Chiefs’ role in environmental protection questioned

Whenever talk of investments is in the public domain, what comes into people’s minds is the issue of new industries and factories opening, including large mining concerns.

Guest column: Peter Makwanya

We all love investments, especially on this part of the globe because people need jobs, as we were cultured to go to school, learn, acquire qualifications and then calculate our own stupidity working for other people, instead of doing our own things. We always look at well-resourced countries with glee and envy, since we lack the capacity to fund our own developmental initiatives.

If these investors happen to come, and when they will be doing their work, they would be working in the communities, sometimes trampling on people’s rights, sometimes displacing the people in the process by ordering them to make way for the new business ventures.

In these communities, people are under the guidance of chiefs, normally described as the custodians of the environment, a very special honour bestowed upon them. True, as this may be, one wonders if the majority of the chiefs are made of a sterner fibre and add up to the people’s expectations.

How many times have we heard our dear and esteemed traditional leaders speaking out loudly against environmental injustices, spearheading environmental protectionism, and fighting on the side of the people being displaced?

How often do the chiefs fight for the compensation for the displaced or fight for relocation expenses? We are always reminded that chiefs are the custodians of the environment and it’s quite true, but sadly, it ends there.

If, indeed, they are the guidance of nature, then they should guide even the government when it displaces people to make way for government-related projects. The chiefs should also have comprehensive knowledge of environmental protection, conservation and stewardship.

In this regard, we often look to chiefs for proper education, awareness and training on climate action strategies. But are they conversant with these fundamental issues or they also require education, training and awareness themselves?

While it is common knowledge in Zimbabwe that some chiefs have been seconded to sit on high-level environmental committees and national bodies, of which this writer is a member, are these chiefs knowledgeable about nature issues they are assumed to have knowledge of?

While this writer does not have any beef with any chief being seconded to the high-level environmental community of practice, above all and everything else, it’s more than just occupying the seat and benefiting from the comforts that come with being a member of the national climate change council.

As such, chiefs, being assumed knowledge brokers, should demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of issues that have to do with pollution, climate action strategies, indigenous knowledge systems, land degradation, climate change adaptation, wetland farming, early warning systems and all forms of environmental injustices, among other things.

This is so because so many unsustainable, lack of environmental stewardship, eco-freaky behaviours and unethical conducts continue to be exhibited by both foreign and local concerns who disregard environmental laws and regulations willy-nilly. For this reason, our chiefs have not been heard talking much about these community ills.

As long as it is the government or government-linked companies breaking environmental laws, that is alright with our chiefs; no voice, no comment and no fuss. Because some of our chiefs remain silent or turn a blind eye on government proxies’ environmental practices, our lands and livelihoods could forever be compromised.

Some companies discharge industrial waste and effluent into the streams, rivers and dams, while the chiefs remained mute. But when it comes to the cutting down of a tree in the forest by a poor and hungry villager, chiefs are quick to pounce on the unfortunate individuals and they are made to pay a goat as fine.

Against this background, crimes of a higher magnitude that unfolding and damaging the environment in bigger ways are not even rebuked.

Moving around the same communities, one may find out that residents continue to suffer from pollution, deforestation, mining dust and noise pollutions, discharge and land degradation, while no chief would speak on behalf of the people.

If, indeed, chiefs have the environment and people at heart, then they should be seen spearheading the fight against environmental injustices, be it from the government or government-aligned companies.

Being mum when the environment is being destroyed, in their eyes, makes people question whether chiefs are with the people, for the people or they are with the government, minus the people. The people’s health and well-being remain at risk and compromised in a big way while environmental guardians are not taking the lead.

A number of households have been affected, even by government programmes and people have been relocated with little or no compensation at all, while chiefs continue to watch.

It is not something shameful if chiefs acquired environmental literacy and climate change action strategies, education, training and awareness, because they seem to experience lots of procedural gaps and challenges in this regard.


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