Environmental consciousness in a highly charged socio-political climate

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Today, Zimbabwe continues to experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, political instability and some other hurdles to development that make the regard for the environment the least of priorities at both government and societal levels.

The nation which currently faces seemingly intractable socio-economic and political problems has some of the worst environmental indicators in the world with some of the bio-diversity in decline or under severe threat. For instance, the nation currently faces the highest levels of deforestation of due to increased load shedding. The countries wetlands in urban societies are also being engulfed by the expanding suburbs which are mushrooming beyond the control of urban housing authorities. 

In recent years, the country has witnessed continued desertification, soil and water pollution, slash and burn agriculture resulting in soil erosion and siltation of rivers, primarily as a result of unregulated and uncontrolled re-settlement of people in spaces that were earmarked for commercial farming. In the natural habitat, the nation has been plagued by poaching and unorthodox hunting patterns which have wiped the national wildlife conservancy, notably at the hands of political elites and their Asian counterparts. Moreover, the expansion of Zimbabwe cities has reversed the country’s efforts to preserve wetlands, forests and biodiversity as enshrined in section (4) of the Environmental Management Act. Notwithstanding the Illegal panning of natural resources and unmonitored resource extraction of established firms that has contributed to environmental degradation, water and air pollution due to lack of accountability mechanisms. How then can we explain this myriad of irresponsible actions against the environment in the face of climate change? Perhaps it’s poor planning, negligence, lack of knowledge and capacity or rather – bad governance? 

Biriwasha (2008) notes that, in a situation of bad governance as being experienced in Zimbabwe; while the resulting poverty, hunger and strife grab world attention; the environment is usually the silent victim or consequence. The Environmental Democracy Index 2015 (EDI) reveals that the Zimbabwe’s constitution contains no legal obligation to disseminate information to the public to take preventive action in the face of imminent threat of harm to the environment with a score of (0) out of (3). The Natural Resource Governance Institute also highlights that Zimbabwe’s broader socio-political environment hinders transparency and accountability in the extractive sector through the lack of rule of law, virtually scoring (6) out of 100 in that category. However what is more worrying is the role that corruption plays in environmental degradation and the consistent negative positioning of the country on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index that paints a gloomy path towards fighting environmental degradation. 

The point of departure when discussing the intersection of the environment and corruption is to establish that resource depletion and environmental degradation arise from inadequate institutions to deal with environmental issues, disparities in economic and political power and a lack of knowledge and awareness among communities (Brundtland, 1987). Corruption aggravates these conditions. Given this analogy, corruption in Zimbabwe has increased the potential for abuse and exacerbated the level of damage incurring. Therefore good governance is essential for the country and its societies to avoid being undermined by corruption. It is true that a country that upholds good governance in general has the potential of observing environmental governance. Therefore environmental governance should be observed through the way in which different social, economic and political institutions collectively manage the environment.

A significant cross-section of Zimbabwe’s society is involved in environmental corruption, knowingly or unknowingly, with cases being recorded at petty and grand levels. It also extends to aberration through illegal behavior, and actions that may be unethical but are protected by the law. On the one hand, petty level environmental corruption involves bribing of public officials from authorities such as EMA and ZRP to allow illegal cutting down of trees for tobacco curing in areas such as Hurungwe, Bindura and Mutoko. On the other hand, grand corruption involves governmental officials in decision-making positions demanding bribes for illegal activities by private corporations or individuals, such as Chinese companies to do construction on wetlands, the case of Longshen. Probably the Chisumbanje Bio-Oil plant would serve as a great example of rent seeking, where private companies induce government officials to make decisions that generate additional profits for additional profit (rents).    

This does not go without saying that the nation has instituted laws and regulations to ensure the protection of the environment. The recognition of the environment as a vital component to development goes back to as early as 1968 when Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) became a Zimbabwe is signatory of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Lately, Zimbabwe has entered into regional and sub-regional environmental treaties and conventions as a demonstration of its commitment to preserve the environment as basic human rights. Of special mention is the Paris agreement, which is the first ever legally binding climate change convention. The presence of the Forest Commission and the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) also indicate some political commitment by the country to protect the environment.

 Zimbabwe needs leaders who are conscientious about the need to preserve the environment as a major, if not central, component of sustainable development. Political leaders and policy makers need to wake up and take advantage of the existing policy and legal frameworks; and the expertise that exists to enforce environment laws in Zimbabwe. This also requires the ability of leaders to see the complex relationships that exist among socio-political and economic issues in the country; and the environment. A leadership that is concerned about the existence of the next generation can only understand the importance of preserving the environment. A clearer understanding of the need for an actionable climate change mitigation plan is also important if Zimbabwe is to achieve sustainable development and a better future for its next generation.  

Green Governance Trust (Greengov) is a non-governmental organization working in Zimbabwe to promote sustainable environmental management through advancing citizen inclusion and participation in natural resources management. The organization engages in community sensitization, policy advocacy, litigation and quality research designed to contribute towards transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and biodiversity. GreenGov is driven by the need to promote the democratization and transparent administration of natural resources. GreenGov is a convener and information dissemination center, providing common ground for debate on important environmental, climate and natural resource management issues.
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