Massingir district, covering some 580,000 hectares on the Mozambican side of the border with South Africa, is notorious for its wildlife poachers.
About 90% of the 3,960 rhinos poached in the Kruger National Park since 2010 were killed by Mozambicans entering the park across the border, rangers say.
South African conservationists and tourism businesses are developing land on the Mozambican side of the border in an effort to create an anti-poaching buffer zone along the 360km-long fence, to protect the rhinos and elephants, which in recent years have been increasingly targeted by poachers.
Now residents who lived in the buffer zone are accusing the companies of grabbing land to create eco-cocoons for the mega-rich. The South Africans are, villagers claim, being helped by the son of former Mozambican president Samora Machel and local politicians, through bribes, failed promises and deliberately stoked land conflicts.
“They said they were going to employ us when we gave them our land,” said Isac Alione Fubai, a former leader of the Cubo community. “That was not true. Then they manipulated and divided our communities so that they could reign and benefit.”
Twin City, a South African company that develops, lets and manages shopping complexes, has taken over large tracts of land in the buffer zone. It is owned by the super-rich Pistorius family, whose name became notorious after paralympian Oscar Pistorius killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.
The company set up a joint venture called Twin City-Karingana Wa Karingana Ecotourism Limited, based in Maputo and registered at the commercial registry office. The Mozambican shareholders in the venture are represented by corporate consultant Muhammad Khalid Peyrye, former Gaza province governor Eugénio Numaio, his son Rangel Numaio, and Mozambican company co-ordinator Renato Mucavele.
Twin City was established in 1984 by Arnold Pistorius, Oscar’s uncle, and has consolidated 27 pieces of land along the Mozambican border into the 137,000 hectare Karingani Game Reserve. Over time Mozambican government officials have helped it to incorporate at least 20,000 hectares of community land into Karingani, and it has eyes on acquiring more.
Initially communities living in Cubo village agreed to release 10,000 hectares of their land to Adolfo Bila, the Massingir district administrator when Samora Machel was president. Another 10 000 hectares were released in 2007 to Eugénio Numaio, after he stressed the advantages of ecotourism.
“The first 10 000 hectares was passed on by Bila to Numaio and we agreed with this, expecting the former administrator to fulfil his promises of social responsibility in exchange for the land. But he did not fulfil those promises,” said Fubai.
The deal the community agreed to included employment, veterinary facilities and water for their cattle.
“But, apart from constructing two classrooms, a toilet, a yard for kids to play in and a fence at the hospital, Bila did nothing,” Fubai said.
After intervention from Centro Terra Viva, a Mozambican land and environment nongovernmental organisation, community members agreed to keep and develop 3,000 hectares of the remaining 10,000 hectares they had originally occupied.
The community members formed an association called Tlharihane va ka Cubo, and agreed to move off the land to Macavene and Xilalane Valley, near Massingir Dam.
In 2006, the community association formed a joint venture with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF)to develop a tourism project and lodge on their 3,000-hectare community area.
“AWF suggested we accept Numaio as our partner, and he would put a fence around the area to prevent lions from killing our people and cattle,” said Fubai.
The partnership saw Eugénio Numaio take 60% of the community tourism project. Disputes arose about the ownership of the land and Numaio later announced that he had obtained the rights of land use, justifying this by saying he had invested in the project.
In May 2016 the Balule Lodge was opened on the community land by Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development Celso Correia.
Samora Machel Jnr, son of the former president, was listed alongside Eugénio Numaio and Mucavele as the Mozambican partners. The inauguration ceremony was marked by the absence of Cubo community members.
Fubai resigned as leader of the Cubo community, saying he was coming under pressure from Eugénio Numaio and the Massingir district government to convince the community association to give their last 3,000 hectares. Fubai said he was offered $5,800, a 16-room mansion and a luxury vehicle in exchange for the land. “But I refused the bribe.”
Twin City said it “is mainly present in Massingir in order to prevent and counteract the illegal poaching of wild animals”.
Company spokesperson Reinecke Janse van Rensburg denied it had collaborated with Eugénio Numaio to grab land from the Cubo community. “Our DUATs [rights of land use] were obtained legally and we have a partnership agreement with the community under which a lodge will start to be built soon.”
Eugénio Numaio denied there had been any land grabs in setting up the reserve: “When it’s a private company, communities get suspicious and think they want to grab their land. But there are rules in this country; nobody takes things by force.”
Numaio also denied allegations of attempting to bribe community leaders, saying: “Twin City is involved with big companies, and cannot be involved in dirty games or illegal procedures … they cannot pay things outside of the law.”
The dispute between the Cubo community and Twin City is one in a broader battle over land in the border zone. Jaime Cumbane, the leader of another resettled community, said: “At least 90% of the Mozambique borderlands is in the hands of game reserves, including the Limpopo National Park.”
The Limpopo National Park is part of a giant “peace park” agreed to between the South African, Mozambican and Zimbabwean governments. Fences along the border have been removed and Kruger’s wildlife has moved between the two countries along ancient migration corridors.
The resettlement of communities living in the Limpopo National Park on the Mozambican side was a part of the transnational agreement, said park administrator Cornélio Miguel.
“We needed to carry out the resettlement process to create good living conditions for the communities living inside the park; we believe that, with the resettlement, they will have the opportunity to improve their quality of living,” he said. “At the same time, we are recovering the ecosystem and ensuring continuity in the animal corridors.”
About 2,000 families have been resettled in eight villages in the Eduardo Mondlane neighbourhood of Massingir, according to Anastácio Matável, executive director of the Forum of Nongovernmental Organisations of Gaza. Five communities still live inside the Limpopo National Park, awaiting resettlement.
Matável described the resettlements as “a failed process”. He said there is no employment in the resettlement area, and no space for farming or cattle: “All the communities want to go back inside the park, where they used to hunt and sell the meat. We used to farm inside the park. We used to have water; now we have to buy it.”
Community unease has grown with the expansion of South African private game reserves and hunting outfits. In total the Karingani project has resettled 327 families, totalling about 1 000 people, and more than 2,000 cattle.
This story is part of "Kruger’s Contested Borderlands," a transnational multimedia investigation exposing a well-intentioned anti-poaching initiative that has degenerated into a ruthless land grab by politicians and business elite.
This collaborative reporting project was produced by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism in partnership with Code for Africa, AfricanDrone and the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR). Funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ.)