By Zimbabwean journalist Sydney Kawadza, first published in Zimbabwe Independent.
In November 2021, a rumour started filtering across the City of Mutare that councillors and management at City Hall had given the nod for a Chinese company, Freestone Mines, to set up a granite mining venture in the Dangamvura Mountain range.
The rumour turned into a nightmare late last year, when the Chinese miner's heavy machinery landed on the mountain site in preparation for the work that appeared imminent.
Between November 2021 and February this year, residents supported by civil society organisations and environmentalists launched a protracted battle including lawsuits and demonstrations and the project came to a standstill after a riot among the locals.
With the growing dissent in areas where Chinese miners have descended since the advent of the Second Republic in 2018, observers are calling for a robust review of laws to protect communities from development-induced displacements across Zimbabwe.
For instance, the City of Mutare derives its identity from the beautiful mountain range that engulfs the urban centre. This explains how its geological beauty earned it the nickname Kumakomoyo (in the mountains).
The city's aesthetics have been cheaply sold by the municipal government. Freestone Mines and the City of Mutare agreed on a 10-year lease in which the miner would pay the municipality an annual rent of US$7,556.
However, the Mutare City deputy director of engineering services, Tonderai Sango, told a full council meeting in February this year, that the Chinese had broken the lease agreement by going on-site without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certificate and approval from the city engineer.
Freestone Mines director Ruoxin Qi, confirmed removing the equipment in compliance with a government directive.
Ruoxin reiterates that, the company would concentrate on corporate social responsibility programmes, including revegetation of the deforestation on Dangamvura Mountain and road construction.
While the proposed developments in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth largest city, may be good news for locals and environmentalists, the same cannot be said for other communities engaged in conflicts with Chinese businesses that have opened up shop throughout Zimbabwe.
This was revealed in an investigation carried out by the Zimbabwe Independent.
The three-month investigation was conducted in Mutare, Mutoko, Mutorashanga and Hwange, where it was revealed that besides failing to engage communities and residents, the projects pose a great danger to the environment. After obtaining permission and licenses, they disregard all other factors.
Chinese mining firms have also been accused of desecrating graves and shrines, including in Mutare.
In a statement, a coalition of 29 civil society organisations raised the red flag, claiming that Chinese investments, particularly their mining operations, had significantly harmed the indigenous population in Zimbabwe.
“Local communities have come to realise (without any external influence) the losses they are incurring at the hands of the Chinese companies. It is important to note that Zimbabweans are taught to be able to distinguish between exploitative, destructive development from progressive development without having to be influenced by anyone,” read the statement.
Civil society groups said Chinese investors should be held accountable to local communities and be open to public scrutiny, starting with their contracts, their taxes and beneficial ownership.
“Law enforcement, EMA, rural district councils and chiefs should conduct their mandate of protecting natural resources and local people without intimidation or fear of victimisation by those siding with the investors,” states the coalition.
There is what appears to be arrogance on the part of the Chinese, in the face of criticism.
While the Freestone Mines project failed to see the light of the day, villagers in Mutoko, Mutorashanga and Hwange are still engaged in battles with the Chinese investors.
Villagers in Mutoko who are fighting to stop the extraction of black granite by three Chinese businessmen appear to have lost the war since several households have already been uprooted by the miners.
Earlier this year Chinese companies, Jinding Mining Zimbabwe and Shanghai Haoyun, reportedly displaced about 50 families ahead of resumption of their mining activities giving them US$2,400 each to rebuild their houses.
The Chinese Embassy in Harare, however, confirmed that there were three families displaced as the mining companies explored the prospects ahead of mining activities and they were each given US$4,800 as compensation.
The villagers are now fighting for better compensation after reports that the families that were moved to make way for the mining activities each received a pitiful US$2,800 for losing their homes.
“We seem to have lost the battle because the mining activities are ongoing and all those who have voiced their concerns have been summoned to the centre where state security agents have told them to stop complaining,” a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity said in an interview.
“We cannot stop the mining activities at the moment because the Chinese are getting support from senior government officials from the district level up to the provincial level. Our fight at the moment is to make sure that the miners adhere to environmental laws so that we protect our environment, while we are also seeking ways that they can reclaim the land destroyed by their activities," adds a villager.
As some of the villagers' cattle frequently stray near the mines and fall into the open pits during mining activities, they urged the Chinese miners to fence off the areas where they are extracting their black granite.
In Mutorashanga, a Chinese mining company, Amazon Miners has courted the ire of villagers and residents after setting up a chrome processing plant next to a historic and potential tourist attraction known as the Green Pool.
The Green Pool was formed after the collapse of an asbestos mining tunnel at the former Ethel Mine Quarry in 1968, leading to the deaths of several miners. The tragic accident has been a source of grief to the community, although the Green Pool has become a source of entertainment, attracting thousands of visitors from across Zimbabwe.
The people who throng the pool during weekends and holidays for water sports, drinks and braais have been a source of hope for the communities near the pool with residents seeing potential in turning the place into a tourist attraction.
With Amazon setting up the plant next to the pool, the community has been left divided with some petitioning the Zvimba Rural District Council, Parliament of Zimbabwe and the Mines and Mining Development ministry to stop the Chinese miners.
However, those who have been employed at the plant and villagers who had new houses and shops constructed for them have embraced the development.
Clement Gonde, a resident who is mobilising the petitioners, said while they are not against investment in the area, the Chinese did not consult the residents and villagers before setting up their plant.
“They just met political leaders and other officials from the council, but they should have held consultations with residents. We have had visits from various parliamentary portfolio committees that also agree with us that the Chinese investor should have consulted everyone who would be affected by the plant.
