Every year, hundreds of thousands of local and global tourists flock to Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) — known to all around the world as Victoria Falls — to experience first-hand the majesty of this breathtaking miracle of nature; one of the seven wonders of the world. It is for this reason that millions part with their money; to view the Victoria Falls at close range.
What is known to few however is that this captivating, picturesque scenic beauty, and its surrounding environs, is under severe environmental threat due to proposed [and ongoing] development projects.
Profit over nature: How money threatens the environment
Given the rapacious avarice of private infrastructural developers, financiers, and elite businesspeople, the pristine state of the Victoria Falls faces a massive environmental threat as Zimbabwean authorities gave the greenlight for multi-billion dollar infrastructural projects to commence.
Despite apparent criticism from local communities, conservationists, and various other stakeholders, tourist companies were given the go-ahead to begin construction on the unspoiled Cataract Island, accompanied with advertisements about activities on the island.
The wild nature of Victoria Falls’ Cataract Island and the surrounding rainforest areas have seemingly been disregarded in pursuit of unbridled [personal, privatized] profits.
The area has always been the subject of proposed development projects from several tourist companies, but have always failed to commence due to opposition from local communities, local authorities, and other stakeholders. With the ultimate opposition coming from Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) and court orders.
Larry Norton, Private Companies, ZimParks, and Judges: The Court Case
This time around the situation is worryingly different. In light of proposed development projects on Cataract Island, a Victoria Falls-based artist filed an urgent application to the High Court in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. But up to now, the matter has not been resolved yet.
Larry Norton, the world-renowned artist from Victoria Falls, filed an application to the High Court in the capital imploring the judiciary to stop the ravenous development projects — projects that will take shape in delicate areas of Victoria Falls’ rainforests and wild spaces.
The proposed riverside development has been widely referred to as the “commercialization” of pristine natural environments. While opportunities for growth in tourist towns/cities are welcome, the opaque and unplanned way with which they are now being approached has led to conservationists relentlessly raising red flags.
Larry Norton, together with eight other applicants, cited the ZimParks, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), and the Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe as respondents in the High Court case. Adage and Scanner were cited as the first and second respondents.
In early 2022, it came to the fore that two private companies (Adage and Scanner) were given permission to undertake commercial, profit-driven operations in the vicinity of the Victoria Falls World Heritage site. The Cataract Island, specifically.
Nehanda Radio reported: “Adage Success P/L apparently had permission from the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZNPWA) to undertake commercial activities on Cataract Island including a natural plunge pool experience on the immediate edge of the Main Falls.
This was subsequently advertised by Zambezi Crescent, Mr Mark Bosch’s company.”
Are legal solutions the cure to profit-motives?
It is against this backdrop that Larry Norton and others filed an urgent court application on May 30, 2022, challenging these developments. But the case is frustratingly dragging on, despite (how ironical) having been filed on an urgent basis.
And in all this, developments continued. The Zambezi Society reported in 2022:
– Ground clearance is taking place on the banks of the Zambezi River just upstream of Devil’s Cataract for a restaurant to be built adjacent to the fenced edge of the Rainforest; – Investors are being sought for several developments within National Park land close to Victoria Falls, including a restaurant and jetty on a 13.,5 ha island on the Zambezi River; – A hotel is proposed along 1 km of Zambezi River frontage between the Big Tree area and Elephant Hills Resort- The ongoing development of the huge Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort (pictured above) on the Zambian side of the Zambezi river only three kilometres upstream of the Falls resulted in a fact-finding visit by a joint UNESCO/IUCN reactive monitoring mission in February 2022. We await the result of their report to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.
The Zambezi Society also wrote: “The Zambezi Society remains deeply concerned about the long-term effects of uncontrolled and unplanned developments in and around Victoria Falls. We have, on previous occasions, called for a moratorium on all development in the area until proper planning mechanisms have been put in place. We will do so again.”
The court case that drags forever while the environment suffers
In November 2022, it was reported that Larry Norton wrote letters of complaint to responsible authorities bemoaning the snail-paced nature of how the matter was being handled. He wrote:
“Despite an urgent application submitted on 30th May 2022, the case has yet to be heard. 149 days have passed with no ruling from the judge on the Urgent Application to stop these activities.
“Three letters to the high court questioning this extraordinary and unheard of delay have been sent. The last letter was acknowledged by the Registrar.”
He also said that that he was threatened by unnamed government officials who told him not to challenge the projects.
“At the outset of this process I received a phone call from a government official. I was asked who I represented, ordered to stop enquiries, desist from talking to people about these issues and advised that I was going against the government.
“After the court process had begun another government official approached a number of individuals who had written supporting applications for the case to attempt to persuade them to abandon their applications. He was unsuccessful. I question his interest in two proposed commercial enterprises.”
In March 2023, a High Court judge ordered that the matter be heard urgently given the long delays that the case had been subjected to. The ruling ordered that the matter commence on March 31, 2023, but the respondents did not turn up. This was after the respondents had argued that the matter was not urgent.
The judge disregarded their arguments in delivering the order that the matter was supposed to be heard urgently. The matter commenced in June 2023, and it has not been determined yet. And in all of this, construction is reportedly taking place on Cataract Island.
How private investment threatens the world heritage site
In 2016, three companies applied for leases to undertake commercial activities in delicate, pristine parts of the Victoria Falls’ rainforest but they were turned down by ZimParks for environmental reasons. Fast-forward to the present, it emerged that Adage Success was clandestinely offered a USD$5,000-per-year lease.
Larry Norton indicated that developments are situated 40 metres from the Rainforest fence, on the water’s edge approaching Devil’s Cataract. He lamented, “These actions, in such a sensitive site, to me, demonstrate a callous disregard for this fragile environment and wild space in exchange for personal profit.”
In February 2022, UNESCO, after a fact-finding mission, sternly warned that “Victoria Falls was under threat from individual and cumulative infrastructure developments, which have increased as investors respond to opportunities emerging out of an exponential growth of the city.” It also said that Victoria Falls could lose world heritage status due to this.
It is obvious that these infrastructural developments are seriously detrimental to the flora and fauna in these pristine parts of the world heritage site. Yet this sacrosanct consideration — preserving nature for all and future generations — has been flagrantly disregarded; sacrificed at the altar of profits.
The projects pose irreversible, adverse effects to the environment. “[These projects] are damaging to the universal ecological value of this profoundly important World Heritage Site, which is why, as a citizen, supported by nine other applicants, I have fought this,” said Larry Norton.