Top-down decentralization in Zimbabwe’s woodlands


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After years of failure with national governments’ centralized attempts to regulate forests, policymakers and their advisors around the world have adopted ’decentralized natural resource management’ as their new mantra. Many countries have given municipal and district governments additional forest-related responsibilities in the hope that authorities closer to the ground will understand their local conditions better, have greater capacity to monitor what goes on, and make decisions that reflect local needs.

Depending on how they manage the process, the outcome can be more ’top-down’ or ’bottom-up’. In other words, decentralization can serve as a tool for achieving the aims of national elites more effectively and at a lower cost, or it can give previously marginalized groups greater access to power and resources.

Zimbabwe’s experience provides useful lessons in this regard. In ’Forging (Un)democratic Resource Governance Systems from the Relic of Zimbabwe’s Colonial Past’, Alois Mandondo at the University of Zimbabwe traces recent efforts to decentralize natural resource management back to the policies of indirect rule under the colonial regime. During the colonial period, the national government made native chiefs and headmen responsible for enforcing certain environmental regulations. But the rules themselves did not reflect local interests and the government used the system to further colonial objectives, often at the expense of the native population. Native farmers were forced to cease commercial logging, reduce their cattle herds, and provide free labor for soil conservation activities.

Mandondo argues that this sort of approach has carried up to the present. Since independence in 1980, local authorities have continued to serve largely at the whim of the national leaders of the ruling party. They are more accountable to party bosses than to their local constituencies. The Rural District Council Act of 1988 gave district governments the right to enact land use and conservation laws; but most simply adopted the model by-laws prepared by the national government. Communities have had few opportunities to participate in creating the new rules, even though the government expects them to cooperate with the council representatives who enforce the rules. As part of the well-known CAMPFIRE program local communities are supposed to receive at least 50% of the revenues from wildlife safaris. Nevertheless, District Councils have been reluctant to allow the communities to control those funds. More recently, the Traditional

Leaders Act of 1998 charged village headmen with enforcing environmental and conservation regulations. Theoretically, this was supposed to increase local control. In practice, there has been little progress in allowing communities to set their own rules, generate revenues from the natural resources, and democratically-elect their own representatives.

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Further reading

To send comments to the author or obtain a free electronic version of the paper in English, you can write Alois Mandondo at: