A STORM is gathering over the scenic Zambezi Valley due to controversial plans — which are not eco-friendly — to establish heavy mining operations along two major rivers which feed into Mana Pools, one of the world’s most pristine wildernesses and a leading tourist attraction in Zimbabwe, amid fears the nation’s natural heritage might be irreparably damaged if politically-connected miners overpower environmentalists.
Report by Tendai Marima
At the centre of the row is Zambezi Society — a non-profit conservation organisation formed in 1982 — and Habbard Investments (Pvt) Ltd, a subsidiary of a local mining company GeoAssociates (Pvt) Ltd.
The clash is intensifying as environmentalists step up their campaign against determined efforts by miners to explore the area for commercial benefit.
Environmentalists say the area is a national heritage and must not be sacrificed on the altar of corporate interests that largely benefit shareholders.
This has raised echoes of the recent invasions of Save Valley Conservancy by top Zanu PF politicians and army commanders who have now been ordered by President Robert Mugabe to vacate the area.
However, Habbard, which sources say has powerful political links, is rigidly determined to scour the riverbeds of Chewore and Ruckomechi for heavy mineral sand deposits.
Habbard managing director Paul Chimbodza this week refused to clarify whether his company has political heavyweights behind it trying to intimidate environmentalists.
“We can’t be talking to the media, we don’t talk to them. Ngatingomirira zvirikuitwa (Let’s wait for what’s being done),” Chimbodza told the Zimbabwe Independent on Tuesday, before hanging up his phone.
Habbard is determined to proceed as it sees money-spinning opportunities because of the abundance of heavy mineral sand deposits in the Zambezi Valley which are used as raw materials in the manufacture of paints and dyes; enhancing colour in plastics, paper and rubber; in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; and in producing titanium alloy metals needed in aircraft, spacecraft and medical prostheses.
Although Habbard has contracted Impact Assessment Consulting (Impaco) to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA), environmental groups have warned explorations would be ecologically devastating to Mana Pools.
The Zambezi Society has since engaged Impaco, Environmental Management Agency (EMA), Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ), National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, Lower Zambezi Tour Operators and Unesco national commission in a bid to save the area from mining invasions. A committee has been set up to deal with the issue.
So much is at stake in this dispute. Habbard wants to make a fortune through heavy mineral sand deposits while environmentalists, who are also benefitting, want to protect their treasure.
Mana Pools is a wildlife conservation area in northern Zimbabwe constituting a national park. It is a region of the lower Zambezi River where the flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lakes after each rainy season.
As the lakes gradually dry up and recede, the region attracts many large animals in search of water, making it one of Africa’s most renowned game viewing regions.
The area covers 2 500-square kilometres of river frontage, islands, sandbanks and pools, flanked by forests of mahogany, wild figs, ebonies and baobabs, and is one of the least developed national parks in Zimbabwe and the region. It has four pools which are part of an extensive 10 500-square kilometre national parks and wildlife reserves.
This unique park is a Unesco World Heritage Site, based on its wildness and splendour, together with the wide range of animals, over 350 bird species and aquatic wildlife.
It was saved from a hydro-electric scheme in the early 1980s which would have seen the flooding of this world heritage site with the country’s biggest concentration of hippopotamuses, crocodiles and large dry season populations of elephants, buffaloes and other animals.
The spoiling of the Zambezi River itself is also an issue in this dispute. The river is Africa’s fourth largest and one of the finest and least spoilt in the world. Its basin is larger than the Sahara Desert and flows through eight countries in central and southern Africa.
It is rich in biological diversity. Its wetlands, aquatic systems, riverine woodlands, montane forests, dry forests and savannahs are all complex eco-systems which support abundant wildlife and a great diversity of trees and plants; some species are native only to the Zambezi region. It has magnificent wilderness values which are becoming increasingly attractive to the international tourism market.
However, these valuable national resources are now at risk.
Zambezi Society says on September 10 last year, the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development issued two exploration licences to Habbard which intends to prospect for copper, lead, titanium and other minerals along the banks of Ruckomechi and Chewore rivers which feed into the Zambezi.
Habbard claims to be the first in Zimbabwe to attempt sand mineral exploration along the 45-km long Rukomechi and 65-km long Chewore rivers. It says an EIA to determine economic viability and ecological sustainability of the projects currently being undertaken by Impaco, a Harare-based environmental consultancy firm.
“Habbard Investments is required by law, to undertake a series of environmental impact assessments. These assessments seek to establish the likely impacts of mineral exploration activities and to recommend how proposed operations should minimise such impacts,” Chimbodza said recently.
Although Zambezi Society claims that up until July Impaco was not listed as a consultancy approved to carry out EIA by EMA, an Impaco employee told the Independent this week an assessment was currently taking place.
Habbard convened a stakeholders meeting in Harare on August 31 attended by representatives from over 50 public and private sector organisations to discuss the issue. It explained to stakeholders its proposed mining methods.
“Excavation of one-metre deep pits in the sand of the rivers; drilling of augur holes every 1km down the centre of the riverbed, Habbard is not insensitive to the environment and fragile nature of Mana Pools,” Chimbodza said.
The Zambezi River basin contains mineral-rich sand eroded from higher plains and while Chimbodza says Habbard will only go down one metre, copies of a 2011 exploration licence for Ruckomechi River show the company could potentially excavate as deep as five to 16 metres.
Zambezi Society said on August 12 Habbard’s operations would pose too great a threat to flora and fauna in the World Heritage Site.
“We believe that there should be no mining (prospecting or exploration included) in this area because of potential impacts on its biodiversity, wildlife and sensitive eco-systems, which are globally important, and on its wilderness areas which are valuable to international tourism,” Zambezi Society spokesperson Sally Win said.
“Furthermore, World Heritage status is not awarded lightly. There are less than 200 sites worldwide on Unesco’s ‘natural sites’ listing; and in the society’s view, Zimbabwe’s national interests will be best served by maintaining the integrity of the area, and prohibiting activities such as mining that will result in its degradation and possible loss of its World Heritage status.”
Zimbabwe currently holds five World Heritage Site titles for man-made and natural historic sites, which include Great Zimbabwe, Khami Ruins, Mana Pools, Matobo Hills and Victoria Falls.
Unesco programme specialist in natural sciences in Harare, Guy Broucke, said on Tuesday the World Heritage Committee had contacted the Zimbabwean government over the highly controversial issue.
(See also Page 14)