Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2005

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Vanessa Stock Bristow ´81

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Vanessa Stock Bristow ´81

Vanessa Stock Bristow ´81
Bristow with her Dalmatians and lion, Simba.

Life on a struggling wildlife farm in Zimbabwe

by Mary Howard


Earlier this year, we asked Vanessa Stock Bristow ’81 to talk about her life on a farm in Zimbabwe. As a liberal, white landowner, who has spent much of her life trying to improve black-white relations in Zimbabwe, Bristow finds herself in the middle of a political controversy.

In the last several years, the Zimbabwean government has been taking over white-owned farms under the Land Acquisition Act. To date, more than 2,500 commercial farmers have been forced to vacate their properties, many with only the clothes on their backs. Some have been murdered.

While many Africans, including Bristow, view land reform as an essential part of decolonization, the nature of land reform led by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (number 9 on Parade magazine’s World’s 10 Worst Dictators list) has left the country deeply troubled. Zimbabwe suffers from widespread food shortages, an inflation rate of 600 percent and a bitter political struggle turned violent between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, whose members have faced imprisonment and torture.

Following are excerpts from e-mails Bristow sent to Associate Editor Mary Howard.

Could you please describe your farm?
My husband, Digby, and I live with our two sons on a 460-hectare [approximately 185 acres] irrigation property known as Border Ridge on the northern bank of the Limpopo River in the southwestern corner of Zimbabwe. South Africa lies directly across the river from our farmhouse, and the Botswana border is less than 15 kilometers away. We farm paprika, potatoes and wheat, but our real love is wildlife. Among the impala, kudu, eland, bushpigs, jackals, baboons, monkeys, duiker, steenbok and bushbuck that live here, we run breeding herds of 90 reintroduced, Foot-and-Mouth-Disease-free African Buffalo, waterbuck, nyala, sable and (three) lions!

Our property is surrounded on three sides by Sentinel Ranch, a 32,000-hectare [approximately 13,000 acres] expanse of pristine, privately owned (in law but not according to the Zimbabwe government!) African bush. The property boasts 374 species of birds, dinosaur fossils, numerous ancient archaeological sites (many associated with the 13th-century Mapungubwe Kingdom across the river, recently declared a World Heritage Site) and San rock art shelters and carries abundant herds of elephants, wildebeest and zebra as well as hyena, cheetah, leopard and, sometimes, the rare African painted dog.

It is a harsh and arid land, with sensitive soils and low rainfall, bordered in the south by the annually flowing Limpopo River with its riparian woodlands and adjacent, ancient and beautiful sandstone hills. Beyond lie vast stretches of savannah plains scattered with majestic baobabs, acacia and mopane woodlands.

The property has been in the Bristow family since 1952, when Digby’s father bought it from the Rhodesian government as “land unsuitable for human habitation.” Thirty-five years of attempting to ranch cattle on the property failed, and the family decided to let the farm return to its natural state as a game and wildlife paradise. So suitable is the land for wildlife that in 1998 the property was proposed for inclusion in the Shashe-Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (situated at the confluence of Zimbabwe/South Africa and Botswana) as Core Wildlife Area. Participation in the TFCA has been shelved while the dispute over the ownership of the land is sorted out.

What brought you to Zimbabwe?
I came to Zimbabwe to live with my beloved Digby in 1988. We met on a three-week camping trip through the wilds of Botswana. His love of the bush, wildlife and farming — and our determination to see Sentinel Ranch protected — keeps me here.

How has Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act affected you?
First, let me say that I support land reform as laid out in the 1998 Donors Conference on Land Reform: it must be done in a transparent, fair and constructive manner, and it should not be allowed to undermine the very basis of the Zimbabwe economy (agriculture).

Unlike thousands of commercial farmers and their workers, somehow we have managed to stay on our farm. Of course, when white farmers started being murdered, and others forced off their farms under horrendously traumatic circumstances, we felt terribly insecure.

Then the lists of commercial farms started being published. The first had over 750 farms on it, and Sentinel Ranch was number one! Suddenly, agriculture crumbled. Title deeds were no longer sacrosanct, and banks refused to accept farm properties as collateral on crop loans. Developments ceased. In the past four years there have been more than 280 amendments to the constitution and Land Acquisition Act, making it easier and easier for government to take property.

Current legislation says the government need only publish your property in the government newspapers to confirm its intention to acquire your farm. After publication, farm owners have only five days, including Saturday and Sunday, to respond. Even though the law still requires that the compulsory acquisition of a farm needs to be confirmed in the Administrative Court, thousands of landowners have been evicted under the “Fast-track” process without fair hearing. Offers of compensation are generally five to 10 percent of the property’s market value regionally, in local currency, payable over five to 10 years. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe has one of the worst performing currencies in the world!

In August 2002, my husband was arrested with 78 other farmers countrywide for “remaining on an acquired farm.” He spent two nights in the local police station in an unfurnished cell under horrible conditions. He witnessed brutality and beatings at the hands of the police. When he was released, he stank of human waste and was covered in lice.

Yes, we were scared. But Sentinel Ranch is a rare and beautiful property, and it would be a travesty to walk away from a piece of land that, under the right circumstances, could be poised to lead tourism development in such an impoverished area. We have the will and the backing — we simply need to convince the government that there is more to be gained for the nation by keeping Sentinel Ranch as a wildlife sanctuary.

Can you talk about your safari business?
We operate a hunting safari business on both properties. We were forced to stop our safaris [by the government] at the end of 2002, and as a result had to wind up our anti-poaching teams completely. In the two years that we didn’t hunt, there was no income on Sentinel Ranch at all, and poaching rocketed. Water points and springs were riddled with wire and cable snares.

Poachers from the communal area on our boundary ravaged the eland herds using spotlights, dogs and spears.

Directly after the Mugabe government lost its referendum on constitutional reforms in 2000, war veterans were actively engaged to move onto farms “in protest against colonial agendas’ and “Western imperialism” in Africa.

These “beneficiaries” brought 2,000 head of cattle and hundreds of goats and other livestock [to Sentinel Ranch]. Drought hit and there was a massive die-off, not only of grazers such as eland, wildebeest and zebra, but just about all the cattle! The war veterans appointed to Sentinel themselves saw the futility of trying to farm cattle in this arid environment and became concerned that poaching of the only viable resource on the property was getting out of hand, so they asked Digby to return to the property to control the poaching in return for the rights to continue managing and hunting the property in a sustainable manner.

Can you talk about your experience at Connecticut College?
I went in not really knowing what direction I wanted to take. I took up Asian studies when I dropped an economics course. Tom Havens and Ed Brodkin made Japan and India come alive for me, and I will never forget the Japanese dinners Tom used to throw at his house, having made us leave our shoes at the door to assume seats on the scatter cushions on the floor!

Is what you’re doing now related to your studies at CC?
Not at all! I majored in Japanese and Asian studies. Perhaps I should have stuck to my original plans and majored in anthropology or zoology, but who was to know I’d end here?

Connecticut College prepared me for life and everything it throws at you. We’ve certainly had to think on our feet these past few years, and my time at CC certainly armed me with a sense of confidence and an appreciation of freedom and justice with which to tackle the world.

For more information on the political situation in Zimbabwe, visit Human Rights Watch online at www.hrw.org.

Bristow may be contacted through Chuck Larsen of High Adventure at c.larsen@mindspring.com


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