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It is mid-morning in Zimbabwe’s Binga district, on the shores of the Zambezi River, and the sun is already scorching.
Takuchinchi Munsaka of BaTonga tribe services the diesel-powered engine of his fishing rig – a boat made up of cylindrical metal at the base, which allows it to float, and energy-saving lightbulbs at the top which help attract kapenta when the fisherman goes out at night.
Strong river torrents move to and from the shore, almost threatening to carry the boats away on this mighty river sandwiched between Zimbabwe and Zambia, while the loud engines of surrounding rigs whine and rattle – drowning out conversations between fishermen on nearby boats.
When night falls, Munsaka, 31, will sail his rig out across the river, lower his black nets into the water below, and fish – kulabula as it is called in his local Tonga language.
Fishing has been a part of his community for generations. But in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for many to make it out onto the river at all. The reason: fishing permits.
A fishing permit is a legally mandated licence, renewable every three or 12 months, that commercial fishermen are required to have to fish in the Zambezi River. Issued by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), a state agency responsible for wildlife conservation in the country, the permits were introduced in 1990 in a bid to regulate the number of fishers, thus preventing overfishing and aiding conservation.
Those caught fishing without a licence can be fined $2,000 and have their boat impounded.
But the relatively high cost – $1,200 for a yearly permit, plus thousands of dollars to build a fishing rig that meets government regulations – and the limited number of permits handed out each year, has disproportionately benefitted wealthy fishers from the cities at the expense of communities like BaTonga, locals say.
‘I had to survive’
Munsaka, who is a father of two, lives in Muyobe village, a remote rural community some 50 kilometres from Binga Centre, the financial hub of the district of about 139,000 people.
A tall man of medium build, he has spent much of his life working on the river. He started young, fighting his way into the fishing industry as a boy, he says.
“When I reached teenage years, I started buying kapenta from fishermen from the city. I walked for nearly five kilometres up the hills from the Zambezi River to Binga Centre with about 30kg of kapenta, on my back. This was for resale to the locals,” he recounts.
In 2012, he tried to secure his own fishing rig, but he had no capital to buy or build one. And without a boat or rig, he could not get a fishing permit. Munsaka eventually got a job working for someone else who had a fishing rig and a permit.
“I was paid on commission based on a ‘tonnage system’. For a captain, if he manages one tonne of kapenta, he was paid $80 per month while crew members like me were paid $75 per month,” says Munsaka, whose job involved lowering the nets into the water.
“The working conditions were exploitative but I had no choice. I had to survive,” he adds. He feels it was this exploitation that pushed him to work harder, so that he could make money and one day achieve his dream of owning his own fishing rig and getting a permit.
Since 2017, he has rented a permit and a boat from a relative who is among the few Tonga people to have fishing licences in Binga. Leasing one’s permits to other fishermen is a practice ZimParks does not object to as, according to Tinashe Farawo, a ZimParks spokesperson, “subleasing does not add any fishing rigs into the river”.
By 2020, Munsaka had raised enough money for his fishing rig, which cost $8,000 to build. He applied for a fishing permit from ZimParks that same year but is yet to be given one. “I was supposed to be given the permit in June 2021 but I still have not heard from ZimParks. This year I am not sure if I will get it. Perhaps next year,” he says.
‘It’s who we are as people’
Munsaka’s forefathers have fished along the Zambezi River for generations. Before white colonialists occupied the country, then called Rhodesia, BaTonga were known as “the great river people” and lived in Kariba, making their livelihoods along the river where they could fish and practise agriculture in the surrounding fertile wetlands throughout the year.
Historically, the tribe relied on fish as a source of protein and on fishing for their survival. These natural resources were freely available to them, and from a young age, BaTonga would be taught to fish using tools like fishing baskets and canoes. They would fish along the Zambezi and its tributaries without fear of breaching any laws, as there were no state regulations on fishing methods, or which part of the river to fish in, or the quantity of fish one could catch.
