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Jack of all Environmental Trades and Masters of Some: Finding our feet and laying the ground for future work

Compiled by Makanatsa Makonese*[1]

When the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) was formally established in 2001 with the mission of “using the law to protect and conserve the environment”, there was no limit to what the organisation could do, as long as the issues handled fell within the realm of the environment and natural resources sectors. The organisation therefore adopted a broad programmatic area focusing on Environmental Law Education and Law Reform, Trans-boundary Natural Resources Management, Lands and Communities and Urban Environments but often laced with other focus areas as and when they came around.

The strategies adopted in implementing the programmes included research, advocacy, public interest litigation as well as community engagement and education initiatives. The first programmes to have a head start were the Environmental Law Education and Law Reform Programme (with a particular success on the environmental law education component), the Trans-boundary Natural Resources Management Programme, the and Urban Environments Programme. The Rural Communities Programme was implemented sporadically at the beginning but gained increased traction when the organisation started working in the area of Extractives and Mining. This chapter will therefore seek to document the ZELA story from the perspective of the main programme areas that were envisaged at the inception stage of organisational programming, how they were implemented and how the focus and strategies shifted and changed as the organisation grew.

Environmental Law Education and Reform Programme

The Environmental Law Education and Law Reform Programme was one of the initial programmes to effectively take off the ground. The programme was informed by a realisation that without information on the need to protect and conserve the environment, rights to live in a clean environment that is not harmful to one’s health, rights to environmental decision-making and rights to benefit from natural resources, it would have been difficult for ZELA to rally communities around the organisation and its activities or to equip communities with the requisite knowledge and information to hold their leaders accountable on environmental and natural resources issues. The Environmental Law Education aspects of the programme therefore gained more steam when compared to the law reform aspects with ZELA and communities creating a symbiotic relationship around environmental education, promotion and demand for environmental rights. As Govindaswamy V notes:

“In order to achieve the acceptable level of global environmental sustainability, the citizens must be empowered with essential knowledge and information. Then only can they exert pressure on their elected representatives to develop and implement policies for securing environmental sustainability.”[1]

This proved true under the programme as communities demanded from their leaders that they address their environmental rights issues, environmental management and environmental protection. In urban areas communities demanded better management of urban waste such as garbage and sewage.[2] Communities also worked as environmental stewards as they monitored any incidents of environmental damage and took action to correct any such incidents, sometimes with extreme zeal. As the Shona language proverb says “kuudza mwana hupedzisira”[3] we often met with unintended consequences after our community environmental law education sessions. In 200…. ZELA had a difficult time when after a community environmental law education workshop, members of a community in the Dhirihori area of the Svosve Communal Lands in Mashonaland East Province damaged farm bricks that another community member was making for sale in Marondera town. The community members confiscated the farm bricks and used them to build a classroom block at a community school.  They argued that the brick maker was destroying the environment by cutting down trees for burning his farm bricks whilst at the same time leaving gullies after digging up the ground to extract soil for his brick making enterprise. The brick maker reported the case to the police and ten (10) community members were charged with theft and malicious damage to propriety. The community members approached ZELA for legal representation arguing that what they had done was justified after the “enlightenment” they had received from the environmental law education workshop as they were simply working to protect and conserve the environment. ZELA took up the case and represented the community members at the Marondera Magistrate’s Court where the 10 were acquitted but not without a warning for them not to take the law into their own hands. 

Whilst we worked with communities in the environmental law education arena, we also observed and learnt from the communities. One of the most important lessons ever learnt was that communities had their own knowledge and environmental management systems. However when we provided education and information from a general law perspective, we often failed to realize that this was not necessarily a substitution for community knowledge, wisdom and their ways of doing things. In many instances in order for sustainable development to be realized, it “should be based on local-level solutions derived from community knowledge and initiatives.”[4] In recognition of the importance of community knowledge and wisdom, the United Nations’ Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that

“Indigenous people and their communities, and other local communities, have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development”[5]

This is an important tenet that must be realised at community, national and international level. However as young lawyers, with enthusiasm to share knowledge and with a belief that we could change the world, during the initial stages of our environmental law education initiatives, we often approached our work with bravado and without taking a step back to understand the communities that we were working with. However one day, we were given a lecture by a village elder on “how not to go to communities and preach from statutory laws without contextualising the laws to the local communities.” On this instance, I was giving a talk about the provisions of the Communal Land Forest Produce Act: Chapter 19:04. I quoted Section 4 (1) (ii) (b) of the Act which whilst giving communal land inhabitants the right to exploit communal forest produce for their own use goes on to state that no forest produce exploited in the exercise of such right shall be “supplied to anyone who is not an inhabitant of that Communal Land”. There was a Muzhanje[6] tree near the open village meeting area where the workshop was taking place. Believing that I was advising the communities about their rights and that they should be happy that the law allowed them to exclusively benefit from the foresty resources occuring in their localities, I emphasised the fact that the natural resources including indigenous fruits occuring in their community were theirs alone, not be exploited by or shared with outsiders. A member of the community stood up and calmly enquired whether I believed that the provisions of the law resonated with the traditional practices and customs of the local people. According to him, in Shona culture, indigenous fruits and resources were a gift from God and were meant to be enjoyed by locals and sojourners alike. He asked if it was feasible for a relative staying kilometres away from that particular community to be denied mazhanje[7] simply because he or she did not live within that community or for a hungry stranger to be denied access to the fruits for the same reason. In conclusion, he urged me and other environmental rights practitioners to research on and understand the communities they intend to work with, their customs and traditional ways of doing things before starting any projects in those communities. I and my colleagues took this critical lesson to heart and from that day onwards made serious efforts to understand communities that we were working with  and in and not approach them as if they were empty vessels, in need of filling with lofty knowledge from law books and environmental law statutes. In our own words,the story continues next week.


[1] V Govindaswamy “Importance of Environmental Education for Sustainable Development” at http://www.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/sahyadri_enews/newsletter/issue22/art4.htm (accessed 21 March 2015).

[2] For example the Manyame Community in Chitungwiza approached ZELA to assist them in filing a High Court case against the local urban authority for failing to properly manage raw sewage.

[3] The proverb when literally translated means that when giving instructions to a child, you one be so clear that there is no room for the child to misunderstand the instruction in case they do something unintended. It applies equally to adults that when you communicate, you must be clear enough so that acting on the purported information no one can do anything that may result in negative unintended consequences.

[4] V Nath “Critical Assessment of Community Based Approaches to Environment and Sustainable Development” at http://216.197.119.113/vikas/lse-cbd.pdf (accessed 21 March 2015)

[5] Article 22

[6] Scientific name, Uapaca kirkiana. This is an indigenous fruit tree found in Zimbabwe and other countries in Southern Africa.

[7] The fruits from a Muzhanje tree



[1] * Founder Member of ZELA, Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer- SADC Lawyers’ Association, PhD Candidate on Land Law, Women and Access to Land

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