Transcript: Ambassador Brian A. Nichols Facebook Live Interview with Tell Zim Masvingo

Transcript: Ambassador Brian A. Nichols Facebook Live Interview with Tell Zim Masvingo on Thursday October 23rd; 8.09 a.m.

Theresa Takafuma (Theresa):  Good morning everyone. Welcome to Tell Zim Live Talk. With me, Theresa Takafuma, the Tech and Innovations Editor for Tell Zim News, sitting here with U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Ambassador Brian Nichols, where we are going to discuss several issues, top among them the conservation efforts the United States is making towards our country. Your Excellency, welcome.

Ambassador Brian A. Nichols:  Welcome, good morning. Very nice to be with you.

Theresa:  Thank you. So, this is your second visit to the region. The first time you were here you were officially handing over U.S. $475,000 for the rehabilitation of the Great Zimbabwe National Monument. Can we say you have a soft spot for this region?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, this is a beautiful part of the country. I am happy to be here again in Masvingo to get to see another part of the biggest province of Zimbabwe and to learn more about the exciting work we are doing here to combat poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Theresa:  So, what really brings you to the province this time around? 

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, I have been looking at the wildlife trafficking issues, conservation issues, and environmental issues in this part of the country.  It’s an incredibly diverse area when it comes to wildlife and it faces a lot of threats. But this is a really good news story for Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe is growing its elephant population, growing its rhino population.  It is a leader around the continent in protecting wildlife. So this is an area where we are very happy to be partnering with different institutions in Zimbabwe and making significant progress to improve the situation even more and to help communities that are in proximity to wildlife avoid conflict with that wildlife; and to have better jobs and better incomes.

Theresa:  Okay. So, speaking of environmental conservation, how would you characterize the United States’ support to Zimbabwe and especially in this sector?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, we have a program called Supporting Communities and Law Enforcement Against Poaching which is a $4 million program that focuses on strengthening the ability of park rangers to communicate with each other, building connections among the different conservation trusts in the region. So Malilangwe, Gonarezhou, Save Valley, Bubye Valley – those are all areas where we are providing facilitation for communication and coordination along with other important donors. But I think, as they say, we are the straw that stirs the drink.

Theresa:  There have been concerns raised by the government of Zimbabwe vis- a-vis the trophy hunting ban through CITES and other international conventions.  What is the goal of these bans?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, there is no U.S. ban against trophy hunting. The trophy hunting rules are governed by the rules of the country where the hunting occurs. The United States has many different hunting organizations.  People come here, all we ask is that they obey the laws of Zimbabwe. We hope that Zimbabwe in turn can provide a more comprehensive and professional hunting experience and regulation. I know that some of the professional guides have been coming together and forming an association, and hopefully that will facilitate the tracking and the permitting process. The hunters from the United States do bring back their trophies to the United States but it’s something that we depend on the country where it occurs to tell us whether or not it was a legal and permitted process.

Theresa:  Speaking of United [States’] support to environmental sustainability, how much is it a priority to the United States in Zimbabwe?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, it is a big priority for the United States, and a big priority for me personally. This is an issue that I have worked on around the world in different jobs that I have had.  I think conservation and combating wildlife trafficking, which is a multibillion-dollar international syndicate-driven crime, [are vital]. So, the people who are here in Zimbabwe or in neighbouring countries who engage in poaching are often feeding into a network that has roots that go around the world. One where the trafficked items are going for just a small amount of their value here but reaping millions and millions of dollars overseas.

What we are doing is helping to train rangers, police, prosecutors, judges about how to investigate and prosecute wildlife trafficking.  We are also cooperating with the communities to give them alternative livelihoods and make sure they get the value of the products and the tourism that they have in their areas. I think one of the sad parts about this is that these communities can often fail to realize the incomes that they have. That is why sustainable tourism is a big priority for us. And to analyze the benefits of sustainable tourism versus consumptive tourism, I think globally when you look at the value of tourism.  It is much higher when it’s a sustainable type of tourism.  Having more offerings for the international visitor and the national visitor will also increase the attractiveness of Zimbabwe as a tourist destination.

Theresa: Okay. Ambassador, as a follow up question to that, a lot of questions have been raised after the American doctor killed Cecil the Lion. And I understand there is a Cecil Act being discussed in the U.S. Congress at the moment. What should countries like Zimbabwe expect when the law is passed?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, I’m not sure that the law will be passed. It’s still under debate and it has been for more than one session of Congress. But I think the key issue is to analyze carefully the economic benefits of consumptive tourism and sustainable tourism. The Cecil Act talks about greater restrictions on animal species signalled in the Endangered Species Act and whether or not the endangered species and other listed species would be able to be imported to the United States as trophies.  It’s a matter of debate. Our focus here is really on promoting community solutions and sustainability. If a community feels that wildlife has a value to them in place rather than as a trophy, as a continuing attraction for tourists that is what is going to help the community protect that asset, and make sure that visitors can see it and enjoy it. Actually, in the case of Cecil, that was a lion that was being protected and studied by the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, which we support. Certainly, in the United States we want to make sure that the people of Zimbabwe have the resources they need to engage in conservation.

