Our lives mean nothing

Land degradation ... Communities are exposed to life-threatening environmental factors associated with mining activities.

WHEN artisanal miners flooded into Chinyika Goromonzi, in the wake of the lithium rush some four years ago, the last thing that could have been on their minds was protecting the environment.

When new mineral wealth is discovered in impoverished Zimbabwe, the hope of many is ignited, and there is a rush of sorts by treasure hunters.

To a greater extent, however, this new hope is driven by mystical beliefs about the benevolence of gods, than by anything to do with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), or even government. Freedom from poverty will be the overriding concern. It is 2023 now, and there is some semblance of order, after a Chinese mining company started mining operations in Chinyika, Goromonzi.

But the social, physical and ecological environment remains at risk. Everyday dust spews into surrounding communities as hundreds of large trucks laden with the precious mineral pound the 16 kilometres of dirt road, threatening local residents with various types of lung and other health and welfare challenges.

Environmental impact assessments

The Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a common feature of public policy across the world, particularly where land-based projects (mines, reservoirs, airports, highways and agricultural schemes) are being developed, and also particularly where the extractive sector is predominant.

EIA can be referred to as an interdisciplinary study of a development project or programme, entailing systematic examination of its social, physical, and ecological aspects, with the view to reduce mitigate potential negative impacts, and maximise on positive ones.

Best-practice EIA identifies environmental risks, lessens conflicts by promoting community participation, minimises adverse environmental effects, informs decision-makers, thereby helping lay the basis for environmentally sound projects. 

As a project planning/decision making tool, the EIA equips policy makers and planners with knowledge, in the form of techniques, methodologies and information to identify, predict, and evaluate potential environmental impacts of projects.

The priority being to safeguard life, and protect the environment, in pursuit of economically sustainable development solutions.

This means that EIA becomes necessary, and can be integrated at all stages of the project cycle, from (in mining for instance) identification, planning, exploration, construction, operations, decommissioning, and beyond site closure (Sinha, 1998).

The EIA makes it possible for government to approve, or disapprove a project, to invest in, carry out, permit or implement proposed projects.

Direct benefits of an extractive operation such as mining tend to be evident, assessed in terms of the market or economic value of the extracted resource.

But these must be weighed against potential negative impacts, which include, for instance, massive deforestation and inefficient waste effluent disposal and ground water contamination, chemical poisoning of public water sources, environmental pollution, floods, gullies and potholes.

Mining poverty

In Zimbabwe, neighbouring Mozambique, and Bangladesh, the benefits of mining have remained elusive for the general population, particularly vulnerable communities.

To the extent that mines are increasingly associated with risks and poverty resulting from the exposure of communities to life-threatening environmental factors associated with these new mining ventures.

In Bangladesh, the exposure of rural communities to negative environmental factors is attributed to poor quality EIA reports resulting in particular to weak presentation and assessment of social impacts in EISs. 

EIA teams have tended to be dominated by consultants with expertise in physical sciences, such as engineers and physical scientists.  The lack of involvement of social scientists and ecologists has resulted in state policy initiatives that ignore the plight of poor rural communities, just as large mining corporations plunder the mineral wealth of the country for private benefit.

In 2015, anguish and desperation engulfed residents of the coastal Nagonha village, in Angoche district, Mozambique, after flash floods linked to Chinese mining activities swept away their homes and belongings. 

A 2018 Amnesty International (AI) report on Mozambique highlighted that mining and environmental laws requiring mining companies to conduct EIAs are not duly respected on the ground.

Following the devastation of Nagonha, AI attributed the flooding to the failure of Chinese Company Haiyu Mozambique Mining Company to  “ ..conduct proper EIA, to conduct necessary and legally required consultations ….(the company’s ) heavy mineral sands mining and sand mine dumping over the wetland and waterways …and failure.. to ensure human rights due diligence throughout all its mining operations”. (Amnesty International 2018)

In the words of one resident: “Our lives mean nothing….. I lost all my fishing tools ….each worth  US$89 the boat bouys, two bags of rice.  “Cooking utensils, the clothes of my five kids, my wife and myself. My house was new. We should be compensated for our losses by the Chinese, their machines blocked the water in the wetlands. ”

In the wake of these environmental and human rights concerns, Amnesty International recommended suspension of Haiyu’s mining concession. But Haiyu denied responsibility for the flooding and the destruction. The Amnesty International report further notes that Mozambique has abundant reserves of coal, off shore gas, mineral sands, gold, rubies and other minerals.

These resources have attracted significant Foreign Direct Investment, which drove the country’s 7% annual GDP growth over 2010-2015.  However, because of generous tax exemptions to foreign companies, and reliance on raw mineral exports, without any value addition, economic growth has failed to positively impact on the country’s fiscal base, or the creation of new jobs.

Against the background rising Mozambique’s debt obligations, this has resulted in the depreciation of the local currency unit, the metical, rising food prices, and political instability.

When lithium artisanal miners descended on Goromonzi, Zimbabwe in 2000, local development activist Tadiwanashe Gwena noted the “great trail of damage to the environment” coming in the wake of the rush “..food security is ..under threat as farms are now being turned into mines… Large tracts of land have been cleared or destroyed by lithium-seeking individuals”.

Gwena further stated that: “These are people without knowledge on what it means to the environment and to them the surroundings do not matter.  Lithium mining threatens food security, and renders the farms infertile for crop production in the future.

“With soils left loose, it is quite obvious that river siltation is going to be on the rise. The miners are using explosives and the remaining waste from those explosives is not being properly disposed of.

“We pray Ema and government take these issues seriously and ensure that those who want to be involved in mining stick to legal standards of mining and save the environment."

In early August 2023, Mberengwa Central Constituency Parliamentary candidate Dr Takavafira Zhou called on Government to address “the environmental catastrophe resulting from mining activities, the destruction of roads caused by truckloads of precious minerals being ferried to unknown destinations, and the health and welfare of local communities exposed to dust spewing from mining activities”.

Zhou added that: “This was in addition to other emerging challenges of ‘corruption and… massive looting of lithium and K grade emeralds’  attributed to ‘criminal and irresponsible’ activities of Chinese and Indian nationals operating as Kuvimba Mining House in Mberengwa”  (www.masvingomirror.com).

Towards best practice/high quality EIAs

The experience of different countries highlights the value of:

Comprehensive EIAs, which cover all necessary social, physical, ecological, economic aspects of the project. The quality of EIA reports hinges on the diversity of expert knowledge of consulting teams deployed;

Political will to uphold the law, and eradicate corruption;

Stakeholder consultations that are comprehensive, involving local vulnerable communities; and

A strong policy and regulatory framework so that proposals and recommendations are duly supported and enforced. Weak policy and regulatory frameworks reflect weak state institutions, and deficient governance systems.

  • Manyanya is a policy analyst and a resident of Goromonzi North in Mashonaland East.  These weekly New Perspectives articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.


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