In Zambia, battle over future of Victoria Falls

For Nalumino Ifunga, a security guard at a quiet campsite and lodge just down the road from Victoria Falls, afternoons often consist of watching vervet monkeys frolic in the trees.

But Mr. Ifunga wonders if those monkeys – and the elephants, hippos, and giraffes that share the woods with them – will stick around after South African hotel developer Legacy Group Holdings opens a controversial new resort next door in Mosi Oa Tuyna National Park, which borders the Falls, Zambia's biggest tourist attraction.

Legacy's plan, which originally included two five-star hotels, a golf course, and 450 villas just a few miles from the falls, sparked a bitter battle late last year between environmentalists, developers, and the Zambian government. It has also posed a dilemma for some local residents, like Ifunga.

"[The hotels] create employment for local people, but on the other hand ... these animals you see here, they will be driven away from their homes," Ifunga noted.

Environmental advocates in this peaceful but stubbornly poor southern African nation say they have staved off the worst after a fierce campaign that persuaded the government to force Legacy to drop the golf course and the villas, while still allowing the group to build the two hotels. But the debate highlighted the uneasy balance being forged in Zambia between the sometimes competing demands of conservation, tourism, poverty reduction, and job creation.

Jobs vs. the environment

"There aren't so many industries offering job opportunities to the people," says Danny Mwango, a senior inspector for environmental-impact assessment at the Environmental Council of Zambia. "This was one big project that was going to offer 1,000 employment opportunities to the people. At the same time, the government is also thinking of bringing development to Zambia and reducing poverty. And then, we're weighing this against environmental and social considerations."

Mosi Oa Tunya park (which means "the smoke that thunders," the ancient local name for the falls) covers 25 square miles along the Zambezi River's final approach to the falls, where it plummets more than 300 feet. The surrounding town of Livingstone – named for David Livingstone, the 19th-century British missionary and explorer who was the first white man to lay eyes on the Falls – has sought to cultivate an image as the "adventure capital of southern Africa," with bungee jumping, white-water rafting, helicopter rides, and a host of other activities for thrill-seekers available at $100 a pop.

The town is currently enjoying a boom, partly at the expense of neighboring Zimbabwe, which shares the Falls with Zambia and has lost tourists to Livingstone amid the economic decline and political conflict surrounding President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian rule.

But that won't last forever, says Rennie Mushinge, the development director at Legacy's Zambia branch. Mr. Mushinge argues that having a major new resort is vital to the long-term future of Livingstone as a tourist destination, noting that the town still can't equal the hotel capacity of the Zimbabwean gateway town of Victoria Falls, right across the river.

"Victoria Falls is the biggest asset we have to get tourists into Zambia." says Rennie Mushinge, the development director at Legacy's Zambia branch. "If we don't have adequate bed capacity in Livingstone, how are we going to grow tourism in Zambia?"

Last year, the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) opened up a small slice of the park for tourism development, part of the Zambian government's effort to make tourism a key driver of economic growth. Legacy moved in and negotiated with the Zambian government to secure an even bigger chunk of land.

When environmentalists and civil society groups got wind of the proposed deal, they were incensed, in part because the proposal would threaten an important habitat for the hundreds of elephants that cross the river from Zimbabwe into Zambia each year. They also complained that the extra land had been granted in a secretive fashion, raising questions about the transparency of the environmental review process in Zambia, where the government continues to struggle with bureaucratic corruption, especially in the allocation of land.

Lure of investment

But the promise of jobs and cash from foreign investors is a powerful motivator for citizens and politicians in Zambia, where only about 20 percent of the workforce is formally employed.

Legacy won support from some local residents – and the local chief – who argued that job creation must accompany conservation. The project would "create space for us to find work. It's a very good idea," Victor Mweela, a young taxi driver, says as he waits for customers outside a recently built Livingstone shopping complex catering to affluent tourists. "Maybe we'll find jobs. I don't like to be a taxi driver."

But conservation and civil-society groups called this a dangerously short-term outlook, given Zambia's reliance on its national parks for revenue. After raising their concerns at a contentious public hearing last fall, they used Internet blogs to keep supporters updated and to spread the word internationally.

It worked.

Safari tour operators in Britain threatened to boycott Legacy. The US Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Zambian government to voice its concerns. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) let it be known that the project would put in jeopardy the World Heritage site status that the Falls and the park currently enjoy.

In December, the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) handed down a compromise decision. Noting that the Legacy proposal would have "far reaching environmental consequences," the ECZ said that the golf course and villas would have to go. Legacy could keep its two hotels, but would be prohibited from putting up animal fencing or building their hotels higher than the treetops.

"It was a huge victory," says Mike Musgrave, a South African-born businessman and president of the Livingstone chapter of the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia. "It's the biggest environmental campaign ever run in Zambia."

Legacy lost an appeal to the government, and its investment into Livingstone will now drop to $50 million from a planned $260 million, Mr. Mushinge says. "Thanks to our environmental guys," he says with a laugh.

Legacy may buy up private land to expand their site. And rampant development continues to threaten the Falls, international observers say.

Still, Mr. Musgrave says he is encouraged that at least in this instance, policy-makers took the long view and concluded that development – in the name of tourism – might actually drive away tourists.

"We need to keep the Falls in the way that Livingstone saw them," Musgrave says. "That's what tourists come to see."

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