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Pros and cons of community benefits from ecotourism around Zimbabwe parks

Families involved in ecotourism around parks in Zimbabwe may invest less in community savings schemes. Image: © bikeriderlondon, Shutterstock.

Families that benefit from the income earned through the state’s community wildlife conservation initiative around nature parks in Zimbabwe are more likely to get their children educated because they have better access to schools and are likely to receive subsidised school fees. But as a result of this state support, these households might not build the social networks that would otherwise drive community-level saving efforts.

This could undermine their ability to cope with environmental shocks, such as droughts, floods, or disease outbreaks, or where they may lose crops when wild animals raid their fields.

This is according to social economist Collen Matema with the Zimbabwe office of the African Wildlife Foundation, and associate researcher with the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

‘In the late 1980s, the Zimbabwe government started the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources, CAMPFIRE, programme,’ explains Matema. ‘This programme is geared towards allowing communities to benefit economically from being part of wildlife conservation efforts around certain parks.’

CAMPFIRE allows communities to form communal-level conservation conservancies, which they then lease out to private safari operators for hunting concessions for a period of five to 10 years. These private safari operations create a small number of ecotourism-related jobs for local communities. However, most of the financial returns are in the form of the rental income earned from the concessions.

Some of this money gets paid out to individual households in the form of cash dividends, but the bulk of it is invested in building infrastructure for the wider community, such as schools, healthcare facilities, or roads. A portion of the income also gets used to subside school fees, which eases the burden on families’ budgets.

‘Families that aren’t part of the CAMPFIRE programme tend to form social savings clubs as a way to raise money to pay for things like school fees. This is a good way for them to build financial resilience. But in those communities that are part of the CAMPFIRE initiative, when school fees are covered by the programme, they tend to stop self-organising and saving in this way,’ says Matema.

Matema has been looking at how communities who are part of the CAMPFIRE programme around parks in Zimbabwe are benefiting in terms of better access to education for their children, and in terms of their ability to respond to environmental shocks in these farming areas.

‘I began this work in 2016, because I wanted to see how communities benefiting from the CAMPFIRE model could respond positively to shocks, stresses, and hazards,’ Matema explains.

These are communities living in areas where the climate is already dry and hot, which already makes farming difficult.

‘The assumption is that if these families get benefit from the infrastructure development and personal earnings that come from the CAMPFIRE project, then they should be more able to absorb these kinds of environmental shocks.’

Matema found that the CAMPFIRE project definitely gave communities better access to social services, and to schools and clinics, for instance.

In terms of education, Matema’s study found that CAMPFIRE-derived investment in building and maintaining schools generally meant that communities were more likely to have a primary school within 5km of their homes, or be within 10km of a high school. This, together with subsidised school fees, explains why school attendance in these areas goes up by 12 per cent, compared with communities that aren’t part of the CAMPFIRE programme.

But a consequence of this support is that many families no longer organised themselves into social savings clubs. This loss of ‘social capital’ is not a good outcome, because families will lose an important strategy that would otherwise have helped them deal with an environmental shock that could impact their crop yield and livelihood.

‘When communities have to work together in social clubs, they manage their resources more carefully. Losing that can have important consequences for them.’

The take-home message for policy makers is that the community and local authorities must think carefully about how it invests the money coming from the community-focused conservation initiatives like CAMPFIRE, and not just assume that it will boost all areas of a community’s adaptive capacity.

Matema completed this research as part of his doctoral studies through EPRU, working alongside fellow Zimbabwean resource economist professor Edwin Muchapondwa, also based at UCT.