” Moyo says.

For Itai Mazanhi (not his real name), a 33-year-old father of three, the government had found the best excuse to remove them from the land that he had known since they were born. “The graves of my forefathers are in that place,” says Mazanhi, who hails from Gororo village.

After having been temporarily housed in the nearby safe areas of Gunikuni and Ngundu in Masvingo province, the over 18,000 people (3,000 families) were transferred to Nuanetsi Ranch in the Chingwizi area of Mwenezi district, about 150 kilometres from their former homes.

Hot and dry
Chingwizi is an arid terrain near Triangle Estates, a sugar plantation owned by sugar giant Tongaat Hulett. The land here is conspicuous for the mopane and giant baobab trees that are synonymous with hot, dry conditions. The crop and livestock farmers from Chivi basin have been forced to adjust in a land that lacks the natural fertility of their former land, water and adequate pastures for their livestock. The dust road to the Chingwizi camp is a laborious 40-minute drive littered with sharp bumps and lurking roadside trenches.

From the top of an anthill, a vantage point at the entrance of this settlement reveals a pattern of tents and zinc makeshift structures as far as the eye can see. At night, fires flicker faintly in the distance, and a cacophony of voices mix with the music from solar- and battery-powered radio sets. It’s the image of a war refugee camp.

A concern for the displaced families is the fact that they were settled in an area earmarked for a proposed biofuel project. The project is set to be driven by the Zimbabwe Bio-Energy company, a partnership between the Zimbabwe Development Trust and private investors. The state-owned Herald newspaper quoted the project director Charles Madonko saying resettled families could become sugarcane out-growers for the ethanol project.

This plan was subject to a scathing attack from NGO Human Rights Watch. In a report released last month, the organisation viewed this as a cheap labour ploy. “The Zimbabwean army relocated 3,000 families from the flooded Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin to a camp on a sugar cane farm and ethanol project jointly owned by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front [Zanu-PF] and Billy Rautenbach, a businessman and party supporter,” the report reads. 

Zanu-PF bigwigs
The sugarcane plantations will be irrigated by the water from the Tokwe-Mukosi dam. Upon completion, the dam is set to become Zimbabwe’s largest inland dam, with a capacity to irrigate over 25,000 hectares. Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development, COTRAD, an NGO that operates in the Masvingo province, sees the displacement of the 3,000 families as a brutal retrogression. The organisation says ordinary people are at the mercy of private companies and the government. “The people feel like outcasts, they no longer feel like Zimbabweans,” says COTRAD programme manager Zivanai Muzorodzi.

Muzorodzi, whose organisation has been monitoring the land tussle before the floods, says the land surrounding the Tokwe-Mukosi dam basin was bought by individuals, mostly from the ruling Zanu-PF party. “Villagers won’t own the land or the means of production. Only Zanu-PF bigwigs will benefit,” Muzorodzi says.

The scale of the camp has posed serious challenges for the cash-strapped government of Zimbabwe. Humanitarian organisations like Oxfam International and Care International have set up basic services such as clean water through water bowsers and makeshift toilets.

“It’s not safe at all, it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” says a Zimbabwe Ministry of Local Government and Urban Development official stationed at the camp; he prefers to remain anonymous. “The latrines you see here are only one metre deep. An outbreak of a contagious disease would spread fast.”

Similar fears stalk Spiwe Chando (not her real name), a mother of four. The 23 year old is sorting out her belongings scattered in small blue tent in which an adult cannot sleep fully stretched out. “I fear for my child, because another family lost a child due to diarrhoea last week. This can happen to anyone,” she says, sweating from the heat inside the tent. “I hope we will move from this place soon and get proper land to restart our lives.”

This issue causes tensions at the over-populated camp. Rumours are spreading like wildfire and frustrations are building up. As a result, a ministerial delegation got a hostile reception during a visit last month. The displaced farmers accuse the government of deception and reneging on its promises of land allocation and compensation.[related-articles]

The government has promised to allocate one hectare of land per family, at a location about 17 kilometres from the transit camp. This falls far short of what these families owned in the Chivi basin area. Some of them, like Mazanhi, had ten hectares of land.

The land was able to produce enough food for their sustenance and a surplus, which they would sell to finance their children’s education and healthcare.

Mazanhi is one of the few people who have already received compensation from the government. Of the agreed compensation of 3,000 dollars, he has only received 900, and he is not certain if he will ever be paid the remainder. “There is a lot of corruption going on in that office,” he says.

COTRAD says the fact that ordinary villagers are secondary beneficiaries of the land and water that once belonged to them communally is an indication of a resource grabbing trend that further widens the gap of inequality. “People no longer have land, access to water, and healthcare, and children are learning under trees,” COTRAD programme manager Muzorodzi says.

For Moyo, the daily reality at the transit camp and a hazy future are a painful reminder of a life gone by as well as a sign of “the next generation of dispossession.” However, he hopes for a better future. “We don’t want this life of getting fed like birds,” he says.

Originally published by IPS