Theresa:  Another question Your Excellency, quite a number of American celebrities visit the Gonarezhou National Park.  What is the general perception about Zimbabwe as a tourist destination?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, it’s a fascinating situation.  Zimbabwe has a great attraction for high-end tourism from the United States and around the world. The U.S. visitor is generally coming at a very high end of the market. We see European and regional visitors more at the medium part of the market here. The challenge, I think, for Zimbabwe is that the political and economic situation here can cause some people to be concerned about whether it is a good thing for them to visit. And I think broad political and economic reforms will help increase the number of visitors to Zimbabwe. There are already about 200,000 Americans who visit Zimbabwe every year. Most of the visitors go to the Victoria Falls area, but I think the second biggest area is here is Gonarezhou and Chiredzi broadly. This is something that I hope will increase in the coming years. But part of that is making Zimbabwe broadly a more attractive international destination.

Theresa:  You spoke about political and economic concerns, how have American tourists reacted to these concerns about the economic situation, among which include the shortages of cash at the banks, shortages of fuel, and generally declining living standards?

Ambassador Nichols:  I think it’s a matter of concern for everyone. I live here in Zimbabwe and I experience those things as well. One of the things that I am concerned about is the ability to grow the tourism sector in Zimbabwe. Right now, you often have tourists who are coming specifically for a lodge experience and they are not getting out beyond a few discrete locations. If the economic situation were easier, addressing the issues that we talked about, people would be going out to different restaurants maybe not eating in the lodge every night, going to see different attractions.  That grows the market, going to different stores, being able to spend money more freely without concerns of, you know, do I have the correct money, can I change my money?  There are some places where you can only buy with Ecocash, for example.  If you are an international tourist, you are not going to understand how that works. So, the economic reform agenda is something that will facilitate the visits of more tourists that will spend their money more widely in the economy.  Also, I think the political reforms that we hope to see will also improve the reputation of Zimbabwe and encourage more people to visit.

Theresa:  The government says it is because of economic sanctions imposed on the country and SADC has declared Friday the 25th of October as the Anti- Sanctions Day. We have not seen a lot of movement in the international community, particularly the West, on this declaration. Are we missing something?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, the removal of the restrictive measures that affects Zimbabwe is something that’s wholly within the hands of the government of Zimbabwe.  The things that we would like to see are political reforms, for example, the repeal of the Public Order and Security Act – that’s already been voted for in parliament, but it’s been sitting on the President’s desk, or at least in the Executive branch awaiting signature since August.  In the meantime, POSA has been invoked now at least six times to block protests, and that sends a message that the repeal is not a serious issue.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which covers media in particular, is another piece of legislation that the government campaigned on repealing and said repeatedly that it was going to repeal but has not.  The Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency, the legislation sat awaiting parliamentary action for the entire session of the last Parliament and it’s expired. That’s another piece of legislation that this government campaigned upon and said it was going to pass.  The broad electoral reforms that the government has said that it was going to implement, there have been retreats led by the ZEC to discuss the reforms, five different electoral observation commissions have been here from the international community as well as nationally based electoral observers.  They have looked at these reforms, but no legislation has been passed.  These are all things that are well within the government’s ability to resolve.

Investigation into the human rights violations that have taken place, for example the August 1, 2018 violence.  The Motlanthe Commission recommendations have not been implemented, no one has been prosecuted for the shooting that took place by members of the military on August 1st which resulted in the death of six people.  Foreign Minister SB Moyo had said that the government is going to prosecute, but we haven’t seen that prosecution take place.  And in terms of what the costs of the restrictions that the United States has, you know, there are 141 people and companies that are on our sanctions list. That’s less than 0.0006 percent of the population of Zimbabwe, of 16 million, so you can’t really say that this is affecting the broader population, especially compared to things like the National Social Security Authority scandal, 100 million dollars stolen, command agriculture, the Auditor General said 2.8 billion dollars is unaccounted for between 2017 to 2018.  We’ve already seen that in 2018 and 2019, 400 million dollars in fertilizer that was procured was never delivered, that payments to Sakunda Holdings of millions of dollars between June and August of this year doubled the money supply and caused the exchange rate and the inflation rate to spike.  Everybody saw that happening.

