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How it all started: ZELA’s Background and Growth Trajectory

Compiled by Mutuso Dhliwayo-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association


Today the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) is a well-established[1] public interest environmental law organization that works to promote democracy, good governance and sustainable development using natural resources as a framework.  But how did this all come about? This section chronicles how the ZELA story started and the journey travelled so far.

The founding of ZELA has its genesis in the visit of Professor Owen Lynch[2] from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Rugemeleza Nshala [3] from Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT).  The visit occurred in 1999 when a number of ZELA’s founding members were third year law students at the University of Zimbabwe.[4] Professor Owen Lynch has a passion in encouraging and nurturing the formation of public interest environmental law organisations around the world especially in the Global South.[5] During his visit, Professor Lynch gave a lecture on  “A career as a public interest environmental lawyer”.  This talk was very appropriate and timely as most of the students in attendance were taking a course in environmental law.

The lecture by Professor Owen Lynch was very inspiring as it opened the students’ minds to other opportunities. Until the talk, not many had really thought about careers as public interest environmental lawyers.  One of the biggest incentives for joining the law school was the assumption that once someone completes their studies, they will be able to join a law firm and earn a reasonable amount of money. This was very appealing to most of us taking into account our poor backgrounds and the need to help our poor folks once we are gainfully employed. The legal profession especially private practice was regarded as one of the gateways to break the cycle of poverty.  Professor Lynch’s lecture changed this perspective, at least for some of us. It was a Damascene moment.

During the lecture, it became evident that there were other career paths than private practice. It also became clear that contrary to our thoughts that by being in private practice where we would “earn’ lots of money to help our folks, we may actually be working to undermine the protection and promotion of their rights. Lawyers in private practice represent a diversity of clients including business whose activities have adverse impacts on community rights.  Most of our poor folks live in these communities that are experiencing the negative impacts of business activities and by representing the interests of business, we were in no way helping them.  However, he indicated during the lecture that one of the ways of helping them is by becoming public interest environmental lawyers and represent their rights to own, control, access and derive benefits from the exploitation of natural resources and service delivery.

While this was not rewarding in monetary terms compared to private practice, it was fulfilling its own right as it involves fighting for the rights of the poor, marginalized and disadvantaged thereby advancing the interests of social and environmental justice.  He also assured us that while those that work as public interest lawyers are not rich, they are not hungry.[6]  He concluded by encouraging the students that had attended the lecture to form a public interest environmental law organization and become a voice of the voiceless poor, marginalized and disenfranchised urban and rural communities. Rugemeleza shared their experience of LEAT as a public interest environmental law organization to show that it was possible.

Inspired by professor Lynch’s lecture and enthused by LEAT’s experience, the students embraced the challenge and promised him to form a public interest environmental law organization. However, as soon as professor Lynch left, reality quickly dawned on us.  We were still students and neither had the time nor the resources to establish a public interest environmental law organization to champion environmental justice in Zimbabwe. The focus them and rightly so had to be on completing our studies and the idea of forming a public interest was put on hold.


I was among those that promised Professor Lynch after his life changing lecture that we were going to form a public interest environmental law organization. So despite the initial set back, the dream remained alive. Inspired by Professor Lynch’s talk, I decided to look for a job as a public interest lawyer rather than in private practice as was the traditional thinking. I started reaching out to environmental organisations expressing my interest to work for them. One of the organisations that I reached to was Environment 2000 now known as Environment Africa. [7]

I joined Environment Africa in July 2000 as a legal officer under their Environmental Rights Unit. I was fortunate that when I joined them, they had also been mooting the idea of a public interest environmental law organization to give legal services, support and assistance to their work on environmental issues with various stakeholders[8].  Lack of resources and time were some of the reasons why the idea of a public interest environmental law organization did not take off soon after the lecture. Environment Africa offered both the time and financial resources. They were paying for my salary and one of the key deliverables was to coordinate the formation of a public interest environmental law organization. I then intensified my communication with professor Lynch and started researching about other public interest environmental law organisations and reached out to them. [9]  In the early 2000, internet connectivity was problem. It was very slow and expensive to do researches at Environment Africa and I ended up doing most of the researches at the University of Zimbabwe’s computer science laboratory.

