Newly appointed professor Edwin Muchapondwa has travelled a long way since he left his home town of Bindura, near Harare, when he was eight years old. Over three decades later, the conservation and development challenges of rural Zimbabwe remain front and centre for the University of Cape Town (UCT) economist.
In 1979, Edwin Muchapondwa left the strife-ridden countryside of pre-independence Zimbabwe, into the capital city, so he could be safe and get a good schooling in Harare. He didn’t have ambitions beyond high school, he says, but thought that A-levels would give him a better chance at a job than wrapping up with just his O-levels.
But during that final year of school, he had a view of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) where people with prestigious titles like ‘doctor’ did the teaching, and he started thinking about grander things. This, and the fact that his marks weren’t quite enough to get him into the highly competitive accounting course, set him on track to become a natural resource economist and one of the founding members of the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at UCT.
EPRU is the regional chapter of the Environment for Development (EfD) initiative, which has nine offices around the world. EfD is coordinated by Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, and is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Muchapondwa’s focus has been on the economics of community-based wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe, looking specifically at how peasant farming communities in Zimbabwe benefit from, and buy into, wildlife conservation and management as an alternative livelihood source.
In 1987, the government initiated the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources - CAMPFIRE. The idea was to rope rural Zimbabweans, particularly those living on the edges of protected areas, into conservation efforts. These were communities who traditionally hunted wildlife for the pot. Between this (now deemed poaching), and human-wildlife conflict resulting when game eat or trample crops, wildlife numbers were dropping. CAMPFIRE was a way to allow communities to benefit from ecotourism, and encourage them to conserve wildlife as they would now see it as an asset.
When Muchapondwa began his doctoral research in 2000, CAMPFIRE projects were not succeeding as had been expected, and so the economist decided to take a look at what would entice peasant farming communities to buy into conservation efforts more.
His research showed that it all boiled down to institutions that governed the communities’ conservation efforts: if they were given some autonomy by park authorities and the Rural District Councils (RDCs) that managed regional conservation projects; if they could write their own rules about how to monitor poaching, and penalise transgressors; if they are democratic in how communities set up and run their programmes, communities would be more likely to buy into the project.
In short: if a community agrees on how to manage poachers within their fold, everyone in the fold is more likely to stick to the rules.
Muchapondwa also found that the money earned from ecotourism - chiefly from selling hunting licences - wasn’t enough for the number of community members hoping to benefit from each project, partly because the local government managing authority, the RDC, by law was allowed to keep 50% of the revenue.
Spreading the footprint
It was the collapsing Zimbabwean economy that spurred Muchapondwa to leave his lecturing position at UZ and move to UCT in 2004. Since then, the focus on CAMPFIRE projects has continued, with several of his doctoral students picking up the baton. His core research has remained in the area of wildlife conservation and how communities play a part in their management.
However, his associate professorship has allowed him to spread his interest in the valuing and management of natural resource beyond these small communities, and take a regional focus. Under his watch, EfD members are spearheading research in protected areas in eastern and southern Africa, and asking questions about how they can be financed sustainably. The work now looks beyond Zimbabwe, and includes Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.
One of the reasons that Muchapondwa and his colleagues founded EPRU is because they wanted new ideas around environmental resources to filter through to policymakers.
Making this happen hasn’t been easy, and Muchapondwa got his first taste of it when he completed his doctoral write-up. While he sent his thesis to the RDC, and to the national parks authorities and the then Ministry of Environment and Tourism, policy hasn’t changed and RDCs remain more powerful than the communities they work with to manage wildlife there.
The policy outreach element is central to EPRU’s mandate, but also something that is difficult to track: how does one measure whether a body of evidence-based research shapes policy?
Muchapondwa is just wrapping up his three-year term as head of department for the School of Economics at UCT. Now, as he embarks on his professorship, he will turn his full attention back to teaching and research.