THE recent trend has been to reduce or eliminate national and local forests in Zambia, which have been protected since the 1950s, in order to use the land for “development purposes”.

In 2017 alone, at least four forests were reduced in size or entirely removed from protection through statutory instruments signed into law by President Edgar Lungu. The changes have prompted anxious discussions among affected communities.

In November last year, a group of environmentalists carried out online protests against a high court decision that allowed an Australian-owned company, Mwembeshi Resources Limited to mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park. 

The judge dismissed an earlier appeal against the establishment of a mine in an area called Kangaluwi because the initial legal team that fought the case five years ago failed to file a record of appeal.

Map of Zambia

Kasanka, on the south western edge of Lake Bangweulu basin, is one of Zambia’s smallest national parks, with an area of about 450 km2.

The park is, however, well endowed with rivers, lakes, wetlands, forests, lagoons, meadows and dambos, and supports a wide range of animals, birds and fish.

It is home to several rare species, including sitatunga antelope, wattled crane, Ross’s turaco and blue monkeys.

The reserve also hosts a unique seasonal gathering of about 10 million straw-colored fruit bats, confirmed by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany as the largest mammal migration on earth.

The bats migrate to Kasanka from across central Africa, taking up residence in a 25 hectare patch of evergreen swamp forest in the centre of the park from October to December. From here they fly out up to 70 km from the park every night to feed on masuku and other fruit in the surrounding woodlands.

A visit to the park revealed that bulldozers are razing the surrounding forest, prompting activists’ fears that this will diminish the animals’ food source and destroy their habitat by drying up the park’s major river.

Despite the concerns, Tanzania’s Lake Agro Industries, with the backing of a local chief, is pushing for a controversial wheat plantation close to the bat sanctuary.

According to company records, Lake Agro is owned by Tanzanian-based energy and transportation conglomerate Lake Petroleum Group, which also owns Gulf Adventures, a private game ranch adjacent to the national park.

Vaibhave Nagori, management adviser at Lake Petroleum, said that “everything we are doing is going to create a lot of jobs … as the project grows, it will bring economic development and more tax earnings for the government”.

“In the past, many people have come to Zambia and have got land. Then they just sit on it, they don’t do anything on it – but we are investing,” he said.

The local chief for the Kasanka area, Chief Chitambo, allegedly handed 15 000 hectares of land bordering the park to the company, without the knowledge of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife or the local district council.

In an interview, Chitambo confirmed issuing 5 000 hectares to Lake Agro and said a further 5 000 has been offered to the same investor if more is needed. He said no one, including the Department of Wildlife, could stand in his way in developing his area.

“In fact, this is an issue between two chiefdoms, of Chief Muchinda and Chief Chitambo. There are over 200 employees up there [at the development], so there is nobody who can argue that I have displaced people in my area,” he said.

“They are all happy … there is no complaint coming to me from my subjects.”

The authors drove to large clearing in the heart of dense forest where Lake Agro has set up camp.

The person in charge was not around, but one of the workers, Venkata Ravi took us to an area where the land has been cleared.

It measures 80 hectares, he told us, adding that “we have to clear six such portions by the end of our first contract”.

Makanday was told that when officials from the forestry department inspected the area, they were dismayed by the number of trees that had been cut down and ordered the suspension of all clearance until the matter had been properly discussed. But the company defied the order.

On the day of our visit, ten bulldozers had been let loose in the forest by developers of the new farming block.

Part of the cleared forest

"We don’t know what they will be growing,” says one of the contractors, when asked what will be grown. “Our work ends on clearing the land.”

An officer at the local district, who asked to remain nameless, objected that the developers had made no effort to meet local officials. “We had asked them to come for the meeting, but to this day, no one has been to our office,” he told us.

Activists see the farms and farming activities as an “immediate and serious threat to the integrity of Kasanka”. They claim that the development will lead to a rapid rise in conflict between people and wildlife and poaching inside and outside the park, as well as a general decline in habitat quality, especially of the perennial Luwombwa river that sustains the landscape.

The developers will be drawing water from the Luwombwa River, a situation which experts say might dry up the river between July and December. The Water Resources Management Authority oversee water management.

The Water Resources Management Authority and the Zambia Environmental Management Agency were asked if they are aware of the project and how they view the alleged threat to the Luwombwa river, but did not respond to the queries.

Sources say Chief Chitambo made four or five visits to the area last year. On one occasion, he was unable to cross the Luwombwa River from Nabowa Village by canoe. The developers allegedly provided a helicopter for his next site visit, flying him from Serenje to the proposed game ranch, some 100 kms away.

The chief brushed aside the allegations saying whatever he is doing with the investors “is in the best interest of his subjects”.

The pristine miombo woodland is also being altered on a large scale by Gulf Adventures, the private game ranch within Kafinda Game Management Area (GMA). Kafinda is an area of about 3,800 square kilometres adjacent to the national park. Makanday was told that smaller trees are being eradicated to create a “savannah” or “parkland” effect.

Experts say ranching will have a significant impact on local biodiversity, by restricting the movement of larger mammals, including buffalo and elephant, reducing the food supply for migrating bats, and fragmenting the greater Kasanka landscape.

The Kasanka Trust recently obtained €1.05million from the French government and $200,000 from the American government to further develop the park and the Kafinda Game Management Area.

Christopher Kangwe, the chairperson of Kasanka Trust warned that the activities of Lake Oil Industries, the parent company of both Lake Agro Industries and Gulf Adventures, are of grave concern for the integrity of the Kasanka landscape.

Kasanka is a wildlife charity which raises its income from tourism revenue and charitable funding for conservation work in and around the park.