Lowveld landscapes : conservation, development and the wilderness vision in south-eastern Zimbabwe.
Landscapes, as well as being physical spaces, are imagined and invested with meaning.
The way they are thought about influences what is done to them. Conservation and
development programmes in Zimbabwe's south-east 'lowveld' have been rooted in a
particular conceptualisation of landscape - as wilderness. This derives from the
experiences and priorities of colonial settlers and has had two facets. On the one hand
the landscape came to be constituted as one of adventure, mystique and danger - a
fearful place that 'pioneers' sought to tame into a productive landscape through cattle
ranching or irrigation. On the other hand it has been viewed as a pristine natural
landscape that must be preserved, rehabilitated or consciously manufactured.
In both these manifestations African people were written out of the landscape. Their
uses, perceptions and experiences of this landscape have been ignored in policies
deriving from this 'wilderness vision'. Dryland agriculture in the low veld has been
regularly dismissed as inappropriate, rather than a key livelihood strategy. Irrigation
developments have been biased towards large-scale initiatives in the commercial sector.
Livestock management strategies, other than those recommended for commercial
ranching, have been discouraged. Wildlife utilisation schemes have delivered minimal
returns to communities and imposed coercive regulations on resource use, deepening
antagonism over land; but conservation initiatives such as a transfrontier national park
are going ahead - bolstered by economic imperatives, global environmental agendas
and donor priorities. Land reform has failed to take account of the way the landscape is
bound up with identity through its embodiment of ancestral spirits and function as a
repository of social memories.
The turbulent dynamics around the ongoing farm invasions in Zimbabwe may open
space for previously silenced constructions of landscape to influence policy. An
awareness of the flexible and multiple nature of livelihood strategies and further debate
on the restitution of ancestral lands would go a long way towards improving livelihoods
in the lowveld.