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Travel - Leisure | Environment - Nature | Economy - Development | Labour

Victoria Falls could lose World Heritage status

Victoria Falls:
«Soon, we may not boast of any tourism.»

© Nebert Mulenga/IRIN/afrol News
afrol News / IRIN, 14 November
- Zambia's only listed World Heritage Site is under threat by plans to build a multi-million dollar tourism resort near the world-renowned Victoria Falls, a local environmental organisation is claiming. The tourist resort thus could dramatically lower the tourism value of the famous destination.

The government of Zambia has awarded 220 hectares of land in the 66 square kilometre Mosi-O-Tunya National Park at a cost of US$ 9 million, plus an undisclosed recurring levy, to South Africa's Legacy Group Holdings for development over a 75-year period under a tourism concession programme.

The national park is a World Heritage Site shared with neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the waterfalls as an international tourist drawcard. In the past, Zimbabwe was the main port of call for those wanting to visit Victoria Falls, but Zambia has become the preferred destination as a consequence of Zimbabwe's poor reputation and economic meltdown, which has seen annual inflation levels topping 1,000 percent - the highest in the world - with commonplace shortages of fuel, energy and food.

"We have benefited so much from the booming tourism here but we may lose out, as UNESCO [the UN's cultural agency] has already indicated to us plans of withdrawing the status of Victoria Falls as a World Heritage Site, should the construction of a Legacy Hotel be allowed to go on in the park," Nicholas Katanekwa, chair of the Livingstone Tourism Association, told the UN media 'IRIN'.

Chairman of Legacy Holdings International, Bart Dorrestein, said the company would spend about US$ 260 million on building two hotels, 500 chalets and an 18-hole golf course. The proposed site is six kilometres upriver from Victoria Falls and lies between the Zambezi and Maramba rivers.

Donald Chikumbi, chief executive officer of the Livingstone-based National Heritage and Conservation Commission, said, "We have not received any correspondence from UNESCO to do with the allocation of this land in the Mosi-O-Tunya National Park to Legacy Holdings, but what we have received is a notice letter from UNESCO, informing us that a delegation of officials from UNESCO and the IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources] will be coming to Livingstone on 20 November this year.

"They are coming to do a ground inspection on how far Zambia and Zimbabwe have gone in terms of upholding the various protocols that have a bearing on the status of the Victoria Falls as a World Heritage Site but, of course, their coming might have been influenced, in a way, by whatever is being said and circulated about this World Heritage Site," he said.

Maureen Mwape, spokesperson for the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), declined to comment on the allocation of the land to Legacy Holdings. The Zambian portion of the World Heritage Site is jointly managed by ZAWA and the National Heritage Heritage Conservation Commission.

At a July meeting of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, the committee cited concerns that "the integrity of the property [Mosi-O-Tunya National Park] remained threatened by uncontrolled urban development, pollution and unplanned tourism development."

Tourism has been designated a key sector for job creation and poverty relief by the government of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. His pro-market economic policies have endeared him to Western donors, but have had little impact on addressing dire unemployment levels. Zambia, with a population of about 10 million, has about 400,000 formal-sector jobs, while two-thirds of the population survives on US$ 1 or less a day.

A recent World Bank report, 'Challenges of African Growth: Opportunities, Constraints and Strategic Directions', indicated that despite vast natural resources, and political stability since independence from Britain in 1964, income levels in Zambia had regressed.

"Zambia's and Côte d'Ivoire's per capita incomes have hardly progressed relative to their levels in 1960. Zambia's per capita income on average retrogressed at -0.6 percent per annum over the past 45 years and, as a result, its 2004 level of US$ 902 in 1996 international prices is 23 percent below the 1960 level of US$ 1,167", the World Bank said.

The Environmental Council of Zambia, a governmental watchdog, called a meeting in Livingstone, the tourism capital of Zambia, last Saturday to discuss the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. The period for objecting to the proposed resort will close on 20 November.

Council spokesperson Justine Mukosa said the EIA encouraged "as wide participation of stakeholders as possible. Then, based on what all stakeholders say, and indeed on our own independent investigations and assessments, we shall soon come up with our final position on why the project should go ahead or not go ahead - we shall approve or disapprove the project."

The resort's promise of creating 2,000 jobs has elicted strong support for the project among local residents and organisations. "We, the people of Livingstone, want development. We want Legacy [Hotel] because we have suffered too much with joblessness and poverty," said Shadrick Mabote, a representative of senior chief Mukuni, in whose chiefdom the Victoria Falls is located. "We are ready to take any action against those opposing the project, and we can even walk up to State House [the presidential residence] in protest if anything is done to disturb Legacy from constructing the project in this land."

Livingstone, with a population of about 200,000 people, has not been spared the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic - about one in five sexually active adults is infected. Poverty and unemployment is pervasive.

Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union deputy Secretary-General Michelo Chizyuka told 'IRIN' that "Each one of us keeps at least three unemployed dependants in our homes because of many factors, including HIV/AIDS. So it is a question of who puts food on our tables. Here is the opportunity for our relatives to be employed; should we give more regard to conserving the environment at the expense of fighting our own poverty honestly?"

But UNESCO had declared a 30 kilometres radius of Zimbabwean and Zambian territory around the Victoria Falls a World Heritage Site in 1989. Since then, Zambia has ratified a number of international treaties, including the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Zambian law on land tenure vests all national parks and gazetted sites in the hands of the state, and any lease of such land is subject to normal tender procedures.

Sonny Mulenga, Zambia's first qualified land valuation surveyor and a former minister, said the land had not been advertised or subjected to any tender procedures. "We are setting a very bad precedence for the future generation - land which is gazetted, as a World Heritage Site should never be given out for a song. No records have been given on who evaluated that land, and the amount in question is a mockery."

Environmental activists say the indiscriminate allocation of land to developers has already contributed to the reduction of water levels in the Zambezi River, which feeds the Victoria Falls. Although local environmental regulations require development to stop at least 50 metres away from the river banks, several lodges have been constructed on the river's banks.

"The Victoria Falls is not as forceful as it should be and the Zambezi River is no longer flowing naturally, due to so much uncontrolled developments. We have disturbed the water cycle, and we shall pay heavily for this as a country," said Benjamin Mibenge, a local environmentalist and game ranger with over 20 years' experience. "Going by the high levels of river pollution, structures constructed on the banks, and the overcrowded boat-cruise companies, we may not boast of any tourism just a few years from now."

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