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Mapungubwe National Park: The Confluence of Capital, Politics and Nature

Post by Brandon Finn

Participants of the 2014 Mapungubwe tour and EGS4016 convener Prof M. Ramutsindela (second from left). The Limpopo-Shashe confluence is visible in the background.

Ten EGS4016 students embarked on a field trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mapungubwe National Park, in Northern Limpopo. They were accompanied by Maano Ramutsindela who brought them here because it presents a site that sees the intersection of a rich cultural landscape with contemporary conservation concerns. Mapungubwe is now a celebration of what was Southern Africa's 'most advanced' precolonial civilization. It is however currently experiencing tensions resulting from trying to create a conservation area on a site that is riddled with land claims, coal mining and commercial agriculture.

Societies at Mapungubwe were trading with China, India, and Persian Gulf states from 900 CE. This trade is emblematized by the significant archaeological artifacts found in the area. Archaeological discoveries in (and since) 1933, as well as oral histories paint a very complex picture of the past societies that lived here. Mapungubwe overlooks the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe on the Botswana-South Africa- Zimbabwe border. The three countries have agreed to share the cultural heritage site, while conserving the impressive biodiversity found in the area. Adding to the intricate nature of the site are plans to extend Mapungubwe national park beyond the boundaries of South Africa to include parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe into the envisaged Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (GMTCA).

The establishment of this transfrontier park poses the very questions asked in the EGS 4016F course which is titled: Capital, Politics and Nature. How will a transfrontier park impact on the relationship between economic, cultural and conservation ideals? Who stands to gain from such plans, and crucially, do any local communities that are currently located at the confluence of the two rivers stand to lose or gain their land, and natural resource rights?

The Peace Parks Foundation supports the expansion of the GMTFCA across the three countries. However, critics of the inception of such plans show that projects such as the GMTFCA come with costs. Conservation has a long history of displacing indigenous people who have relied heavily on the land. While there are undoubtedly some benefits that may accrue because of the influx of investment and tourism, it is important to consider that transfrontier parks may significantly disempower some people.

The students investigated the site in order to weigh up these questions, and report back on their findings. Mapungubwe National Park makes for a very interesting visit because it presents a nexus of conservation and culture - both past and present. This relationship, along with the impending expansion of the park across the borders of the three countries opens the area up to important discussions about the contemporary relationship between capital, politics and nature.


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