These actions have consequences, and there are so many other scandals where public resources have been taken. Drugs are diverted from the health system.  ZINARA, the road scandal, where different scandals have taken millions and millions of dollars from that organisation ranging from little thing like paying for hairdressers and personal gyms for ZINARA officials, and then gym memberships, procurement of inappropriate equipment.  The list goes on and on and on. That’s the real sanction on the people of Zimbabwe.

Theresa: President Mnangagwa said last week Zimbabwe’s lines of credit had been suspended because of sanctions.  Is there a connection between the U.S. sanctions and Zimbabwe’s access to credit?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, when you look at the issue of de-risking it’s a complicated issue that goes back to, you know, the beginning of this century, 2001.  Know Your Customer rules became more strict.  But you also look at the peer-assessed performance of Zimbabwe, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) just grey-listed Zimbabwe because the oversight of the financial system is not strong enough here.  That just happened last week, I’m sure many of your people who are watching now saw that. That’s not something the United States did, that’s something that Zimbabwe did to itself. And those types of concerns are the reasons that the banks don’t have that correspondent banking relationship.  If they were more thorough oversight, I think that problem will improve.

Theresa:  For those watching our live broadcast, I’m sitting here with United States Ambassador, Ambassador Brian Nichols.  You can follow us on Facebook and follow this discussion and you can also send your questions so that maybe he can answer them.  Going onto the next question your Excellency, it appears ZDERA will not be removed unless the conditions outlined in it are met.  And what is your assessment about Zimbabwe’s progress towards meeting political and economic reforms outlined in the Act?

Ambassador Nichols: Well, I think the campaign platform of this government would more than satisfy the vast majority of issues laid out in ZDERA.  The challenge is that the government has not implemented the reforms that it campaigned on.  If it does so, I think that the prospects are good for meeting the conditions of ZDERA. But this government needs to begin to take steps to do that. Having a big rally and a concert on Friday does not accomplish that goal.  Spending $4 million on that when you could be spending that $4 million on salaries for teachers and doctors or buying pharmaceuticals for the hospitals, providing better transportation for people, fixing the roads, those are better uses of that resource.

Theresa:  Now going back to your conservation efforts, a lot of people are asking about the status of what is being done at the Great Zimbabwe National Monument.  We are approaching the rainy season and the invasive lantana camara species will continue its devastation at the Great Zimbabwe monuments, what percentage has been cleared?

Ambassador Nichols: Well, it’s a $475,000 project over two years that is removing lantana camara from the site.  We have done laser 3D mapping of 85% of the hilltop site. International experts have begun to remove lantana camara. By April of next year, we expect that to be completed.  It’s not going to be a one-time [process] and it’s all removed and then it will never come back.  It’s something we are also training local partners to continue to work on and make sure it does not come back. And for your viewers, this is a flower and vine that grows in between the rocks and pushes the stones apart and destabilizes the monument. And if we can remove those and keep them from coming back, it will ensure that Great Zimbabwe will be there for another thousand years for the people of the world to enjoy.  It’s one of the great wonders of the world.

Theresa: I’m just checking for questions from our platforms here, I have some comments regarding the ZDERA, regarding sanctions. Basically, these are some of the things you have already said. On a parting shot your Excellency, after your visit, how would you compare Gonarezhou to Great Zimbabwe?

Ambassador Nichols:  Wow, I mean, both are amazing, amazing locations, Masvingo as a province has such a beauty and diversity, it’s incredible.  Gonarezhou has a park and accompanying broader area. And Chiredzi is a one- in-a-lifetime kind of attraction.  Since I have been here, I have seen elephants, black and white rhinos, cheetahs, lions, zebras, wildebeests — just the diversity of wildlife here is amazing and a great attraction.  I hope that all of your viewers and all of my countrymen can come visit and see the wonderful attractions and spend money and help the economy here.

We are focused on assisting the people in the region to benefit from that tourism. We are training people to work in the tourism sector.  We are providing education, support in schools and clubs here for young people. We are working to ensure that the Limpopo River Basin provides better water resources to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique. So, we are doing a lot in this area and it’s benefitting thousands and thousands of people.  In addition to our work in conservation, we are also working with hospitals to help treat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB.  In fact, we have provided $470,000 to Chiredzi District Hospital, for example, that’s providing anti-retroviral therapy and viral load testing for 70,000 people. So, this is a region that we’re very committed to supporting.  I hope to visit many more times during my tenure as ambassador.

Theresa: Your Excellency, thank you so much for joining Tell Zim News in this interview, and for our viewers thank you for joining us and for following this conversation.  I hope in the future we can continue having these kinds of conversations.  For those who were watching with us, this is the end of our interview with United States Ambassador Brian Nichols. And your Excellency thank you and enjoy your stay in Masvingo.

Ambassador Nichols: Thank you

Theresa: Thank you sir.