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Vic Falls risks being stripped of Unesco World Heritage Status

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Vic Falls risks being stripped of Unesco World Heritage Status

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FIDELICY NYAMUKONDIWA

A CHINESE-LINKED company has controversial plans to build lodges on an island on the Zambezi River and within spitting distance of the Victoria Falls, putting the globally acclaimed natural wonder at risk of being delisted from the Unesco World Heritage Sites List.

There is ongoing commercialisation of the prestine Cataract Island, situated a few metres away from the waterfalls’ famous Devil’s Cataract. If no remedial action is taken, the Victoria Falls, also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”) may lose its status as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Victoria Falls is the largest sheet of falling water in the world. It spans about 1.7 kilometres with an average depth of 100 metres. The waterfall itself is the major attraction at the World Heritage Site. Upstream, there is a spectacular series of riverine islands formed during geological and geomorphologic processes. Because of the majestic curtain of falling water and the exceptional geological and geomorphologic features with outstanding universal value and beauty, the Victoria Falls was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1989.

The designated site extends over 6 860 hectares. It comprises 3 779 hectares of Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, 2 340 hectares of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls National Park and 741 hectares of  the riverine strip of Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe. The transboundary tourist attraction is jointly administered by the Zambia Wildlife Authority (Zawa) and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks).

Victoria Dream, a private company linked to Feng Xiwo Feng and Zhou Zhonggou, who are both Chinese nationals, has flighted an advertisement in which it is looking for partners to develop three sites around the World Heritage Site. The company claims ownership of the land through what it calls “strategic long-term lease agreements with stakeholders such as ZimParks.

The Chinese-linked company further claims to have a concession comprising an island in Darwendale Recreational Park in Norton. Zhou is the chief executive whilst Feng is the managing director of Satewave Technologies. Satewave is the company which donated medical equipment to Sally Mugabe Central Hospital in Harare in June last year.

As previously hinted, Feng and Zhou’s Victoria Dreams claims ownership of three sites in Victoria Falls. Most controversial is a riverine island site measuring 13.5 hectares, whose coordinates are Universal Transverse Mercator format 35K 366826 8026026.

“Due to the exclusive site location, rates can be charged from US$2 000 per night ensuring that investment costs can be quickly returned,” reads the advertisement. For the avoidance of doubt, the said Victoria Island is one of the eye-catching islands on the Zambezi River upstream of the world-famous Victoria Falls.

The second Victoria Dreams’ concession is just 6km from the city centre and the company is proposing to establish a jetty site restaurant  while the third site is located 17km from the city centre along the Victoria Falls-Kazungula road. At the third site they propose a hotel and conference centre.

Zambezi Crescent’s involvement Zambezi Crescent, a tourism company which runs the Victoria Falls River Lodge, the first private game lodge to be built in the Zambezi National Park, has also flighted an advertisement commercialising the  sacred Cataract Island. The latter is at the very edge of the majestic waterfalls and has been the only area within the immediate vicinity of the waterfall inaccessible to tourists due to environmrntal conservation concerns.

Over the years, applications by tourism companies to tour Cataract Island have been opposed by residents and other concerned stakeholders. Cataract Island, also known as Boaruka Island, holds very strong cultural significance to the ethnic Tonga community. Boaruka is a BaTonga word meaning “divider of waters”. The Island is a sacrosanct cultural site used for sacred offerings to the ancestral spirits who are believed to occupy the enchanting Mosi-oa-Tunya, the “smoke that thunders”.

Commendably, ZimParks has been rejecting the applications to protect and preserve the  fragile ecology of the island’s  flora and fauna. Now that Zambezi Crescent is currently advertising tours to the sacred Cataract Island, has ZimParks shifted goal posts?   

About Unesco World Heritage Sites

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is a specialised agency of the United Nations. Zimbabwe is one of Unesco’s 193 member states. Unesco administers the 1972 World Heritage Convention, an international legal instrument merging two separate movements: the preservation of cultural sites and the conservation of nature.

A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by the World Heritage Convention. Unesco is responsible for designating World Heritage Sites. The latter are categorised into two classes: cultural and natural. The listing of a site is prestigious. It promotes tourism and boosts the economy of the host country. Zimbabwe is privileged to have five sites on the Unesco World Heritage List. Victoria Falls (1989) and the joint Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas (1984)  are the two natural sites while Great Zimbabwe National Monument (1986), Khami Ruins National Monument (1986) and Matobo Hills (2003) are the three cultural sites.

In a process known as delisting, Unesco can strip a site of its World Heritage Site status if it considers that it not being  properly managed and protected. The starting point can be placing  the  site on what is known as the Unesco List of World Heritage in Danger. The responsible country is then engaged in view of encouraging it to remedy whatever the situation would be causing danger. If remediation fails, the site is completely delisted from the World Heritage List.

Three sites have been delisted so far. The first World Heritage Site to be undressed was Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007. In 2009, Unesco removed Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany from the list because of an under-construction bridge that would bisect the valley. The third site to be deleted from Unesco’s World Heritage List is the Liverpool Maritime Merchantile City in Liverpool, England.  Unesco removed Liverpool from the prestigious list, citing concerns about over-development which included the construction of  Everton Football Club’s new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock.

The fate of Mosi-oa-Tunya.

Early this year, Unesco sent a monitoring team to assess the status of the Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya in view of ongoing and proposed developments which include the Batoka Gorge Hydro – electric Scheme located on the Zambezi River about 54km downstream of the waterfalls.  A decision is yet to be made, but Zimparks is on record as dismissing the delisting possibility as having no foundation or basis in fact. While we await Unesco’s decision, the aforementioned Chinese investors are pouring gasoline on fire.  

The  erection of buildings on the  ecologically rich islands upstream of the Victoria Falls, the commercialisation of the pristine Cataract Island by Zambezi Crescent, the Batoka Gorge project and other ongoing and proposed projects are genuine threats to the Falls’ prestigious status. As hinted above, Liverpool was stripped of its status because of the building of a soccer stadium.  Ironically, a Dubai-based billionaire, Shaji Ul Mulk, has reportedly made  proposals to build a cricket stadium in Victoria Falls. The United Arab Emirates national, who met President Emmerson Mnangagwa last month, also intends to “invest in other areas close to the Victoria Falls”.

Development is welcome only if it is ecologically sustainable.  Natural wonders of the world are natural. Prestine islands at Victoria Falls must remain natural. The proposed new lodges and restaurants  will pollute the already threatened  World Heritage Site. The state must jealously protect the falls. After all, every person has a constitutional right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

In terms of section 16 of the constitution of Zimbabwe, the government and all institutions have an obligation to preserve and promote Zimbabwe’s heritage. Victoria Falls is both a national and World Heritage Site. It should be preserved at all costs. Commercialisation of the sacred Boaruka Island and the  prestine Victoria Island  must be stopped. Bearing in mind that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, all islands at our Mighty Victoria Falls must be preserved and conserved.

#HandOffVictoriaFalls #SaveMosiOaTunya.

About the writer: Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa is an environmental lawyer. He is a former public prosecutor and is the director for Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe (FaFloZim). He can be contacted through: [email protected]

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