BETA Concrete, a subsidiary of BETA Holdings, the parent company to Zimbabwe’s largest clay brick and roof tile manufacturer, is investing around US$10 million in constructing a factory in Goromonzi, around 40 kilometres east of Harare. The factory — with annual capacity of 180 million bricks — is expected to be completed end of this year and create about 400 jobs. The company’s three factories in Mt Hampden, western Harare, have annual capacity of about 170 million bricks. The community in Goromonzi is divided over the project, with those opposed to it raising environmental concerns allegedly caused by the quarrying operations. Allegations that the company has been violating the environmental laws have also been raised. Chief reporter Andrew Kunambura (AK) this week spoke to BETA Holdings group commercial director Cynthia Chizwina (CC, pictured) on the issues raised by the communities and other issues related to the project.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
AK: I understand your Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certification covers only the northern claim but BETA has started blasting in the southern claims close to homes. Can you explain this decision?
CC: BETA Concrete acquired a total of three claims in the Svisva area. The first claim is a 94 hectare claim called Smart claim. This is the only claim that we are working on. No quarrying activity can take place without the relevant clearances from a number of regulatory authorities, including EMA (Environmental Management Agency).
In this regard, the company was issued an EIA certificate for the Smart claim site in 2018. This is the same site that the company is working from.
AK: It is alleged that BETA employees give villagers short notice to vacate their homes to an area where blast particles cannot reach, which is approximately 3km and that they return to their homes well into the night only to suffer noise pollution from the grinding. What is your comment on this?
CC: BETA Holdings’ policy is that we work well and engage all people with respect and integrity in line with our organisational values. Any staff member who violates this policy is liable for disciplinary procedures. The company has all relevant, formal approvals and licenses to conduct its business activities in the area.
In this respect, the EIA process involves a number of stakeholder engagement meetings, which have to be documented for verification. The records of these meetings are available for inspection. BETA has from inception of the project, held community consultations with residents, community leaders, traditional leaders as well as local authorities to discuss issues around the project.
The consultative process is ongoing with the last meeting having been held on Friday the 14th of August 2020 in Svisva. It is our aim to impact the community positively as we are now residents of the area by virtue of our presence there.
As a responsible company, the safety and preservation of human lives takes precedence over all else. We, therefore, strive not only to comply with blasting regulatory requirements, but to go above and beyond in an effort to avoid unfortunate accidents. There is a clearly documented blasting procedure, and while in terms of the regulations, homesteads must be at least 300 metres from the blast site.
We take extra precautions to evacuate people, who in our view, are resident in close proximity to the blast site. To this end, residents are notified of the intention to blast on the morning of the day of the blast. They are given further notification 30 minutes before the blast and our staff does a door-to-door inspection to ensure that all the identified homes are evacuated. A siren is also sounded to warn residents of the impending blast.
All blasting activity is done during the day and no residents have returned to their homes at night. The noise emissions are covered in terms of the EIA and EMA guidelines and therefore are compliant with the set radius guidelines.
AK: When we visited the area, some villagers showed us their houses which had been hit by rocks discharged from the blasts. What steps has the company taken to rectify this?
CC: One household had two roofing sheets damaged by flying debris. Other property damaged were two water buckets — all of which the company has replaced. In addition, after this incident we relocated blasting to a new site, and there have been no further incidents since then.
AK: Before you started mining activities in the populated area, you were legally first supposed to relocate the people but you have been operating there for nearly two years now without doing so. Why have you not compiled?
CC: While work on the installation of the plant started two years ago, the soft commissioning of the plant only commenced in January 2020 as we were awaiting the completion of the electricity line power upgrade suitable to run the plant.
In terms of the regulations and at the time that the EIA was conducted, none of the homesteads were found to be inside the claim that would have deemed relocation necessary.
It is from the commissioning exercise that it was realised that there was an effect on some households that are outside of the claim. At BETA’s instigation, consultations with all the relevant stakeholders were held and relocations of all affected households are underway under the supervision of Ministry of Lands.
The relocation exercise is fully funded by BETA.
AK: There are environmental concerns raised by the communities, particularly a small stream which used to be perennial, but has now dried up because of the drills. What plans are there to reverse these damages to the environment?
CC: Climate change is a reality that is currently affecting the whole of Southern Africa. The country is currently in the throes of a severe three-year drought, which has affected most water sources in the country. Our claim is located downstream, and the source upstream dried up early on in the year.
In view of these challenges, BETA is currently in the process of identifying suitable borehole sites, which boreholes supply will be shared with the community.
BETA Holdings is cognisant of the environmental impact of its activities, and has an extensive environmental management programme that includes ongoing dust suppression activities, reforestation plans and long term rehabilitation of pits into reservoirs to allow piping of water to the surrounding agricultural plots.
AK: Locals also alleged that when BETA first went there, they were told the mine would employ their children in casual and semi-skilled jobs but none has been given even the most modest of jobs in the past two years. What has been the reason for this?
CC: The quarry plant has only been operational on a soft commissioning basis for a few months, with the greater part of the last two years having been spent in installation, and setting up the plant.
Currently, the operation employs a total of 30 people. Of the 30, 11 are all locals, whilst another two have been employed at other BETA operations. The rest of the jobs require skilled personnel, which skills are not available in the area. BETA believes that employment will be created both directly and indirectly as other small and informal businesses arise on the back of the growing economic activity from the quarry plant.
Further note that the above numbers will increase once full commercial operations commence as BETA will be employing all unskilled labour from its immediate environs.
AK: Which, if any, corporate social responsibility programmes are you undertaking as a company operating in the community?
CC: BETA Holdings has in the past two years funded the construction of a road and bridge in the Svisva area which has benefitted the community. In addition, the company has just completed the installation of a 33kVA power line at its own cost which is also expected to improve the electrification of the area as a whole. We are also in the process of citing and drilling boreholes which we expect the community to also benefit from.
The company has a social responsibility programme founded on three pillars: health, education and environmental management.
Discussions with the local community centred on these pillars have commenced and programmes will be rolled out as soon as operations in the area have commenced in earnest.
As a company BETA has heeded government’s call for investment in rural and peri-urban areas, especially those that have been marginalised in terms of economic development.