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Illegal settlers invade the eastern highlands in search of water

19 Jun 2014 at 07:50hrs | Views

Rural community meetings, such as one held recently in Mpudzi Resettlement scheme, south of Mutare in Manicaland province, are usually placid affairs dealing with mundane matters. Not anymore.

In the province, known for its highlands, good rains and rich soils, the meetings have increasingly taken on a belligerent edge, due to the influx of land invaders settling upstream and clogging water sources – the consequence of climate-change induced migration as new settlers leave their low-lying dry regions for better rains and prospects for agriculture.

The Mpudzi meeting almost degenerated into a mass brawl, as villagers accused local traditional leaders of illegally settling newcomers in undesignated areas and threatening the livelihoods of the original settlers.

Some of the illegal settlers have been irregularly resettled or allocated themselves land on areas set aside for grazing.  

"We no longer have pastures for our livestock and most of the rivers around here are now drying up halfway through the dry season. These rivers used to be perennial and these people are choking them with silt," one visibly angry village elder, Nekias Mkwindidza said.

But Hamudi Munyama, a former assistant to Village Head Gwaku in Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme, who was fingered in the illegal land deals, defended himself saying that as traditional leaders they had the authority to resettle people in the area.

"What we did was above board, we were given the authority to resettle some of these people," he said, but stopped short of saying who granted the authority, only choosing to cite ‘top people'. It did emerge that some of these illegal allocations of land happened just before the 2013 general elections with the blessings of local political leaders. Munyama has since been relieved of his duties as a representative of the village head.

The conflict in Mpudzi Resettlement scheme is symptomatic of an emerging, climate change- induced problem, according to a 2011 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report which identifies environmental degradation and climate change as major drivers in both forced and voluntary migration.

Climate change threatens to cause one of the biggest refugee crises of all time, though various figures have been bandied about, climate change experts have warned that up to 200 million people would be forced to abandon their homes over the course of the century the world over.

And in an interview with this reporter recently, renowned USA-based climate change expert and author, Ross Gelbspan weighed in, warning that: "As we experience more crop failures, water shortages and uncontrolled migrations by people whose lands become less able to support them, that governments will become more totalitarian in their efforts to keep order in the face chaos. So it's really the political and economic aspects that I've been thinking about."

Owning a piece of land where there is perennial water supply, rich soils and reliable rainfall is every farmer's dream. As such, Lloyd Gweshe (30), a settler at Ndorwe area in the eastern highlands of Manicaland province, has every right to blow his own trumpet. His piece of land is every farmer's dream. It has perennial water supply from various streams and rivers which originate from the area and the soils are good.

The Eastern Highlands, which stretch from Nyanga in the north through Vumba down to Chimanimani in the south, prides itself for having some of the best weather conditions in the country. The highlands have high rainfall, low level cloud and heavy mists and dew as moisture moves inland from the Indian Ocean. Many streams and rivers begin from these mountains, which form the watershed between the Zambezi and the Save River systems.

But as the climate is changing, the area has become a melting pot for thousands of illegal settlers from lower and hotter areas as the highlands still receive good rains to sustain rain-fed agriculture. The mass movement of people has brewed conflict as the illegal and legal settlers fight over pastures, water and other resources. Timber plantations and national parks have not been spared either.

"I now own a rich piece of land, a wife and a bouncing baby," Gweshe crows to anyone who cares to listen to him, mostly at traditional beer drinking spots. But what he seldom reveals is that he is one of the many people who have of late invaded the eastern highlands in search of water and good soils. The local people call these new comers ‘squatters', a disparaging term which the new settlers detest.

"I am not a squatter," Gweshe defends himself when the subject of illegal settlers in the area is raised. "How can I be a squatter in my country of birth?" he asks sarcastically, much to the chagrin of the people who were legally resettled in the area by the government during the land reform programme. "And I will not leave this place," he vows.

 Many of the illegal settlers have invaded Nyamakari and Nyamataka river sources, wetlands and banks of Chitora, Mushaamhuru and Murare  rivers, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people living downstream who depend on the rivers for irrigation. And the future of the rich banana farming belt in Burma Valley looks bleak as water sources are diminishing, particularly during the dry season as Manyera, Zonwe and Musapa dams have been heavily silted. There are growing fears that the new wave of mass movement of people from lower dry areas to the rich highlands might trigger serious clashes between the illegal settlers and legal settlers.

A banana farmer in Burma Valley who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the illegal settlers said the ‘squatters' were threatening the viability of agricultural activities in the rich farming area.

"These illegal settlers have invaded sources of water for the banana plantations, and our future as farmers is under threat. Water is no longer available for us to sustain a good banana crop. Despite efforts by the government to remove them they have remained defiant. They have been evicted about four times and they have returned in bigger numbers," the farmer revealed.

However, even with the conflict, the illegal settlers have vowed to stay as they argue that they have nowhere else to go, with some claiming that it was their ancestral land from which they were evicted back in the 1940s by the colonial administration. They say the low-lying areas in Manicaland, such as Marange and Buhera, have been receiving erratic rainfall since the 1992 devastating drought. Crop yields have been poor, farmers have lost their livestock and water sources have dried up, hence the new wave of migration in search of greener pastures.

An official from Mutare district administrator's office, Brighton Mangoma, told journalists during a tour of the affected areas recently that the illegal settlers in Burma Valley had been evicted four times in the past, but have returned in even bigger numbers each time.

He said the illegal settlers were "mischievous and greedy people" because they were given alternative land for farming but for some reason had abandoned that land.

While the consequences of mass migration are not de facto negative, its main impacts overwhelmingly are and these include escalating humanitarian crises resulting illegal settlements have stalled development.  



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Source - Andrew Mambondiyani
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