But all that changed in the 1950s when the colonial government forcibly moved BaTonga to make way for the construction of the Kariba Dam. Most were resettled in Binga, about 484km away, but some were relocated as far as Siabuwa, 84km from the Zambezi River – making it impossible for them to maintain their normal riverside existence.
After the resettlement, BaTonga were given “compensation” in the form of grain to sustain them until they could somehow farm in this otherwise barren land filled with drought-resistant mopane, acacia and baobab trees.
But being cut off from the river, and the tougher restrictions on fishing licences that were introduced in subsequent decades, made much of the tribe feel that their way of life was criminalised.
“Fishing for us has been an important factor being our nutrition as well as being important in our economy. We trace it to who we are as a people,” says Prince Dubeko Sibanda, an opposition party MDC-Alliance member of parliament for Binga North.
“Fishing is not only for economic and other social reasons, but it is part and parcel of our life, it has been part and parcel of our culture,” he says, adding that the colonial laws which were introduced in a bid to conserve the fishing sector were not inclusive of the tribe.
After the construction of the Kariba Dam in the 1950s, the then-Rhodesian government introduced other species of fish such as kapenta in a bid to commercialise the sector. By the 1970s the sector was flourishing, but with fears of possible overfishing in the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba, licensing processes and regulations were tightened.
During these pre-Independence times, the industry was dominated by white people, while Black people – including BaTonga – had limited access to licences. Most Tonga people in the fisheries sector at the time worked for white people.
After 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence, the licensing regulations were eased slightly to allow Black people to enter the sector. The government also introduced a cooperative system – an initiative where a minimum of 10 people could come together to apply for fishing permits. This was aimed at compensating and empowering BaTonga who had been affected by the displacements in Kariba in the 1950s.
However, the cooperative system was later monopolised by politicians and businessmen, resulting in non-Tonga people benefitting more than the locals, says Munsaka.
Barriers and costs
Today, BaTonga number some 300,000 people and are situated between the northern parts of Zimbabwe (including Binga) and the southern parts of Zambia.
Four decades after independence, Binga, which is one of the most sparsely populated districts in Zimbabwe, has remained under-developed with inaccessible roads, poor connectivity and inadequate infrastructure such as schools and clinics.
Many Tonga people’s homes have no electricity, despite it being generated from Lake Kariba – which lies in the valley that used to be their home – and supplied to cities hundreds of kilometres away.
Farming is not always viable, due to poor soil and insufficient rain, so BaTonga have limited sources of income. Some depend on traditional craft-making – basketry, wood-carving, textile and jewellery making; others survive on remittances from the diaspora – relatives who live mainly in Zambia, South Africa and Botswana.
Wealthy residents of Harare often come to Binga to enjoy its sand beach, hot springs, boat cruises and recreational fishing. But for most Tonga people, fishing is not a recreational activity – it is their means of survival. To sustain what has historically been their primary source of income, however, they are now required to pay.
Fishermen in Binga believe these levies should be decreased.
“Many locals cannot afford the $1,200 fees required [for the fishing permit],” says Givemore Gwafa, a chairperson of the Binga Fisheries Association, a membership-based local trade union that represents fishermen. “This is a barrier to many current and aspirant fishermen.”
Civic society groups have expressed concerns and called for the government to relax its licensing process to accommodate more Tonga fishermen.
Since the 1980s some Tonga people from Binga and Kariba have formed cooperatives under the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises to apply for permits from ZimParks.
Tapiwa Mateiswana, 40, of BaTonga from Shangwe in Kariba, started fishing in 1991, working for rig owners from Harare. But in 2019, he got his own rig and a permit through a cooperative.
“I have been applying as individual several times with no success,” he says, sitting at an old resort-turned-harbour for fishing rigs on the shore of Zambezi in Binga.
The father of 14 children sits barefoot on a wooden stool, wearing brown shorts and a pink shirt. He holds a spanner in his right hand as he talks, determined to finish servicing the diesel-powered engine of his fishing rig before night falls.
He explains that the cooperative system has paid off for him.
“In 2019, we were advised to join hands and apply for the fishing permits as a cooperative. We were lucky we got the licences,” he says, smiling.
