One of Africa’s most famous landmarks, Victoria Falls, is in danger of losing its status as a world heritage site following the construction of a restaurant and curio shop in the adjacent rainforest, which has sparked loud protests from Zimbabwean environmentalists.
Zambian authorities have also been dragged into the fray, as Zambia and Zimbabwe jointly administer the site under a management plan signed in 2007 that set guidelines for the management and protection of the rainforest and prohibits new development there.
According to the NGO Environment Africa (EA), a Zimbabwean company, Shearwater Private, started developing the zone, building a kitchen, restaurant, bar and curio shop, after getting the green light from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Charlene Hewat, the EA’s chief executive, said: “We support new and sustainable development but not at the expense of the environment. The issue with this particular development is that national and international laws governing the sanctity of a world heritage site have been breached.”
Legislation governing such sites prevents new developments taking place to prevent congestion and the overstay of visitors.
Unesco first listed the falls as a world heritage site in 1989. Its status came under threat in 2007 when the United Nations agency accused Zimbabwe of “mismanagement and overdevelopment” of the site.
“A world heritage site is governed by very strict laws and, if they are transgressed, Unesco certainly has the right to revoke the status — Once again there is a very real possibility of that happening,” said Hewat.
Political deals It is understood that Shearwater, in partnership with the wildlife authority, initially proposed upgrading only existing facilities, which comprise an information centre, ablution blocks and food and beverage amenities. But green activists say the company has built new infrastructure.
Speculation is mounting that Zanu-PF bigwigs, known to have a large portfolio of businesses in the resort town, may have influenced the authority’s decision to allow Shearwater to build, contrary to regulations.
“This matter smacks of political dealing, with someone high up trying to strengthen his or her hand in business,” said one environmentalist, who requested anonymity.
Asked for comment, Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, said: “I’ve sent my officer to check on what’s happening in the Victoria Falls, as I’m also anxious about developments there and will issue a response when the official has given me feedback.”
Local stakeholders and residents of Victoria Falls said they were not consulted about the development.
At a crisis meeting at the offices of the municipal board in October, the Environmental Management Authority of Victoria Falls decided to mount a legal challenge to force the government to cancel Shearwater’s operating licence.
Nhema said: “All stakeholders have to be involved. If that wasn’t the case then there’s definitely a problem.”