Another person who developed a keen interest on the idea of a public interest environmental law organization in Zimbabwe apart from Professor Lynch, is Jennifer Gleason[10]. Just like Professor Lynch, she is very passionate about public interest environment work and has worked with many public interest environmental law organisations worldwide. Jennifer started linking me to other public interest lawyers in Africa and provided materials on public interest lawyering that were very important in the formation of ZELA and its objectives. Alfred Brownell[11] is one of the foremost public interest lawyers in Africa that Jennifer Gleason linked me to. Alfred and myself instantly clicked because of shared circumstances. Both Green Advocates and ZELA were in their formative stages and facing similar challenges.  We were both passionate about promoting and protecting community rights over various natural resources that includes land, water, forests and wildlife but we lacked the expertise and the resources and we were prepared to learn as we go.

Another early advocate of the idea of a public interest environmental law organization was Gracian Banda[12]. IUCN had a programme on Environmental Policy and Advocacy and the idea of a public interest environmental law organization augured very well with their objectives. IUCN provided intellectual guidance and material support in ZELA’s formative years.

The idea of a public interest environmental law organization was realized on the 30th of September 2000 when a meeting to launch ZELA was held at Environment Africa. The meeting was made possible with the support of financial resources from IUCN- The World Conservation Union and Environment Africa providing logistical support. The meeting was attended by most of ZELA’s founding members, Environment Africa’s senior management and IUCN representatives.  The objective of the meeting was to discuss what form the new organization will take, its vision, mission and objectives.

The main aim behind ZELA’s formation was to help poor and disadvantaged communities to use the law as a tool to define, assert and claim their environmental rights. At the time of ZELA’s founding in 2000, the concept of sustainable development was already well known and there were a number of environmental organisations that were already working to promote it.[13] However, none of these organisations worked solely on using the law as a tool and means to promote or contribute towards the concept of sustainable development. ZELA identified this as a niche area and its founding was aimed at filling this gap.  ZELA’s vision is to protect and safeguard the environment through the law and to promote the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources in Zimbabwe.  ZELA’s objectives[14] at its founding were as follows:

  • To promote the protection of the environment through existing laws and the enhancement of and the conservation of the environment
  • To advance public awareness in all matters relating to the environment, natural resources, environmental rights and the legal protection thereof through inter-alia public interest environmental litigation, research and advocacy
  • To advocate for comprehensive environmental laws, policies and standards that will protect and enhance environmental quality in Zimbabwe
  • To co-operate with and coordinate disadvantaged communities, individuals and public institutions to foster and develop sustainable solutions to environmental problems and natural resources utilization
  • To encourage and nurture legal recognition of public participation in environmental decision –making and planning at all levels
  • To initiate training education, networking and generally advocacy on environmental rights issues

It is important to note that while at the beginning ZELA’s objectives could be argued to have been broad enough to encompass natural resources governance issues, it was mainly from an environmental rights perspective.


ZELA developed and established programmes and strategies that were tailor made to achieve these objectives. These programmes include:

  • The Environmental Law Education and Reform whose objective is to educate communities to be aware of their environmental rights as provided for under the various laws, policies and institutional frameworks. It was hoped that once the communities were aware of their rights, they will be able to assert , claim and demand their enforcement and demand reforms in those instances in which they were found to be wanting. The programme was mainly a response to the enactment of a new Environmental Management Act in 2003
  • Lands and Communities programme was developed in the context of Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programmes. Its main objective was to empower local communities that had received land or those that has access to land to manage, control and use it in a sustainable manner so as to reap maximum benefits from it and its associated resources for the benefit of current and future generations.
  • Urban Environments programme was mainly a response to the challenges that that country was facing as result of rapid and unplanned urbanization which was and continues to exert serious pressure on infrastructure and service delivery. This has resulted in a myriad of environmental problems that include unplanned urban agriculture, water and air pollution and poor waste disposal and management practices which have negative impacts on the residents to a clean and healthy environment which were highlighted by the cholera outbreak of 2008.
  • Transboundary Natural Resources Management Programme whose main objectives was the management of shared resources in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) through harmonization of laws and policies. Natural resources like wildlife, fisheries and rivers do not recognize man made political boundaries hence the need for laws and policies to be harmonized to ensure equity in terms of access and benefit and sharing and costs so that these shared natural resources are managed sustainably.

