NewsThree Eswatini chiefdoms overcome rivalry to preserve indigenous forest

Three Eswatini chiefdoms overcome rivalry to preserve indigenous forest

Lubombo, Eswatini – In the heart of the Jilobi Forest, a biodiversity hotspot in Eswatini’s eastern region of Lubombo, the three chiefdoms inhabiting the territory had longstanding disputes, and tensions used to run high.

But recently, an urge to preserve their shared land has caused them to retire their rivalry.

“There were disputes over boundary lines and resources management that strained relations and hindered peaceful coexistence,” said Muzi Maziya, a 32-year-old from the Lukhetseni constituency, one of the chiefdoms in the remote area of the country formerly known as Swaziland.

“Most of the disputes resulted in illegal activities like wood-cutting and livestock theft by outsiders and people from the communities who took advantage of the polarisation.”

The rivalries, which date back to the 1980s among the chiefdoms of Maphungwane, Tikhuba and Lukhetseni, posed a grave threat to the diversity of the Jilobi Forest, according to environmentalists.

“Borders disputes have been a persistent challenge, leading to a tense relationship among the chiefdoms,” Chief Maliwa Maziya of Maphungwane, the largest chiefdom inhabiting the forest, told Al Jazeera.

“The rivalry often led to illegal activities such as livestock theft,” he said. Members of one community would steal cattle that belonged to a neighbouring chiefdom in a bid to discourage farmers from grazing on land under dispute.

Problems worsened when outsiders took advantage of the tensions and moved into the area, soon consuming much of the resources.

This resulted in the poaching of wild animals, such as warthogs and Samango monkeys, and illegal harvesting of plants for medicines and food.

Collective efforts

The forest holds cultural significance for the Maziya clan of Maphungwane and for the Dlaminis of Lukhetseni, said Nomsa Mabila, a project manager at the local environmental nonprofit Indalo Eswatini.

The forest is also where locals from the Maziya and Dlamini clans bury family members. It is a common belief among communities that the souls of their ancestors roam the forests, hence they believe the land should be preserved and never disturbed, Mabila told Al Jazeera.

But “unsustainable land practices, medicinal plant harvesting without consent and poaching have threatened this natural treasure,” she said.

EswatiniChildren swim in a river in Eswaitini [File: Jon Hrusa/EPA]

Thembisile Myeni is a small-scale farmer in this region. She told Al Jazeera she believes locals know best when it comes to conservation.

For generations, the people of the Tikhuba, Maphungwane and Lukhetseni chiefdoms have depended on their intertwined relationship with the Jilobi Forest for survival and consider themselves to be the custodians of this invaluable natural resource, Myeni explained.

People regularly employ sustainable farming practices that include protecting the area from pests and diseases and avoiding protected areas, she said.

“In our communities, there are collective efforts in preserving the forest against threats,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bhekithemba Matsenjwa, a Maphungwane community member, also emphasised the pivotal role the forest plays in people’s lives.

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