Conservation gets help from the spirit world


Mozambique: Officials eager to increase tourism to rebuild the nation's economy enlist traditional spirit mediums to win the support of villagers.

June 30, 1999|By Andrea Useem | Andrea Useem,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAWA, Mozambique -- Mathias Mkunga has a tough job: tracking poachers who illegally hunt the elephants, buffalo and other wild animals roaming the Zambezi River valley in northwestern Mozambique. But he gets a little help from his friend Mariana Mphande, a traditional spirit medium.

"Mariana can see in her dreams when someone has killed an animal," explains the game scout. "She tells me where to catch the poacher."

In an innovative new wildlife-management program, this Southern African nation, nearly half wilderness, is recruiting spirit mediums -- and the unseen forces they represent -- to conserve and develop its vast natural heritage. After years of civil war, Mozambique is rushing to ensure that its poor citizens, and not only foreign investors, benefit from its resources.

Rural Mozambicans have traditionally lived alongside the invisible spirits of dead ancestors and wild animals. Channeled by local mediums, these spirits are believed to protect those who honor them and threaten those who ignore them. Mkunga tells of two men who chopped down a sacred tree -- and were devoured by a crocodile days later.

These beliefs, discouraged during a decade and a half of Marxist rule and disrupted by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1992, are now being harnessed to conserve natural resources. Spirit mediums such as Mphande say that if Mozambicans reconnect with the spirits of the natural world, they will protect the resources around them.

"Our ancestral spirits tie us to our land. We venerate them at beautiful big trees that we never cut down," says Mphande, whose own baboon spirit shows her wild herbs that can heal sick villagers.

Reviving traditional conservation values is just one strategy of a country rapidly inventing a much-needed environmental policy.

Wildlife populations, devastated during the war years when poachers ran rampant and soldiers and villagers killed big game for meat, are now recovering, according to conservation experts.

With vast tracts of pristine wilderness -- preserved, paradoxically, by the war, which pushed rural populations to urban areas -- the government has no shortage of foreign investors, many from neighboring Zimbabwe and South Africa, who want to develop the tourism industry.

Job one, says Sergio Ye, a provincial director of agriculture and fisheries, is to bring Mozambique's resources under control and prevent more poaching of wildlife.

"Our first strategy is to work with the local community. They have direct contact with the animals," says Ye.

A flagship community-based "smart partnership" project in the province that includes Mphande's home of Bawa brings together rural villagers and the private sector. Known as "Tchuma Tchato" -- "Our Wealth" in the local Chikunda language -- the project gives local people an economic incentive to preserve wildlife. They might otherwise kill animals for meat or money or to protect crops from marauders.

When animal populations rise, the government allows a certain number to be killed. Specialized companies bring in foreign hunters willing to pay up to $2,000 for the chance to track big game.

In the thatch-roofed bar of the "Mozambique Safaris" camp on the Zambezi River, photographs of successful outings cover the walls: Two men stand smiling beside a 10-foot crocodile; another hunter slings a dead leopard over his shoulder. This operation, owned by a white Zimbabwean, can bring more than 30 clients a year.

Revenue from the hunting licenses, which has amounted to more than $110,000 over the past three years, is divided among the local community and the local and central governments. Elected village councils decide how to spend the communities' third of the money. Mphande, an elected member in Bawa, recalls the plans of the men in her village.

"Many of the men wanted cash in hand, for beer drinking," she says. "But we women insisted on establishing grinding mills to free us from pounding grain by hand."

Bawa and surrounding villages now have three generator-powered mills for grinding maize, saving women the long work of hauling their sacks across the Zambezi to grinding mills in Zambia.

Tchuma Tchato mirrors similar projects in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where they have been both successful and controversial.

Animal-rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have protested the hunting of elephants and other animals, though there is an overabundance in some areas.

To prevent unauthorized hunting, local communities employ game scouts like Mkunga. The Ford Foundation and other donors pay their salaries, but administrators say the project eventually will be self-sustaining, as more investors are attracted to the spectacular river valley.

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