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Zimbabwe: Landuse in Dry Tropical Savannas


Building on traditional environmental management

The broad environment

The people of southern Africa have a rich heritage of managing and living with the environment. Some of the knowledge lives on, seasoned with thousand of years of communal practice. Lessons of past success and failures are evident in traditional farming and range-management practices still in use throughout the region. Still more of this knowledge remains locked in the hills and valleys of the African landscape, awaiting analysis.

The history of environmental management in southern Africa cuts across many countries, and often defies the present political boundaries. The region largely falls within the Bantu culture, which accounts for a measure of uniformity. Differences emanate from environments. There are also great varieties in the methods of conservation applied by different cultures often expressed in a unique African idiom for which modern science has little time.

In their ordered fields of study research scientists often miss the real gems woven into place names and in the traditional names of animals and plants. Names carry profound meaning and an understanding of the living environment among cultures in southern Africa.


Soil scientists in Zimbabwe report that the Shona and Ndebele people classify soil in two ways. The first involves using names for specific soil types, usually based on colour and texture. These and other indigenous communities have a comprehensive system of recognizing and describing soil - down to finer details about its chemistry. In determining the presence of salts and other organic materials contained in soils, traditional knowledge has often relied on taste, smell and general appearance to tell the difference between quality and poor soils. These are sound parameters, even by modern standards, and are frequently used by scientists in field description of soils.

The second classification system developed by Shona and Ndebele communities uses ecological zones to describe soils in terms of what other life-focus are found in the environment, such as 'mopane' soils which derive their name from the 'mupani' tree in Shona.

Sign-posting ecologies with the life-focus found in them also shapes the way people draw their living from the environment. Quite often, peasant farmer will suggest alternative uses or benefits where soils are not good for normal arable agriculture - such as licks for livestock in salty pans. Shared beliefs provide a strange sense of groups solidarity, even if its members are from different background. In the case of traditional African community organisation, a shared pattern of beliefs has always affected decisions about the use of natural environment. Cultural taboos, for example, put restriction on the use of certain plants, animals of areas. This helps to curb the depletion of natural resources considered important for continuation of the large community.


Of total of 5,000 known plant species, researchers in Zimbabwe were able to identify 500 plants as being useful to people after interviewing 240 traditional healers throughout the country. Botanist Stephen Mavi said, " I have found that every plant with a vernacular name had a use". Inventories of wild species utilised by rural communities indicate great opportunity for improving food security.

Hunter-gathering, the major mode of subsistence in the past, is still practised as an additional source of food supply.


The use of livestock as an economic and social mainstay started in southern Africa more than 4,000 years ago. Pastoralism assumed greater significance especially in the regions, where the land is not suited for cultivation. Although local people had learned to exploit in sustainable way the variations in the ecosystems such as rainfall and soil fertility, the colonial administration later often viewed indigenous system of pastoral production as destructive to the environment.

Land rights

The agricultural communities evolved a varied mode of subsistence that resulted in a sustained traditional pattern of shifting cultivation. The pattern of land-use was established on a clan system in which rights of cultivation and other land-use practices originated with chiefs to their people. Cultivation and other use-rights were granted by the chief who had power over all productive resources, including wildlife. No land could be sold or given away because rights to land rested with the creator.

As an important productive resource, land formed an essential cultural link between members of a community and the chiefs. This link was not simply a matter of political allegiance but was based on the belief that the spirits of the chief's ancestors controlled the productivity of the land through rainfall or pests and plagues.

Environmental protection strategies

From customary law, people developed traditional management systems that were effective mechanisms in environmental conservation. From long experience, southern Africa peoples developed locally appropriate and sustainable systems for cultivation and grazing. Farmers would spread the risk by cultivating several widely separated fields or by distributing their cattle to relatives. Inter cropping was widely used, with seeds of grains, beans, pumpkins and root crops mixed together and broadcast over the land. The benefits were soil protection and improved soil structure, moisture conservation, suppression of weeds and pests, and especially lower risk of crop failure. They also made use of 'dambos' - the grassy, seasonally water logged areas common in moist savanna and found in the headwater zones of streams and rivers. 'Dambos' are also suited to dry-season grazing.

Terracing the land is not novelty to the region, and has made a distinct contribution to local sustainability for centuries. It was a management tool long before any significant contract with the outside world. The system involved ridging and mounding of hillsides and valleys. Large number of people were supported by this specialised exploitation of land, a practice often describes as a finely balanced and integrated agricultural technique. People across much of southern Africa relied on shifting cultivation to produce food. Local variations were developed to suit different local conditions.

