Tempers are flaring in communities living on the edge of Liwonde National Park as they accuse park managers of high-handedness in stopping them from fishing in Shire River.
But African Parks (AP) Ltd, managers of the park on a concessionary arrangement, denied using excessive force and receiving any complaints from anyone.
The villagers claim that some of them jump into the crocodile-infested waters of the Shire to escape from the park’s personnel.
Last Sunday Weekend Nation visited Mitole community under T/A Amidu in Balaka on the north-western side of the park. The locals there vowed to continue making forays into the Shire until there is a binding agreement between them and the authorities for a social component.
Mitole fishermen committee chairperson Swaleyi Daudi said AP security personnel patrol the park using a helicopter, chasing, beating up and destroying fishing gear of those caught fishing in the Shire.
“The situation in this area is very volatile,” Daudi said. “We are being hunted down like animals whenever we go out fishing. As a community, our lives have always depended on fishing. This was passed on from our forefathers and we do not have any other means of making money.
“Once caught, fishermen are beaten up by the guards and if lucky, handed over to police.
‘‘To escape from being caught, some fishermen dive into the Shire only to be maimed by crocodiles. But we have to survive and feed our families and the river is our only source of livelihood.”
“There is nothing for us here, government is only interested in the environment not us. Yet we have always cooperated with them.”
The skirmishes involve four villages of Nsamati, Namwera, Chiloboto and Chitewere with an estimated population of 3 000.
But AP country director Patricio Ndadzera in an e-mailed response on Tuesday dismissed the claims by the community members, saying the company had not received any complaints bordering on brutality by its guards or some people being attacked by crocodiles when they flee into the river.
Said Ndadzera: “As a company, we are not aware of the complaints from Mitole area. By law, fishing in the park is illegal. I, however, admit there have been arrests of people who fish in the park and are sometimes involved in setting snares which have killed a lot of wildlife in the park. When arrested for fishing such people have either been given warning or are taken to police for courts’ action in the case of habitual offenders.” Machinga Police spokesperson Davie Sulumba on Tuesday acknowledged to have received reports of three skirmishes between AP personnel and the locals lodged in 2015.
His counterpart from Balaka Police, Joseph Sauka only talked of cases registered at Ulongwe police in which fishermen had been killed by crocodiles which he said was not related to issues at the park.
“What we know is that people around the park used to go into the protected areas to fish. There have not been recent reports though. We would want to go to these areas with community policing sensitization meetings,” Sauka said.
T/A Amidu said he was aware that some consultations were made with the people.
“To say we were not consulted would be far from the truth. We were called to some meetings to discuss the way forward but the problem is that we did not agree how to deal with the welfare of the people. I think that is the issue that needs to be addressed now,” he said.
But Daudi insisted that villagers along the river were never involved in the consultations.T/A Amidu also acknowledged to have heard that people disappeared in the Shire in the course of fishing, but insisted all these were just rumours as far as he was concerned.
“A number of times I have heard such issues but the problem is that no one has come to complain so that I take necessary steps to consult relevant stakeholders. At the moment, I do not know where to start from if I were to investigate the issues,” he said.
The locals say they are afraid of reporting the cases of harassment by AP guards to police because they fear being arrested.
When contacted for comment Director of Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa denied getting any reports of harassment of community members close to the park but described fishing in the area as illegal.
“I do not know of any case of that nature,” Kumchedwa said. “The concession agreement does not grant use of brutal force.”
He added: “Suffice [it] to say that they have full mandate to manage the park. However, their [AP] management has to be in conformity with the Wildlife Law which does not provide for brutal force.
“ Having said that, l do not mean to accept that they are using brutal force, AP will have to say their side of the story.
Balaka district commissioner Rodrick Mateauma said while his office has not received official complaints on the issue, he would dispatch a team of investigators to the area.
“Specifically we have not been told about any case of death or brutality or indeed if there are clashes between the two sides in the area. The only case that we are aware of is of someone who had his beehives right inside the park and was ordered to remove them. Suffice [it] to say we will make sure that we investigate this matter and take appropriate action,” he said.
Ndadzela insisted that prior to the roll out of the concession at Liwonde, there were thorough consultations that were conducted with the communities around the park.
Villagers claim people have disappeared after diving into the Shire
But while authorities are ignorant about the plight of people of Mitole, 77-year-old Kapeni Walusa, from Chatama Village in T/A Amidu said he lost a grandson in 2015 under those circumstances.
“His name was Janat John, he was 22 years old. He used to help me a lot whenever he sold the fish. On the fateful day, he went out fishing with a friend but other fishermen returned to report that my grandson had dived into the water after being pursued by guards at the park. He was never found after we conducted searches for three weeks. Traditionally, a funeral ceremony was conducted,” he said.
Evelyn Foster, a widow of Yohane Foster, claimed her husband must have been killed by crocodiles after diving into the Shire while being pursued by AP guards.
Lamented Foster: “Since my husband’s death in 2015 my life and that of my four children has never been the same. What we heard was that my husband was in the company of three other fishermen when they were discovered by guards who started beating them up. He run into the water and he was never found while his colleagues were arrested and are currently serving sentences at Domasi Prison.”
As Weekend Nation conducted interviews with the villagers, a patrol helicopter was hovering above the village skies sending fishermen into panic. n