While fishermen in Binga say they struggle to get even single permits, Munsaka says he knows of some people from the city who have several permits per person.
“These people from the city have money, some are businesspeople. They just apply and get the licences. They have the money to have as many fishing vessels as possible. It is sad that the Tonga people are failing to get even one licence while some rich people from the city can get as many as they want,” he says.
But Clever Mutondori, who relocated to Binga in 2010 from Marondera, about 70km outside Harare, tells Al Jazeera that he faced the same struggle as the locals when trying to get a fishing permit.
“I ventured into fishing by buying from local fishermen and resale in Bulawayo and Harare. I wanted to raise money to buy my own fishing rig. I bought a second-hand rig in 2011 and started fishing in 2012. I then started buying several fishing rigs. By December 2014, I had 12 fishing rigs,” says Mutondori.
“The permits I used were all on lease … It was tough to get permits because the authorities tried to minimise the number of fishermen. In 2015, I finally got the fishing permits with assistance from a local chief.”
ZimParks’ Farawo says that granting licences to everyone who applies would threaten conservation.
“We risk overfishing. There is a need to make decisions based on scientific assessments. Kariba alone has 275 commercial licences for Zimbabweans and 225 for Zambians,” he says.
“All local headmen have fishing licences and most members of the community belong to cooperatives. However, some that have received licences have hired them to other people.”
Making a living from fishing
Munsaka and Mateiswana have been able to look after their families from incomes generated from the fishing industry.
Mateiswana says he uses the profits to pay the school fees for his children “as well as buying all other essentials for the family”.
“I am glad that with this business I am able to make sure that none of my children goes to bed with an empty stomach,” he says.
Fishing is Munsaka’s only source of income. “In a good month, I can get about 16 bags of kapenta with each bag weighing 30kgs,” he says.
But over the years, overfishing has affected his catch. “I remember in 2017 when I started renting this fishing rig and permit, I would get about 30 bags with each weighing 30kgs of kapenta in April. But in April 2021, I got about 12 bags of kapenta,” he says.
From the 16 bags he gets today, he says he gives 10 to the fishing vessel owner and keeps the last six for himself to sell. “There is not much profit. But I have no choice as I want to put food on the table for my family.”
Munsaka says his kapenta attracts buyers from as far away as Bulawayo and Harare. “We sell our catch to people in Binga and to those from Harare and Bulawayo at wholesale prices.” He has even employed three people, a captain and two crew members.
But with a reduced catch, he sometimes struggles to pay his workers. “Worse is budgeting the $1,200 for the annual fishing permit,” he adds.
Binga Fisheries Association’s Gwafa says fishing produce has gone down over the years due to a number of factors from overfishing, poachers and poor conversation between the fishermen.
He says their counterparts in Zambia often drift into Zimbabwean waters, affecting the conservation efforts of the locals. “Some fishermen with nets disturb these breeding places. Once the process is disturbed, our production goes down.”
‘I am related to these waters’
Sibanda, the MP for Binga North, describes how, before they were moved in the 1950s and before state regulations for fishing were introduced, the tribe had its own way of practising sustainable fishing and preserving the natural resources.
“The resettlement changed everything,” he says. “It is not like that we BaTonga never knew how to conserve fish. We knew. The laws that came into place changed the manner we looked at conservation.”
Sibanda says that for the Tonga people to once again benefit from fishing there is a need for the devolution of some decision-making power from the national to the provincial level.
This would empower local authorities to spearhead economic and social development projects in their areas by leveraging local resources.
“We need to make sure that the laws are decided at the level they are implemented. We allow the people that are surrounded by the resources to be the people who help in deciding the crafting of the law as well as its implementation,” he says.
“If the Tonga people are to benefit from the fish that God gave them, the board that decides on the fishing laws and the board that give the fishing licences should be controlled by people that are in Binga rather than from Harare.”
For Munsaka, he still hopes that one day the authorities will grant him a licence.
“I am related to these waters,” he says. “I will keep on renting the permit until I get mine, I will never give up.”