Early this month, Zimbabwe’s government reportedly granted a concession to Zhongxin Coal Mining Group and Afrochine Smelting to begin environmental impact assessments for drilling, land clearance, road building, and geological surveys at two proposed sites inside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
Some conservationists were, however, vehemently opposed the move, which they believe “will shrink and disturb the habitat of many rare species, including black rhino, pangolin and painted dogs, and devastate safari tourism, which is a vital source of income for local people.” Trevor Lane, who has worked for the Bhejane Trust in Hwange for more than a decade, lamented that “this is one of the greatest game parks in the world and the mines would be in one of the most pristine areas of the park. The last black rhino population in Hwange Park lives there, so do 10,000 elephants and 3,000 buffalo.”
Stephen Long of Bhejane Trust also warned that “there is already a lot of Chinese investment in coal in the Hwange area outside the park, much of it grossly polluting. Air quality in parts of Hwange must be as bad as most big cities, probably worse, and it is hard not to feel that the Chinese have already polluted their own country and are now exporting their pollution to poor countries such as ours. Zimbabweans are unlikely to see much benefit from the mines.” Bhejane Trust is a conservation group that works with Zimbabwe’s National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in the conservation of the Hwange area.
“When the rest of the world is getting out of coal and recognizing the climate emergency, why is Zimbabwe expanding its use of the stuff and planning, according to the president, [to use it] for decades ahead?” Stephen stated.
The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association also took Chinese miners to court over coal mining in Hwange National Park. They filed an urgent chamber application against the Chinese miners arguing that mining within the National Park poses an acute risk of irreversible ecological degradation.
The Guardian reported that the proposed coal exploration would involve geochemical and geophysical prospecting and construction of mobile camps along the road to Sinamatella Camp in Deka Safari Area. Hwange, which is the size of Belgium, boasts the largest diversity of mammals among the world’s national parks.
The Government Has Made a Quick U-turn
The Zimbabwe government heeded to the environmentalist concerns and has since reversed course to ban mining activities in the Hwange and other national parks. Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced a ban on mining with immediate effect following a cabinet meeting. The minister announced that “steps are being undertaken to immediately cancel all mining titles held in national parks.” Ms. Mutsvangwa also announced a ban on mining along most river beds, in a decision that would affect small-scale Chinese and local gold miners, BBC News reported.
An analyst has commented that “the decision is unlikely to affect relations between Zimbabwe and China. Both governments are acutely aware of the sensitivities around conservation and the outcry would not have surprised either.”
Some Zimbabwean’s are however not completely enthused about the decision further calling for the ban to be enshrined in the nation’s laws. According to BBC News, “They point out that years of gold mining along rivers have caused environmental degradation. They, therefore, want the ban to be enshrined in law so that this does not happen again and the environment is protected.”
Similar Concerns, Different Responses
Over the years, decisions by African governments to give away mining concessions in Africa’s natural reserves to China have always been controversial leading to public outcry. But the response across governments in Africa has differed. In 2019, the Ghanaian government “drew fire from conservationists who said that mining bauxite – an ore in aluminum used to make products from aircraft parts to kitchen utensils – would destroy the ecosystem of the 233 sq km Atewa forest in southeastern Ghana.”
But unlike Zimbabwe in the current Hwange park case, Ghana’s government went ahead with the controversial US$2 billion deal, where China will build roads and bridges in exchange for bauxite ore mined in part of West Africa’s Upper Guinean Rainforest.
How can Africa satisfy China’s desire for its (Africa’s) minerals without compromising on environmental and conservationist concerns?