When a government minister overturns a ruling made by his own government’s environmental agency, you know there’s something going down. Which is why the news that Zambia’s land, natural resources and environment minister Harry Kalaba has overturned the Zambian Environment Authority (Zema) ruling that Australian-based Zambezi Resources Limited (ZRL) not be allowed to pursue plans to mine for copper in the ecologically sensitive Lower Zambezi National Park has been met with raised eyebrows across the board.
In September 2012, Zema informed ZRL that its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Kangaluwi Copper Project was not approved. ZRL has spent AU$60-million on the project, which aims to turn the company into a major copper producer with a 245 sq km mining licence for an initial 25 years creating an anticipated mining footprint of 12,5 sq km. Not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a national park meant to protect a sensitive and richly biodiverse ecosystem and the fauna and flora which inhabit it.
From the start conservationists, environmentalists and the Lower Zambezi valley’s numerous tourism operators, some of whom have been globally recognised with prestigious awards for their sustainability and environmental responsibility, have been vociferous in their condemnation of ZRL and its plans. In the project’s early days suspicions were rife of government collusion in the plans and corruption in the corridors of power of Rupiah Banda’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy-led government. When the Patriotic Front (PF) won the September 2011 elections and PF leader Michael Sata came to power, he took a tough public stance on corruption, but now in his third year in office allegations of graft at the highest levels of authority continue to dog Sata’s rule and Zambia’s reputation.
Kalaba’s decision to overrule his own agency and give ZRL the green light does little to reinforce confidence in the government’s commitment to eradicate under-the-counter arrangements and less than transparent business deals, particularly in the mining and prospecting arena.
In a letter addressed to ZRL’s Zambian arm, Mwembeshi Resources Limited, Kalaba states that he has decided to approve the project on the grounds that it will “eventually create employment for ordinary Zambians in the area”; that there are ways and means to address the negative impacts on the environment detailed in Zema’s original rejection of ZRL’s EIS and that the company’s proposed “managed scheme” contained in its submissions to him would enhance and conserve wildlife management in the area of the national park where the mining will take place.
Riding roughshod over Zema’s decision not to allow ZRL to mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park has not won Kalaba too many brownie points in the most pertinent part of his portfolio – that of environmental protection and begs the question of whether there is more to the minister’s move than meets the eye.
Certainly his assertion that “ordinary Zambians” in the area will have job opportunities does not hold water. Most of the communities in the Lower Zambezi National Park’s game management area buffer zones consist of impoverished and unskilled subsistence farmers or fishermen. What job opportunities are going to be provided for these communities is hard to say, but Zambia’s track record in this respect holds little comfort. Since coming to power, President Sata and the PF have become eager concubines of the largest economic force in Africa – China. This has seen China pour billions into Zambian projects and development programmes in return for mineral rights and immigration permits but has seen very little in terms of job creation for local Zambians. The Chinese bring in their own cheap labour force and notoriously fail to pass skills onto Zambian nationals or provide them with employment.
As it stands, ZRL is not a mining operation per se but rather an exploratory company, a prospector if you will. It will be seeking huge investment to raise the capital it needs to commence mining and it is conceivable that this investment, in exchange for a significant shareholding, will come from China, along with a ready skilled workforce.
When it comes to those ordinary Zambians in the Lower Zambezi area, until now, the majority of employment and upliftment opportunities for them have come from the tourism and conservation sectors, with the largely upmarket safari lodges in and around the park providing careers for local men and women and economic security for countless families.
Mining activities in the national park will negatively impact these safari operations which up until now have relied on the pristine nature of this wilderness area and its natural beauty as their biggest tourism drawcard.
In a region famed the world over for providing authentic safari experiences on one of the continent’s most important river systems, it is going to be hard to sell a copper mine as a major attraction.
It would be dangerous for Zambia to underestimate the impact the Kangaluwi project will have on its tourism arrivals and the international outcry it will cause. The country has consistently failed to understand and capitalise on the empowerment opportunity a vibrant tourism economy represents and the success of its tourism industry thus far is entirely due to an active and well-organised private sector which is fully cognisant of the potential tourism has for improving Zambia’s GDP.
More importantly, Kalaba’s insistence that ZRL’s “managed scheme” for the management of wildlife in the area will enhance what is already on the ground displays the minister’s complete lack of understanding as to what, precisely, he is dealing with in his portfolio.
The management of bio-diversity in the Lower Zambezi National Park is something best left to those who are expert at it and certainly should not be surrendered to a mining company with no demonstrable track record. Indeed, if ZRL’s website is anything to go by, it stopped providing sustainability reports in 2008, thus rendering its alleged commitment to “communities and environment” null and void.
The Lower Zambezi National Park was created with the sole purpose of conserving everything within its borders – animal, vegetable and mineral. It belongs to the people of Zambia and is paid for with their taxes. It should be inviolate. ZRL should know this from bitter experience in their own “back yard”. The Ranger Uranium Mine in Australia’s Kakadu National Park recently suffered a catastrophic radioactive slurry spill which has resulted in severe damage to the surrounding eco-system and a huge government inquiry into the action of owners – Rio Tinto’s Energy Resources of Australia.
Perhaps when it is gone, buried under mine dumps and contaminated beyond repair, “ordinary Zambians” will ask what the hell went wrong in the Lower Zambezi National Park and why. One wonders if Kalaba will still be around to provide answers.
Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and film-maker.