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Ndumo – An avoidable failure

Many thanks to Angela Impey of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for providing this background to the Ndumo conflict.

Ndumo – “An avoidable failure .............. has put both people and conservation on a collision course."

In 1924, a region bordering Mozambique, comprising pans, rivers and fertile land was proclaimed a protected area to protect the rapidly dwindling hippopotamus population.

In the 1950s, park management was strengthened and resident families were forcibly removed; some remaining on the South African side of the border, either to the east or west of what then became known as Ndumo Game Reserve, and some retreating into Mozambique. When the civil war in Mozambique spread to the region in the late 1970s, many Mozambicans, a large percentage of whom were alleged to have kinship ties with those on the South African side, fled across the border, taking up residence in what is known as the Mbangweni corridor, a narrow strip of sand forest located between Ndumo Game reserve in the west, and the Tembe Elephant Park (established 1983) in the east. Mbangweni is not an arable area and families struggled to survive from agriculture alone. With the Mozambican civil war so close the corridor became renowned for arms and other smuggling activities which were allegedly managed by certain key members of the dominant clan of the local Tribal Authority.

After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, a Land Commission was established to oversee the reallocation of land to people who could to prove ancestral domicile before 1913. In 2000, the land claim lodged by the previously removed families of Ndumo was finally settled, with the agreement that they would be compensated financially but would not physically resettle in Ndumo. Joint management schemes were to be set up in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and various other stakeholders based on a mix of eco-tourism, and development projects to assist with poverty alleviation in the area.

This was an arrangement that appeared to satisfy all parties. But as the money for compensation and development never materialised, and eco-tourism projects have failed to produce adequate employment, or other benefits, a sense of betrayal set in. This marked the beginning of tensions between the Mbangweni and Bhekabantu communities and the Ndumo Game Reserve.

Around 2008, the Mbangweni community, having mobilized quite powerfully around civic issues, started to invade Ndumo Game Reserve. The first invasions occurred in June 2009, when 11 km of fence were cut and a large number of people moved in to cultivate land within the park. In response the government allocated 20 hectares within the park for controlled agricultural use. Conservationists were horrified by the decision believing it would render the park vulnerable to further encroachment and set a precedent for similar occupations in other game reserves in the country.

With the continuing lack of resolution on the land claims deal, the fears of conservationists have been proved right. The people have effectively invaded a far larger portion of the park, threatening personnel, cutting down trees and killing a number of rhino.

Unless people are assisted in achieving food security they will not and should not be expected to support any form of conservation nor consider the game reserve anything other than empty land that has been set aside for the enjoyment of economic elites. An avoidable failure by government to honour land commission findings has put both people and conservation on a collision course.