The programmes by then weare supported by a number of strategies. These include:

  • Evidence based research:  this is very important in establishing the prevailing political , legislative , policy, economic and social environment in which ZELA is operating. More often than not, civil society organisations interventions in policy issues are dismissed out of hand by Government and business on the basis that  they are not based on facts. Evidence based research enables ZELA to engage and influence policy and legislative reforms from an informed point of view and to become a credible organization
  • Advocacy campaigns are used to influence policy and legislative reforms at the local, national , regional and international levels by targeting policy and other decision makers.
  • Training and capacity building is meant to build the confidence of  our various stakeholders  which include CBOs, Government , CSOs, business , media and legislators to engage meaningfully in natural resources governance issues
  • Registration of Community Based Organisations which is meant to ensure that communities exist as legal entities that can engage other stakeholders like Government and business in natural resources governance issues
  • Dispute resolutions which is aimed at the peaceful resolution of conflicts that may arise between stakeholders
  • Litigation : while ZELA prefers stakeholders to resolve their differences on natural resources governance peacefully, it will resort to public interest litigation on behalf of poor and disadvantaged communities affected by the activities of the state and or business in the exploitation of natural resources if alternative dispute resolution mechanisms fail. 


Following the various communications I had had with Jennifer, she visited Zimbabwe in 2001 in the company of Vincent Shauri from LEAT.[1] The visit gave further momentum to the strengthening of ZELA. Vincent shared the challenges that they had faced in LEAT’s formative years and how they had remained resolute. Jennifer reassured us that the challenges we were likely to face were part and parcel of growth and that if we remained focused, resolute and determined, we were going to succeed.  During her visit, ELAW donated a laptop to ZELA and this became the organization’s first computer.  Professor Owen Lynch also made a number of  follow up visits to Zimbabwe to give us moral support and encouragement.

The launch was the beginning of the hard work to make ZELA functional and operational. ZELA faced a number of challenges that threatened its potential to become a fully-fledged organization.

The first challenge that ZELA faced was the lack of significant and sustainable sources of funding to implement its programmes. Public interest work by its nature is hugely dependent on donor funding.  ZELA was founded at the beginning of the political, social and economic problems that have bedeviled Zimbabwe for the past fifteen years.[2] In 2000, a number of donor foundations and international organisations had been headquartered in Zimbabwe. These include the Ford Foundation for Southern Africa, the Kellogg Foundation, Henrick Boll Foundation, Danish International Development Aid, IUCN-The World Conservation Union and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The presence of the headquarters of these funding and implementing agencies made it easier to interact with them and build relationships for fundraising. While the challenges associated with these problems are not only unique to ZELA, ZELA was hard hit because it was during its formative years. Other organisations working in the environment sector had already been existence for sometime and had established long working relationships with these funding and implementing agencies that continued to save them even when they had relocated to other countries.

Furthermore, fundraising was made difficult by the fact that with the breakdown in relationship between the Government of Zimbabwe and most Western Governments, funding agencies priorities shifted to the support of Civil Society Organisations that were working on civil and political rights as a way of ensuring that Zimbabwe quickly returned to democracy, good governance and the rule of law.  Civil and political rights were seen as the quickest and surest way of achieving this while environmental rights were regarded as peripheral.

As a result of these challenges, ZELA was only able to fund its activities through subscription from its founding members, small grants and logistical support from the host organization, Environment Africa. ZELA’s first funding was a small Fellowship/ Internship grant of US$5 000 from CIEL that was administered by Environment Africa.  The objective of this small grant was to sharpen the research skills of ZELA members.[3] CIEL followed the Fellowship / Internship grant by giving ZELA its first institutional grant of US $ 5000.  ZELA used its first institutional support to establish an office and to hire its first employee.  The office was a small room at the offices of Muvingi and Mugadza where one of the founding members and current Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Tumai Murombo worked as a legal practitioner. Shamiso Mtisi who had just completed his environmental law internship programme with IUCN- The World Conservation Union, was hired as ZELA’s first employee as a Projects Coordinator to work on a full time basis. He was responsible for developing project proposals, coordinate the implementation of the organization’s projects and also manage its finances. ZELA also received a grant for institutional support of US 15,000 from ELAW in 2002.