Mound cultivation was another successful traditional farming method which involves incorporating grass into the soil so that it rots and fertilises the soil. This method allows the people to settle and work the same land for a long time. The mound system is able to sustain a larger population than shifting cultivation, with a carrying capacity of about 30 persons per square kilometre against 5 persons per square kilometre under the shifting cultivation.

Traditional societies found burning a useful tool, and depended on it for centuries in their day-to-day activities. Among agriculturists it was (and still is) used to clear bush for settlements and gardens. Fire was also used to improve grazing and to eliminate ticks, notably during wildlife breeding season. This strategy was designed to increase wildlife numbers by maximizing production of food supplies. Traditional societies developed wildlife conservation strategies that helped to regulate exploitation of wildlife and ensure that the communities had adequate natural resources readily available. These strategies were armed at the preservation of living resources for the benefit of the present and future generation, and were deeply enshrined in the traditional values of the societies.

There was a widespread cultural belief in abstinence from unwarranted killing of wild animals, especially those which society held in contempt such as hyenas and monkeys, and also the young of all species. Fish were also protected, with some sites held sacred. Family totems, whereby some groups of people were prohibited from eating certain fish, animals or birds, also offered protection. There can be little doubt that these strategies emanated from people who had concern for their environment and its ecosystems, an attitude which enabled societies to conserve their resources on a sustainable basis without written legislation.

Wildlife systems

Human life or wildlife! That is one of the questions that southern African countries often grapple with as they try to satisfy the needs of the region's growing number of people. At the same time, wildlife conservation requires money. It becomes difficult to meet the needs of the human population and the wildlife without making sacrifices in one or both areas.

The dry savanna have had high number of wild-animals deaths due to drought. Lack of water brings death from thirst, and hunger as drought kills plants on which wild animals feed. Animals can put up with short periods of drought and have historically migrated for water and food. Today they are confined to smaller areas due to fences and settlements. Moreover, droughts are aggravated because people harness the little water there is for domestic use and sometimes to supply their livestock. Ultimately there is little left over for wildlife.

After realizing the weakness of the protected areas approach and with a view to addressing threats to Biological diversity within protected areas and outside, the region has come up with many innovative programmes. Inherent in the new approach is the idea of sustainable utilization of resources. The programmes also seek the support and participation of people in communal areas and on private land. Some management approaches are aimed at rebuilding depleted stocks, others at keeping wild animal population within the carrying capacities of the land.

The approach of protectionism, where governments owned all wildlife and prohibited gainful utilization of game on private land, was not favourable to wildlife or farmers. The interest in game ranching began in the 1950s as farmers and government began to realise its potential. Recent changes in legislation have facilitated the development of ranching of game, often kept together with domestic livestock. Keeping wild animals on private land contributes significantly to the conservation of the regions biodiversity. In Zimbabwe, about 10 percent of the commercial farmers keep wild animals. Game from private land has been used for restocking areas where wildlife populations have been depleted. Game ranching has contributed to the conservation of rare and endangered animal species such as cheetah, roan, tsessebe, sable, bontebok and white rhino.

Wild animals yield economic benefits through consumptive use, especially tourism. Animals are killed for trophy and meat or may be photographed by visitors who often pay in foreign currency. The sale of live animals also yields income, as does food, accommodation and curios that tourists buy. The protectionist approach to conservation, where the state owns and controls all wildlife, has proved inadequate to save wild animals from poaching and other threats in rural areas. The vast majority of people who occupy marginal land near the protected areas, and have been neglected in wildlife conservation, are now seen as vital in wildlife management.

Before colonisation was an important food source and played an important cultural role as well. Colonial government forced people out to make way for game reserves and parks. Thus the inhabitants lost both the land and the right to hunt wild animals. The same wild animals they were not allowed to kill devoured their livestock, destroyed their livestock, or even injured people or trampled them to death. Consequently, conflicts arose between rural people and wildlife officers.

To resolve the conflict, policy-makers added a new dimension to conservation-community based wildlife management. Under this system, wildlife in and around rural areas is managed and utilised for the benefit of the residents. Community-based wildlife conservation seeks to enhance conservation of biological diversity outside protected areas and private lands while at the same time affording rural people benefits from the wildlife resources in their areas. This is intended to create a positive attitude towards wildlife so people are less inclined to poach. In Zimbabwe the efforts to organise the to rural population in the conservation process organised within the framework of the Communal Areas Management for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE).

The main weakness of community-based wildlife utilisation has been inadequate control of wildlife by the local communities because they do not own the land. Unlike private land owners, these people do not often have title to the land they occupy and cannot effectively own and control the wildlife. This legal weakness stems from the colonial land-tenure system where communal people lived on state-owned land.

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