|File picture of Chilonga people|
Plans by government to railroad Chilonga villagers in Southern Chiredzi into accepting a multi-million dollar grass growing project, on their ancestral land, seem dead in the water with the push to expropriate their land clearly having lost steam of late.
Indications are that government has decided go back to the drawing board over the lucerne project in a spectacular and humiliating climb-down following a show of people power in fiercely opposing the project.
Government had through a Statutory Instrument gazetted the forced takeover of Chilonga villagers' land for a bit reported US$60million grass project by Kwekwe-based Dendairy Company.
The owner of the company is suspected to have close business links with President Emmerson Mnangagwa who also hails from Kwekwe.
Original plans were to take over a combined over 12 000hectares inhabited by Chilonga villagers comprising mainly members of the Shangaani ethnic community for the grass project.
Thousands of villagers were supposed to be displaced from the land of their forefathers to pave way for the project, a show of force by big business over poor peasants.
A public outcry ensued with civic society organizations led by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and and the Chilonga community embarking on a spirited crusade to stop government grand infringement of the rights of ordinary people.
The Chilonga issue hogged limelight in the media and also spilled in the courts where government was interdicted for processing to evict Chilonga families in February this year.
Government reacted by gazetting another SI that ostensibly sought to clear the air on the grass project with change in wording stating that there would be no displacement of humans from their ancestral land save for isolated cases of reorganizing the settlements to accommodate planned development under the project.
An attempt was also done to assuage widespread anger by Chilonga villagers through a promise of "sweeteners" such as building of a weather bridge across Runde River at Chilonga for the project to get acceptance.
In April Vice President Constantino Chiwenga flew to the Lowveld to try and douse the growing fires of anger against Government by the Shangaani people over plans to foist the grass project on them.
In the aftermath of Chiwenga's visit to the Lowveld, where the Vice President came face to face with raw anger of the Chilonga villagers, government seems to be developing cold feet to forge ahead with the project.
Various people canvassed by TellZim News for their thoughts on the future of the project say it appears Government was now reluctant to force its hand in the grass project with one eye on the 2023 polls.
Chilonga which falls under Chiredzi East constituency had always been a Zanu PF stronghold but angry villagers were openly threatening to punish the governing party by dumping it and voting for the opposition in the coming polls.
Prominent human rights lawyer Martin Mureri says Government succumbed to people power in Chilonga after being pushed to uphold the constitution and respect property rights.
"This is what government should do to respect property rights of Chilonga villagers and not force them off their ancestral land," he said.
"Now even if they are going to proceed with the project they will have to engage the people of Chilonga because they know the folly of imposing their will on the people no matter what they will be doing will be blatant violation of human rights, government should respect and uphold human rights,"added Mureri.
He pointed out Government push to embark on the grass project had lost steam after facing resistance from Chilonga people and human rights defenders.
"I think the zeal to continue with the project is no longer there. They will now have to go back to the drawing board and start by consulting people on the ground. It’s a lesson to government that rights of citizens must be respected and defended," said Mureri.
While Chiredzi acting district development coordinator (DDC) Gift Machukela refused to comment on the matter Masvingo provincial development coordinator (PDC) Dr Jefter Sakupwanya put on a brave face and was adamant the project is going on.
"We want to eliminate the misconception that government wanted to impose the grass project on the Chilonga community because we have always favored engagement with the locals and that is what we are doing now. There was no proper consultation and we are correcting that anomaly so that everyone embraces the project," said Sakupwanya.
The political leadership led by Masvingo Minister of State for Provincial Affairs Ezra Chadzamira is also singing from the same hymn book insisting the grass project will go ahead in Chilonga.
However inside the walls of government offices in Masvingo there is growing belief that it will take a lot of time and diplomatic maneuvering to convince the Chilonga folk to accept the Dendairy grass project.