Resource management

Traditional leadership: the key to sustainable management of natural resources in communal lands

The Chronicle

Matutu Fortunes
TRADITIONAL leaders play a vital role in managing natural resources and ensuring environmental sustainability. It is essential that the nation as a whole assimilates and assumes this important role.

In general, traditional leadership is organized into chiefs, chiefs and village chiefs. In rural areas, village chiefs are physically closest to the people and have the most interaction with them. They provide societal, economic, cultural and religious leadership that is fundamental to the day-to-day administration of their regions, including the management of natural resources.

In Zimbabwe, 68% of the population lives in rural areas while communal forests cover 40% of the total forest area.

Therefore, the best approach to the sustainable management of natural resources must be community-based and participatory, with traditional leaders playing an important role. With strong and effective traditional leadership, community management of natural resources can be achieved.

By using their indigenous knowledge systems, they can create effective regulations and moderate traditional customs to manage their natural resources and environment.

Our culture and traditions have strict ecological laws governing the dispossession of sacred sites, forests, bodies of water, wetlands and caves. These ancient cultural values ​​have kept our forests and environment lush, abundant and highly productive throughout the ecosystem.

A cavern

Contrary to popular belief, the law still recognizes an important role for traditional leaders in the management of natural resources. This goes against the common belief that the emergence of new laws has reduced their powers.

In 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new Constitution which recognizes the role of traditional leaders in working alongside state structures. The constitution assigns the power to administer communal lands to traditional rulers and further considers traditional authorities as the primary agents of development in their areas. They are seen as the representatives of the community and as such are given the important responsibility of harmonizing community customs and traditions with the law.

The Traditional Chiefs Act recognizes local chiefs as custodians of natural resources. The law empowers traditional chiefs to control the exploitation of natural resources, unsustainable agricultural practices, overgrazing and indiscriminate destruction of flora and fauna. It is their responsibility to prevent any unauthorized establishment and to approve any new establishment on their territory.

This role is important since traditional leaders are better placed to promote natural resource management because they are closer to the people and know their way of life. Furthermore, they serve as intermediaries between state and non-state actors, coordinating the management and development of natural resources.

A traditional audience held among the trees in Mutoko, a rural district of Zimbabwe

Traditional leaders play an important role in resolving disputes and conflicts in communal areas. The Constitution recognizes this role by empowering traditional leaders to settle disputes between members of their communities in accordance with customary law.

The jurisdiction of these courts is not only limited to civil cases, but can also hear offenses related to the management of natural resources.

Local institutions are empowered to formulate regulations for the management of natural resources and the environment in their jurisdictions using the Communal Lands Forest Products Act and the Environmental Management Act.

The police are called for serious criminal cases, high level offenses and repeat offenders.

The roles of traditional leaders, as well as advisers and committees, are essential for planning, implementation and partnership in community-based natural resource management (CBNRM).

In addition to promoting the conservation of natural resources, CBNRM allows communities to generate income that can be used for rural development; and promotes democracy and good governance in local institutions.


Involving traditional leaders in the natural resource planning process makes the plan more responsive to local needs, ensuring ownership and full participation.

Traditional leaders are expected to ensure that traditional values ​​are respected with respect to natural resources. They have provided spiritual and cultural leadership to their respective communities for many generations. In their respective communities, they are the guardians of culture, customs, traditions and indigenous knowledge.

From indigenous knowledge systems, we learn about sustainable harvesting practices and how to use natural resources. Within this framework, there are myths and beliefs about how natural resources should be managed to ensure sustainability.

However, the role of traditional chiefs as cultural leaders is slowly being undermined by the conduct of some people who go against traditional values ​​and customs.

Resources dwindle as the population grows, land becomes scarce, and different cultures mix in one settlement, making it difficult to practice traditional customs.

Some tribes and ethnic groups view the traditional resource management systems of other groups as demonic, ancient, backward and uncivilized. These people question the ability of traditional leaders to oversee the management of natural resources. There is now a growing demand for scientific explanations, evidence and reliability, which goes against the norms, customs, taboos and myths that support traditional leaders in the community management of natural resources.

The dilution or fusion of cultures between communities caused by globalization and modernization is also a significant threat to the cultural role of traditional leaders. Their areas of influence are shrinking due to urbanization.

The confusion of roles between central government, local government agencies and traditional community structures further complicates the situation.

Despite this, traditional rulers in rural areas remain the most accessible and immediate form of local government. Their resilience and strength have been invaluable in the management of natural resources for generations.

Going forward, traditional leaders should be supported to bring together a variety of actors involved in natural resource management, while government institutions provide a broader and enabling environment.

Traditional institutions need to be modernized and strengthened so that they can respond to changing conditions with greater agility. We can achieve this through capacity building, training, dialogue and joint planning.

Fortunes Matutu is a forester with the Forestry Commission and has a particular interest in social forestry.