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Nice moves in to make peace in Vwaza conflict

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You can see their frustration in their eyes and decipher the same from the tone of their utterances.

Theirs is a story and a half – a tale that alleges killings and torture of people to protect wildlife; told by the people of Mwazisi in Rumphi, yet parried away by the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The Ministry of Tourism and Culture through the Department of National Parks and Wildlife is implementing a Malawi-Zambia Transfontier Conservation project which has so far improved the efficiency and effectiveness of conservation efforts around the Nyika-Vwaza protected areas.

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From the perspective of Department of Parks and Wildlife, it is a good project that will ensure that all animals including the endangered species are protected from the poacher’s gun and prevented from extinction.

However, these conservation efforts have heightened the historical conflicts between the department and the communities surrounding the protected areas in that poachers have had their honeymoon cut short.

Geographically, the peripherals of Nyika National Park are hilly such that they are generally considered inhabitable. The situation is different with Vwaza Game Reserve which is surrounded by people and estates. This explains why poaching is more rampant in the Vwaza area than at Nyika National Park, the Department of Parks and Wildlife says.

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The conflict between the department and the communities surrounding the Vwaza game reserve is multifaceted. According to traditional leaders in Mwazisi, government values animals more than “us”.

“We have many challenges which we can list regarding our interaction with the animals in Vwaza Game Reserve and the Department of Parks and Wildlife. If you look at them, one wonders as to what government values more between the people and the animals,” said Group Village Headman (GVH) Chimbata.

“We are surprised that nowadays poachers are no longer arrested but are just shot dead. Let the justice system be followed. We have several cases where members of the community have been killed by game rangers. We want this to stop

“When we kill animals that escape from the reserve and start destroying our crops, the government arrests us. But when our crops are damaged, we are never given any compensation. These are the things that we are questioning. There is a bias towards the animals at the expense of the livelihood of the communities,” said Chimbata.

He was speaking at Mwazisi in Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe’s area at a meeting organised by National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust.

The meeting, which targeted traditional leaders in the area, was part of a process in which Nice wants to iron out the outstanding differences that have been there between the communities and game reserve authorities.

“As much as I do not condone illegal entry of protected areas, we cannot be dying or having our crops destroyed while there is not any benefit we get from the game reserve,” added Chimbata.

GVH Chimduzi also lamented about the lack of benefits from the game reserves while the community is “suffering” saying there have been illegal arrests, torture of suspected poachers, tsetse flies and people being killed by animals.

Largely, elephants, hippos, buffaloes and bush pigs have been notorious in destroying crops in communities surrounding Vwaza.

In some instances, people’s lives have been lost in trying to battle with the marauding game such as elephants and buffaloes.

Practice demands that communities should not be killing protected and endangered animals such as buffaloes and elephants when they escape from the reserves, lest they find themselves in conflict with the law. The animals can only be reported to authorities who in turn drive them back to the bushes.

Divisional Manager in the Department of Parks and Wildlife George Qumayo conceded that his department does not compensate victims that have their crops destroyed by animals or where a life has been lost.

“These are issues that are guided by laws. All we do is guide them how they can get to the District Commissioner’s office where we report such cases. As a department, we do not give out compensation.

“However, in cases where a person has been killed by our animals, we sometimes offer assistance on humanitarian grounds at local level, but not as compensation,” said Qumayo in an interview.

He said Mwazisi area has been a hotspot for conflicts between the two camps owing to the behavior of the communities whom he said destroyed the fence around the area.

“It is not true that our rangers kill poachers. This can be verified with the police. All procedures are followed when we arrest poachers because our rangers are well trained in their work.

“The issue in Mwazisi isn’t new. I would say that is the deadliest place and very unsafe for our officers. The relationship with the communities hasn’t been any good. They chased our extension workers that side and we wouldn’t risk sending another one until we discuss and sort out our differences with the communities,” said Qumayo

Hell broke loose two years ago when a man with gun wounds was found dead inside Vwaza Game Reserve. The communities suspected he was killed by the rangers. Thus, they went berserk chasing the extension worker in the area while threatening to avenge their relation’s death.

Mzuzu police spokesperson Maurice Chapola also refuted reports that poachers are killed by rangers. He only cited one case in which a poacher was shot in the arm allegedly after he had engaged the rangers with gun fire.

According to Qumayo, communities in Mwazisi destroyed a fence covering a five kilometre distance. He said his department spends K8 million to erect a fence for just a kilometre.

“In fact government is very committed to providing a fence in Mwazisi. But the chiefs should provide assurance that our fence will not be vandalised. We have already erected a fence covering 43 kilometres from Zaro in Mzimba towards Mwazisi in Rumphi.

‘We can do it. But the community that side should also help us because we cannot be erecting a fence when we know it will be vandalised,” he said.

Chiefs in the area also conceded that the fence had been vandalised by the communities themselves.

Qumayo added said the absence of an extension worker in the area results in delayed response or intervention when animals escape and start destroying crops.

“The extension workers are our link. Apart from that, they are trained and can ably drive the animals back to the reserves. In their absence, a quick response is not available. There is a lot of need to interface with the communities that side so that we help one another. Our office is very committed,” said Qumayo.

Nice regional civic education officer Vincent Kalawa said his office is interested in the conflict because it borders on human rights and that it has the potential to derail development initiatives in the area.

“This issue is about the rights and responsibilities of the members of communities surrounding this game reserve. Secondly, conflicts derail development. We do not expect any meaningful development where there are conflicts. Our interest is to have the differences sorted out so that there should be a cordial relationship between the game authorities and the community,” he said.

Kalawa added that the meeting was part of the peace making intervention Nice has undertaken.

“We will provide platforms where the concerned parties can interface and peacefully make a resolution. We are not blaming anyone; but our interventions are that we should sort out the differences for the benefit of both parties and more so, develop Mwazisi,” said Kalawa.

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