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The fight to save one of Africa's most precious rivers

March 20, 2022
topics: Conservation
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe
tags: Africa, copper mining, water, Zambezi river, Zambia

Environmentalists, CSOs and ordinary citizens in Zambia are protesting against plans to set up an opencast copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park, claiming the development will threaten the environment, ecosystem and livelihoods of many communities living along the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-largest river.

A large coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), traditional leaders, artists, safari operators and other stakeholders in Zambia has petitioned the country’s new President, Hakainde Hichilema, to stop the establishment of an open-pit copper mine inside the Lower Zambezi National Park, which lies within the delicate basin of the Zambezi River.

Concern For People, Wildlife And Environment

Estella Snowden, the programmes manager of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), one of the NGOs involved in the fight to stop the mine, told FairPlanet that a Save Zambezi Safe Zambezi Campaign was underway to halt the project. 

"CLZ is deeply concerned about this mine’s potential impact on the people down river, the wildlife and the environmental threat it poses to the renewable resources of the ecosystem," Snowden wrote to FairPlanet. "The CLZ team is collaborating with other NGOs and stakeholders to call that the Government of The Republic of Zambia reconsider and revoke the permission to mine the Lower Zambezi."

The Lower Zambezi National Park is an integral part of the wider Zambezi basin, which is the most significant shared resource that contributes to the economic, environmental and social development of southern Africa. Environmentalists say the sustainable management of this resource is crucial in securing the futures of over 250 million people in the broader region that depend on it. 

They say the copper mine will not only risk contaminating water for communities in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but for the whole Zambezi delta, destroying rivers, farming and fishing livelihoods and one of the largest tourism destinations for Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

Local communities are especially concerned that the river pollution resultant from the mining activities would threaten the river’s 2,000-ton subsistence fishery, which provides food and protein security for tens of thousands along the 2,600 km river’s bank.

A Decade Long Fight

In 2011, a Bermuda-registered, Mwembeshi Resources Limited - a subsidiary of Australian-owned Zambezi Resources Ltd - was granted a license to establish an opencast copper mine called Kangaluwi within the national park. In 2012, an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) issued a negative report, but the country’s Lands ministry, which two years later - in 2014 - approved the mining project, overruled this negative assessment.

This prompted a group of environmentalists to approach the courts, where they successfully obtained an injunction against the $500 million project.

In 2017, the three-year ESIA controversially approved by the government expired and it had to be resubmitted. In 2021, the court injunction against the project was lifted and the 2014 ESIA was re-approved, paving the way for the establishment of the mine.

This infuriated environmentalists and other stakeholders who protested the move and have since then been fighting the establishment of the controversial mine. 

Coalition Petitions President Hichilema

On 1 February, the activists and a coalition of 53 non-governmental organisations pleaded with President Hichilema, to honour the promise that he made during his time as opposition leader to ensure that no mining would take place in the South Zambezi National Park. 

"#Lower Zambezi Stays Untouched," said Hichilema in a 2014 tweet. He protested that that the then Patriotic Front government of Edgar Lungu was overrunning a decision made by a competent authority such as ZEMA. In another tweet from this past February, Hichilema said he remains consistent in this view and has been for years.

However, to the surprise of the environmentalists, Hichilema’s Green Economy and Environment minister, Collins Nzovu, revealed that as far as things stand right now, the mining project is on track to commence.

"The legal status of the project is that Minister Kalaba of the [former] PF government allowed the new project to go ahead," Nzovu said.

It is with regard to this legal status that the activists are seeking President Hichilema’s intervention, in order to ensure that the project is dead and buried.

"We are disappointed by the decision by government to allow the mine to go ahead as we know the consequences will be grave," the coalition of NGOs said in the protest statement. "The mine will have a potentially devastating impact on people, water, the land and the environment in the entire Southern African region." 

"We call on President Hichilema to honour his undertaking to keep the Lower Zambezi National Park untouched," the coalition added. "We believe mining activities should be restricted to happening in mining areas of the country and should not be allowed in high profile tourism and wildlife conservation areas that have their own ecological and economic value to the country."

Neighbouring Countries Not Consulted

On 7 February, the coalition also wrote a letter to Nzovu, the Green Economy and Environment minister, highlighting the legal flaws in the ESIA on which the planned mining project is based.

These included the disregarding of the original concerns raised by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) and the failure by Zambian authorities to widely consult other stakeholders, including those in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

"We are also aware that the initial assessment and review process indicated the potential trans-boundary impact such as disturbance on the trans-boundary movement of wildlife between Lower Zambezi National Park and Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe," the letter read. 

They also pointed out that some seismic impacts could extend beyond Zambia into Zimbabwe and Mozambique following the geological formation of the area, which is an extension of the Great Rift Valley.

There are also concerns about the existing potential to increase sedimentation of the Zambezi River and pollution by tailing material resulting from processing, which might affect water use in Mozambique.

"Sir, the above shows that ZEMA, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, needed to disclose and consult with the Zimbabwe and Mozambican governments during the EIA review process. However, we are disappointed that no such consultations were undertaken, an act that has potential to compromise our relationship with the two neighbouring countries."

The stakeholders are still waiting the responses from both President Hichilema and his Green Economy and Environment minister on a move that even the country’s founding president, the late Kenneth Kaunda, opposed in 2019.

Image by Carine via Flickr

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zambia Mozambique Zimbabwe
The Lower Zambezi National Park is an integral part of the wider Zambezi basin, which is the most significant shared resource that contributes to the economic, environmental and social development of southern Africa
© Rick Collins via Getty Images
On 1 February, the activists and a coalition of 53 non-governmental organisations pleaded with President Hichilema to honour the promise that he made during his time as opposition leader to ensure that no mining would take place in the South Zambezi National Park.
© Andy Buchanan - Pool/Getty Images
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