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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fatal Wildlife Attraction

There is something fatally attractive about the wild. Of course I am not talking about the ‘Wild Wild West’ that attracted a number of movie viewers. Here the object, nay subject, of attraction is the so-called African wild.

What make tourists and hunters so attracted to the African wild? What is so special about this attraction that warrants the use of wild discourse to sustain it? Observe, for instance, this welcome note from Tanzania Tourist Board’s brochure ‘Karibu Tanzania 1995’: “With a rich cultural heritage of more than 120 tribes and an abundance of wildlife living in natural habitats, Tanzania today is reputed as the last frontier of the enchanting Africa of the last century.”

In the same year an international hunting company from Germany proclaimed that when it comes to Tanzania “there is no comparable hunting ground in Africa with a similar diversity or number of species or where such staggering game populations still exist in a wilder, more primitive, and still to a large extent, unspoilt.”

These descriptions explain why the 1990s paved the way for the establishment of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). These WMAs were and are still celebrated as ways out of environmental degradation, extinction of endangered species and human poverty. There is a WMA that even went out of its way to grab 64 percent of village land from a single village.

Curiously, it is the international conservation organisations that have been spearheading the creation of WMAs. In a way some of them have even been involved in demarcating village land for WMAs. Through a colorful billboard one such organization, the African Wildlife Foundation, is even advertising a legitimizing image: “Conserving Wildlife Protecting Land Empowering People.” The positioning of these texts makes one wonder what comes first – people or wildlife?

In case you think these questions smacks of paranoia characterizing contemporary activists, consider this observation that was made way back in 1978 by the travel writer of ‘North of South: An African Journey’: “The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the denigration of the human population.” This obsessive concern, I am convinced, is behind the ongoing land dispute between Vilima Vitatu village government and the so-called pastoralists.

I say the so-called pastoralists because it seems there is an entrenched myth that there is a clear demarcation between farmers and pastoralists. The myth informs a somewhat village land use plan which, purportedly, strictly allocated an area in Burunge WMA for pastures. This is strictly in the sense that pastoralists are, supposedly, not allowed to inhabit that area let alone farm in it.
So here we are with a village that has 19, 800 hectors out of which 12, 829.9 hectors are conserved within a WMA. A French investor, Un Afrique En Lodge (ULEA), is welcomed to build a tourist lodge/camp within this WMA as if s/he is not a threat to the wild. Yet the pastoralists have to raze their shelters, abandon their little farms and let the animals in peace so that tourists can wildy gaze at them.

Just force pastoralists to leave for they have no idea what conservation is all about. Why should it matter that agro-economy tell us that they actually practice one of the most environment-friendly modes of production known as transhumance? Just evict them for, as warriors, they are a threat to wildlife. Who said they kill game for food? Just move them to areas that are better for their livelihoods. How can they have the expertise to know what is good and right for them?

No wonder we end up with packs of stereotypes to justify opening a land bank for investors.Thus we join the bandwagon of what the authors of ‘Conservation, Commerce, and Communities: The Story of Community-Based Wildlife Management Areas in Tanzania’s Northern Tourist Circuit’ refers to as “revaluing landscapes in ways that make them desirable and available to private investors, while keeping key wildlife migration corridors free of human habitation.”

Ironically, we also end up resorting to old gendered colonial myths of ‘virgin lands’ and ‘no man’s land.’ We find ourselves embarking on joint investments ventures with the Cecil Rhodes and the Lord Delameres of today. What, then, will stop the future generations to read about our history in disgust as we read about the history of King Lobengula and Chief Mang'ung'o?

Championing these myths the renowned woman of letters, Elspeth Huxley, thus wrote about a pioneering settler expeditions in Eastern Africa: “They had travelled a thousand miles from Lugh without sight of sound civilization. The stretch through which they had come lay still unclaimed, unwanted, practically unknown.” She thus concluded: “In those days the country was a no-man’s-land, as yet unclaimed by any of the Powers.”

Let us challenge the Elspeth Huxleys of today. Let us insist that here there is no such thing as a ‘no man’s land’ or ‘no woman’s land.’ Let us reclaim our land rights.


Adapted from The Citizen 13 June 2008

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