Biodiversity stories: building understanding in the media leads to richer reporting

21 March 2016

The number of journalists able to report on biodiversity issues in Zimbabwe has grown significantly thanks to a focused effort to build understanding across the media.

A hippo emerges from the Zambezi near the Mana Pools Wildlife Conservation Area in northern Zimbabwe  (Photo: Terry Feuerborn, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Before 2013 there were few journalists in Zimbabwe who knew what the term 'biodiversity' really meant. Only a handful knew why policymakers should consider the effect on biodiversity of the decisions they made in the name of development. As a result, media reporting on biodiversity issues was infrequent and lacked impact. 

In March 2013 things began to change. At a stocktaking workshop in Kadoma participants from across sectors pointed out that communicating biodiversity messages in a concise and understandable way remained a major challenge for the nation's media. The workshop was organised by Dr Chip Chirara, a member of Zimbabwe's NBSAP revision team.

The response, three months later, was a capacity-building workshop on biodiversity reporting facilitated by the Biodiversity Office of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate.

Journalists from print, radio and TV attended, taking the opportunity to find out about the threats to the country's biodiversity caused by activities such as mining in national parks and the cutting down of huge swathes of indigenous trees for the tobacco curing process. 

Elizabeth Chengeta works for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, reporting on current affairs and local, environmental and social issues for Radio Zimbabwe. She broadcasts in the Shona language "simplifying issues for the ordinary person across the country".  She attended the workshop and says it was useful: "Before I was involved my knowledge of biodiversity was zero. I learnt so much from the event".

Chipo Masara agrees. A journalist on the independent newspaper The Standard, she was one of those who had already reported on how wetlands around Harare were being affected by construction work.  

The workshop cemented what I already knew and made me realise how vital biodiversity was to an area's overall environmental status – Chipo Masara

A sunbird at Lake Chivero near Harare. Chipo Masara reported the effects of development on the wetlands around the city (Photo: Derek Keats, Creative Commons via Flickr)She noticed that the number of environmental stories in print and TV increased after the workshop. Whereas she had been one of no more than 10 people at the most reporting on the environment, now there were around 30. "I used to think I was really good at what I did," she says, "but now I was seeing a better understanding, stories backed up by strong research, journalists attending conferences and showing a real interest."

Masara wrote a column on environmental topics and biodiversity topics for The Standard for three years. The newspaper appeals to both urban and rural readers, largely from low income groups, and covers a lot of political stories.

Masara's column dealt with many contentious issues, including the wildlife-based land reform programme and its impact on wildlife conservation and the tourism industry; the shortage of funds for national parks management which has contributed to incidences such as the poisoning of more than 90 elephants by poachers in Hwange National Park; and the switch by many Zimbabweans away from maize growing to tobacco, with a resulting increase in deforestation nationwide.

Biodiversity benefits at first-hand 

In 2014, 18 journalists from national and regional groups travelled to the Chirinda Forest in Chipinge in the Eastern Highlands. They had suggested the idea of a field trip the year before. At the start of the trip, Steady Kangata from the Environmental Management Agency briefed them on the different components of biodiversity including ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.

The group travelled from Mutare towards Birchenough Bridge, experiencing the vegetation change from evergreen forests to a landscape dominated by acacias and baobab trees. 

"They saw at first-hand how local people use the range of natural resources to earn a living," said Dr Chirara. "They had debarked the baobab tree for its fibre to make mats for sale by the road. The bark is allowed to grow back and the next time bark is collected it is taken from a different spot to reduce the risk of the tree being harmed. Boiling the fibre with acacia pods dyes it black; cream dye is created from the bark of the Forest Natal Mahogany tree."

The Big Tree in the Chirinda Forest is reputed to be 1,000 years old (Photo: Andrew Ashton, Creative Commons via Flickr)Chengeta described how the three-day field trip fired her up to do more on the importance of conserving biodiversity and the environment. 

"Chirinda Forest contains the Big Tree (Khaya anthotheca), which is thought to be over 1,000 years old; it has a species of butterfly and the Chirinda toad which are only found in that area. But they are threatened by a growing community cutting down trees to clear spaces for crops," she said. 

When she got back to Harare she was interviewed on current affairs TV. With her newfound understanding she was able to explain what biodiversity was in both Shona and Ndebele and talk about the need to conserve it. 

Shortly afterwards, she produced her own programme on Radio Zimbabwe called Keep Zimbabwe Clean/Chenesai Zimbabwe/Kayihlanzeke iZimbabwe. The show featured guests including Kangata, Chief Nhema from the Shurugwi community and local people from around Mount Chirinda. It covered topics ranging from litter to pollution, as well as the need to manage biodiversity and the environment in a sustainable way. 

Radio Zimbabwe is the most listened to station in the country, having 98 per cent coverage, and Chengeta received plenty of feedback from people asking for more information about how they could live sustainably. 

Gaining media momentum

"We wanted journalists to identify with the issues so that they would convert ideas into stories. But biodiversity reporting is not taught at journalism college," explains Dr Chirara.

He is optimistic about the future: "Now that interest is generated, we can use it as a launching pad for covering other areas, such as water purification and ecosystem services."

Chengeta has the last word. "I can foresee Keep Zimbabwe Clean and other coverage changing people's mindsets. I think we need to go out into communities and stimulate enthusiasm – we're experienced communicators after all.

I want to be part of a society that talks much more about how important biodiversity is to Zimbabwe – if there could be a project to do that I'd support it – Elizabeth Chengata

Resources

Yet another wetland under siege, report by Chipo Masara for The Standard newspaper, 2012

Preserve the aura of Mana Pools, report by Chipo Masara for The Standard newspaper, 2012

Stories of change: mainstreaming biodiversity and development, IIED and UNEP-WCMC (2015), IIED tool

Contact

Dilys Roe (dilys.roe@iied.org), principal researcher and biodiversity team leader, IIED's Natural resources group

John Tayleur (john.tayleur@unep-wcmc.org), senior programme officer, Ecosystem Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme

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