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Wednesday 6 March 2002

Zambia's Ecotourism Venture Clouded by Ecotroubles

Confusion has erupted among tourism stakeholders in Zambia's tourist capital of Livingstone, the departure point for Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws visitors in numbers that top 300,000 a year.

The Zambian ecotourism business is in disarray just when the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism was supposed to help developing countries make the most of their natural resources to attract foreign currency and conserve the environment at the same time.

Livingstone, Zambia's tourist capital, is one of 10 city councils that the World Bank is trying to help reorganize into economically viable and internationally recognized tourist destinations. But lack of an integrated plan to sort out environmental problems is proving to be a stumbling block.

Two months ahead of the World Ecotourism Summit set for May 19 to 22 in Quebec, Canada, where Zambia would like to put its best foot forward, foreign investors have voiced their concerns over what they call bureacratic confusion of the Zambia Tourist Board, the Environmental Council of Zambia, Zambia Wildlife Authority, and the National Heritage Conservation Commission.

The world's largest falls are awe-inspiring, dropping into a canyon 110 metres (360 feet) deep and just over one mile wide, and sending up a plume of spray that can been seen for miles around.

But the glory of the falls are dimmed by environmental problems that include the dumping of raw sewage into the Zambezi River, a source of drinking water for over 70,000 Livingstone residents and a source of adventure for tourists who come for the riverboarding, white water rafting, and canoeing.
Waste management is another problem hampering tourism development in the city, where human beings join stray dogs and vultures in scavenging from waste dumping sites to survive.

The environment and natural scenic beauty of the city is being harmed by infrastructure and hotel buildings, and the intrusion of large numbers of foreigners with little knowledge and respect for local culture and traditions.

With the Zambian copper industry in decline and up to 80 percent of the people living below the poverty level, the government has been looking to tourism to provide an antidote to Zambia's economic woes.

But ecotourism has evolved into a battle among nature lovers in Livingstone. It is an issue that affects people's psychology, inter-cultural values and human rights.

Chief Mukuni of the Toka-Leya people, says that from the outset the government has treated tourism like a stepchild.

But Minister of Finance and National Planning Emmanuel Kasonde said in his 2002 budget speech that the Zambian government intends to make tourism the third economic giant alongside mining and agriculture.

The people of Livingstone and the surrounding area are looking to ecotourism for job creation and income, but today the tourist industry is falling short of their hopes.

Curio carver Abinot Sibajene says tourism is in a slump after the September 11 terrorist attacks in America, affecting the local people's quality of life.

For women who must keep the home fires burning with whatever income their menfolk make from the curio industry, life is indeed hard. Christina Moonde is a mother of eight. Her husband makes curios for a living, but lately, he has not been able to sell any.

Wood carvers are not the only ones who look to the tourism industry for their livelihood. The mushrooming of brothels in the city is another concern for conservationists and residents alike. There is an upsurge of prostitution and sex-related diseases, and the local economy is being disrupted because female labor is siphoned off from farming to the prostitution-related tourism sector.

Vincent Katanekwa, director of the Livingstone Museum, sees the extent of prostitution in the city, as a danger zone for HIV/AIDS. Katanekwa says the collapse of about 20 textile and blanket factories, shut down in the mid-1990s as a result of the country's structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), has adversely affected the value of labor, driving women into the sex trade.

Faless, 25, is a commercial sex-worker who came from another town to make her fortune from the tourists passing through Livingstone. Like most of those in her line of business, she searches for clients in the popular night clubs of the city.

Burglary of lodges and guest houses is another social problem with an environmental side effect that Livingstone must address. To protect their premises from constant breakins, most lodge owners near the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls have built fences around their premises.

But this action has annoyed the Zambia Wildlife Authority, a wildlife regulatory body, and the National Heritage Conservation Commission. The regulators contend that the fencing of properties situated in Mosi-O-Tunya Zoological Park prevents free movement of animals such as sable antelope, eland, vervet monkeys, warthogs and elephants.

"I would rather you cage the human being and leave animals alone," said Benjamin Mibenge, public relations officer for the National Heritage Conservation Commission.

But tour operators and lodge owners argue that animals are not the ones that break in and steal property worth thousands of U.S. dollars.

Ignitius Lindique, director of the private tour operation United Air Charters, justifies the fencing of business premises in the face of escalating crime in Livingstone.

Lindique is using his helicopter hire company to cooperate with the Zambia Police Service in joint operations to curb crime in Livingstone. "We use helicopters to chase and apprehend armed robbers," said Lindique.

Now, with the establishment of the Mukuni Environmental and Economic Development Trust, there is hope that over 7,000 Livingstone are residents could benefit from tourism revenue. The trust in Mukuni Village is seeking to communicate the people's precolonial history and way of life as a method of enlightening tourists on the richness of African culture.

Senior Chief Mukuni says the trust is composed of civic leaders, representatives from villages and local community organizations.

For every flight on which United Charters takes tourists to view Victoria Falls, one dollar goes to the Mukuni Trust.

The chief, who sits on the boards of the United Air Charter, United Touring Company and Mukuni Industries, says the trust is valuable although one dollar may seem like an insignificant amount compared to the resources needed to transform Livingstone into a vibrant ecotourism center.

Despite the creation of the Mukuni Trust, some foreign investors in the tourism industry feel the lack of coordination among various regulatory agencies is frustrating their business. But for those like the chief who believe in the Mukuni Trust, it is a sign of cleaner, more lucrative ecotourism to come for Livingstone and its residents.

Source: Zambia's Ecotourism Venture Clouded by Ecotroubles (05/03/02)