As a result of limited financial resources that impacted the organisation’s ability to implement its programmes, the period 2001-mid 2003 was mainly used to work on the institutional set up in anticipation of a huge institutional grant. A lot of meetings were held. These were mainly held after hours as all the members with the exception of the Projects Coordinator, worked for ZELA on a party time basis.  Initially, the meetings were held at the offices of the laws firms[4] where ZELA members were working as legal practitioners until we were able to acquire our own offices at Muvingi and Mugadza in 2002. During this period, the Deed was finalized and ZELA was registered as Trust in November 2001. The regulations for the establishment of the Administrative Council [5]were also developed and finalized during this period.  The Administrative Council, which consisted of seven members was responsible for administering the affairs of the trust.[6] The first Administrative Council consisted of the Task Force that was put in place on the 1st of June 2002 and any persons who maybe appointed by the Board and its tenure was to last until the 30th of June 2005.[7]

The harsh political, economic and social problems resulted in a number of Zimbabweans leaving the country to either study or look for greener pastures.  Some of ZELA founding members[8] are among the many Zimbabweans that left the country and this affected ZELA’s formative years, as these were key people that shared the passion, commitment and vision of a public interest environmental law organization. They also held key posts within the Administrative Council.

There were also squabbles among the founding members themselves on one hand and the host organization on the other hand regarding the direction the organization should take. There was a feeling among the members that the host organization wanted to treat the organization as part of its project and therefore did not want to see it become independent. The founding members felt that while the host organization had a played a very important role in the formation of ZELA, the idea of a forming a public interest environmental organization existed long before its intervention and that it should be allowed to develop as a distinct and independent organization that will be able to work with the founding organization as an equal partner.

There were also other prominent environmental lawyers that felt that the founding members of ZELA lacked the expertise and experience to lead such a high profile initiative and that more experienced people should have been invited to lead it. All these threatened to derail the nurturing of the dream of establishing ZELA as a leading public interest environmental law organization.
 Catch us next week Friday where we will take you through ZELA’s breakthrough in terms of laying the foundation for organizational growth and development….……….

[1] He is a co-founder of the Lawyers Environmental Action Team and is late

[2] The current economic, social and political problems are traced back to beginning of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme which was initiated by the Government of Zimbabwe. The Fast Track Land Reform Programme resulted in the seizure of white commercial farms ostensibly to resettle thousands of landless Zimbabweans. The Zimbabwean Government viewed this as a way of addressing historical injustices which were brought by colonialism when the black majority lost their land.  The Western powers viewed this a as violation of human rights especially the right to property and this set of the tense relations that currently characterizes Zimbabwe’s relations with the West.

[1] The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association primarily works in Zimbabwe at the local and national levels. However, its work has influence and is influenced by regional and international initiatives.

[2] Director of the Center for International Environmental Law’s Land and Communities Program from 1997-2007

[3] Founding member and Executive Director of Lawyers Environmental Action Team

[4] These include Mutuso Dhliwayo , Tumai Murombo, George Gapu , Rejoice Muwadzuri , Rumbidzai Jakanani , Marilyn Takawira , Gabriel Shumba and Tendai Makore. Other founding members include Shamiso Mtisi who was then in third year, Josiah Chinherende and Makanatsa Makonese who were in 4th year.  Another member Actor Katurura ???

[5] He has encouraged the formation of public interest lawyers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda , Tanzania and the Philippines among other countries – Lynch should provide a full list of the countries 

[6] Over the years , Professor Owen Lynch’ s message has become very prophetic. Public interest work is not about monetary rewards but about passion and commitment

[7] I reached out to Environment 2000 after  I read their magazine called Greenline which feature topical environmental issues.

[8] These include Government , Civil Society Organisations. Community Based Organisations and business

[9] These include the  Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide , Canadian Environmental Law Association  and the Bangladesh Environmental Law Association

[10] Senior staff attorney at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide

[11] Director  of Green Advocates , a public interest environmental law organization that is based in Liberia

[12] He was a lawyer with IUCN Regional Office for East and Southern Africa under their Environmental Law and Policy Programme

[13] These include Environment Africa, then know as Environment 2000, IUCN –The World Conservation Union, ENDA Zimbabwe , Center for Applied Social Studies, Campfire Association, Institute for Environmental Studies , Africa Resources Trust

[14] Section 2 of the Deed of Trust and Donation, MA 1669/2001

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