“We still believe in the potential of the pool as a tourist destination, and we do not expect the Chinese miners to disturb that since we have heard that they want to fence off the area,” Gonde said in an interview.
Besides collecting signatures from residents and villagers, Gonde has led presentations in the Parliament of Zimbabwe, including the various times parliamentarians have visited the Green Pool.
Another resident Analia Chengu raised concerns over the potential environmental challenges that could be experienced at the pool, adding that residents and villagers were already experiencing the effects of dust raised by trucks ferrying chrome ore to the plant.
“The most important aspect of our argument is the issue of an Environment Social Report Assessment Report and whether it was done before the investor moved on to the place. The challenge is when the Chinese investors engage our corrupt leaders and they fail to follow procedures which would be detrimental not only to our health but also the environment,” she says.
Sandram Kembo, a councilor for Zvimba Rural District Council Ward 15, believes that people need to get over their anxieties and recognise the investment and potential growth that the project will bring to the area.
“Firstly, Ethel Mine Quarry is part of a mining claim and that has not changed, so what the people are saying about turning it into a tourist attraction would be very difficult. Secondly, the investor has not disturbed the pool like what the residents are afraid of but would soon cordon off the area for safety reasons.
“Lastly, the mining company has drilled boreholes for the water they are using at the plant and the same water is also being used by residents who are near the plant including those who have been employed at the plant,” he said.
The dispute between villagers in the Dinde area of Hwange and a Chinese investor at Beifer Investments P/L who are running Beifer Coal Mine has been ongoing for years with one of their leaders being arrested for inciting public violence. Despite the arrest of Never Tshuma last year, the villagers have continued to voice their disgruntlement over the coal mine project vowing to resist it forever.
“We rejected the project because it was going to force us out of our land and pollute the Nyatue River, our main source of water,” said a villager, Joshua Ndlovu.
Another villager who refused to be named said they feared a repeat of the Deka River case.
“There are lessons from how the pollution of Deka has affected several communities that rely on the river for livelihoods. Fish and livestock die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. Strange skin diseases have also been reported among the community," says a concerned community member.
Villagers have been strongly opposed to the development, accusing Beifer Investments of bulldozing “so-called development” on them without consultations.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Climate and Tourism has finalised its report on the Dinde petition, which will be tabled for debate in the House of Assembly sometime this month.
Beifer Investment has for the past two years been at loggerheads with the community, with Dinde villagers accusing it of not consulting them and producing a doctored Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Several government interventions to persuade the villagers to allow the company to conduct its exploration work further hardened the community, resulting in the petition.
Guo Shaochun, the Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe, spoke to the media in Harare in August. He said that claims of unethical behaviour by a few employers from his nation were primarily the result of miscommunication or cultural misunderstandings.
“The Embassy’s position is clear that all Chinese companies are encouraged to do more for local people and must comply with the laws, regulations, culture, and customs of the host country. Wrongdoers must be held accountable.
“It is our consistent position that before an investment project is given approval, there needs to be a proper due diligence process to get community consent and assess the environmental impact.
"No certificates or licences should be given when there are risks of a popular backlash or negative environmental impact."
He revealed that there were three families affected by mining activities in Mutoko who received US$4,800 each as compensation for losing their homes. Guo also defended the Chinese business community in Zimbabwe, saying that they have been making important contributions to the economy but have been victims of motivated attacks.
In an interview, Leon Dzumbira, a research fellow at the Africa Institute for Environmental Law said issues of Sino-Africa relations, investment and collaborations have been going on for years and started way before Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980.
“The only difference now is that with the turn of the century, China has become a global powerhouse with the ability to influence world trends and carry our massive investments in the less economically developed countries like Zimbabwe. Chinese investment in the mining sector is bound by statutory law which determines investor responsibilities as set up by the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency.
“China’s investment relationship in Zimbabwe has mainly been state-to-state while marginalising the role of other stakeholders. Key stakeholders like Community Based Organisations (CBOs) have been marginalised.
"It is important that a participatory approach is taken between government, Chinese investors, and community stakeholders so that they have better understanding of the motives behind Chinese investments, the drivers and actors, their impacts, opportunities, and mechanisms that are available for holding them accountable at the national and regional levels,” says Dzumbira.
He further said the research work by the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association during Chinese investment training for parliament noted that there was a need for the government to strengthen its local laws in relation to how it holds investors accountable.
“Parliament has the oversight role in such issues and key environmental principles are used through oversight. These environmental principles inform legal and political frameworks that aim to minimise the effects of human activity on the environment.
“The precautionary principle allows for protective measures to be taken without having to wait until the environmental harm materialises. When it comes to Chinese investment, we need regulations on investor-community relations and these focus on corporate social responsibility, labour issues, and community development,” adds Dzumbira.
“Parliamentary oversight is also an important feature of what can be used as a monitoring mechanism; the use of Zida as a monitoring legislative provision because it has specific sections that talk about investor responsibilities; the use of the Constitution to guarantee specific rights that would have been violated; and starting with section 73, the right to a healthy and clean environment which then gives the community the opportunity to challenge mining operations if specific hazards are detected,” he added further.
Meanwhile, in a study on development-induced displacements in Zimbabwe, the Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation (CCMT), concluded that development must not be associated with human suffering.
The organisation detailed its recommendation to all stakeholders: "To minimise the negative impact of development projects and conflict between the affected people and the responsible authorities, we recommend to all stakeholders to facilitate free, prior and informed consent."
“To that end, relocation and compensation costs should be included in the development project budgets and adequate plans and mechanisms, budgets, funds, and facilities should be established to ensure timely completion of relocation and compensation processes as part of the project implementation,” the organisation detailed further.