Chinese Hwange blitz a minister’s directive

Tinashe Kairiza

THE shock decision by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) to grant two Chinese mining firms the greenlight to drill and explore for coal in the giant Hwange National Park was a directive from Tourism minister Mangaliso Ndlovu and had the blessing of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, fresh details have emerged.

In a move that sparked national outrage, government awarded licences to Zhongxin Coking Company Mining Group and Afrochine Smelting to conduct geological surveys, paving way for large-scale coal extraction inside the heart of the wildlife park, which generates millions of dollars annually in tourism receipts.

Following intense criticism from wildlife watchdogs, environmentalists and the general public, government this week dramatically caved in to pressure, and reversed its decision to allow the Chinese mining firms to mine coal in the national park, which is a habitat to 10% of Africa’s elephants. The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association led the chorus of condemnation by filing an urgent application at the Harare High Court contending that mining in the heart of the 14 651 square-kilometre park was catastrophic. Subsequently, government also banned riverbed and alluvial mining in other protected areas.

According to documents seen by the Zimbabwe Independent this week, Ndlovu, despite citing the ecological risks and other associated consequences posed by allowing one of the Chinese firms (Zhongxin Coking Company) to conduct mining operations in the national park, instructed Zimparks director-general Fulton Mangwanya to grant the entity permission to prospect in Sinamatela, inside the Hwange National Park.

In a letter dated July 27 this year, addressed to Mangwanya, Ndlovu highlighted that after considerations that a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Zhongxin Coking Company was signed in the presence of Mnangagwa, it was prudent to issue the entity with the requisite approvals.

“Following a meeting I held with a Mr Stevens representing ZZEE (Zimbabwe Zhongxin Electric Energy) company (a subsidiary of the Zhongxin Coking Company) and the Permanent Secretary on the 22nd of July to discuss their application for permission to prospect in Sinamatela, which is a part of the National Park, I noted the following: That procedurally the company ought to have applied for permission
Zimparks before applying for Special Grant (SG) to do an ecological report and advise . . . That since a MoU was signed in the presence of His Excellency, the President and that the investment is in line with our Vision 2030, it will receive Government support as promised by His Excellency. I therefore advise that you grant ZZEE Company permission to do drilling and exploration at the cited concession after which they will indicate to you in writing the specific areas they do mining on and an agreement made between national parks and the investor on the mining project consistent with the government position,” Ndlovu wrote, in a letter seen by this newspaper.

In his letter to the parks boss, Ndlovu, despite expressing his worry over setting up mining operations in “a national park which also houses . . . free range black rhinos . . .” disregarded the ecological concerns and advised Mangwanya to allow the Chinese firm to start mining activities in the area.
At the time of going to print, Ndlovu had not responded to this newspaper’s questions on how and why he instructed Mangwanya to allow the Chinese firm to operate in the Hwange National Park.

However, in his response to the Tourism minister, Mangwanya highlighted a myriad of ecological consequences posed by licensing the entity to operate in a wildlife protected area, but nevertheless agreed to license the Chinese firm as instructed by Ndlovu.

Through a letter dated July 28 and addressed to the Tourism minister, Mangwanya wrote: “The Authority has taken note of your advice to give ZZEE Company a letter of no objection, being permission to drill and explore the Sinamatela area inside Hwange National Park. This will be done as instructed; nevertheless, I wish to bring to your attention to the following salient issues for the record . . .

“Zimbabwe has no history of mining in a National Park. We have six categories of protected areas in the country and National Parks should receive the highest protection levels in line with the laws of Zimbabwe and associated international obligations. The proposed area is inside Hwange National Park and Zimbabwe has no history of mining in our crown jewel category of protected areas, the bedrock of the tourism industry. It will be the first time for coal mining to be permitted in a national park, a precedent that will be very difficult to sustain.”

Buttressing the catastrophic ecological consequences associated with mining in the vast wildlife park, Mangwanya, in the letter also highlighted that the move to license the Zhongxin Coking Company would plunge the tourism sector into turmoil.

“Since tourism is one of the economic pillars of the economy and such tourism being wildlife based, anchored by National Parks, allowing coal mining inside Hwange National Park will send the wrong signal to tourists,” Mangwanya wrote.

The Parks boss also warned that apart from creating a negative image of the country as a tourist destination, giving the nod to the Chinese firm would result in donor organisations that fund wildlife withdrawing support to the sector, while spoiling relations with neighbouring countries.

He wrote: “Sinamatela is at the heart of the wildlife dispersal area (WDA) linking Hwange and Chobe National Park (Botswana) within the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA), where we are implementing cross border conservation programmes with other four countries, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Angola.

“There are serious implications that the proposed mining project will have, putting Zimbabwe on a high risk of losing conservation funding set aside . . . exceeding €2 million (US$2,36 million) and jeopardising agreements signed by government, particularly those we secured involving significant support we secured from the German Development Bank (KfW) . . .”

Through the lengthy letter, Mangwanya also advised that the licensed coal project would result in massive environmental degradation, and attract lawsuits from tourism operators who have camping lease agreements inside the national park.

“Honourable minister, there are tourism camps with valid lease agreements, within which a lot of legal issues will certainly come up due to the commitments and obligations that are on paper.

“Such businesses rely on the aesthetic value of the environment inside Hwange National Park, offering unparalleled wilderness experience as the main product which will be defied by the presence of mining activity or exploration thereof. The affected leases include Camp Hwange, Kapula Camp, African Safari Walks,Imvelo and Kazuma Trails,” Mangwanya wrote.

Prior to Ndlovu’s letter to Mangwanya, the Tourism minister had received a letter dated July 24 from Zhongxin Coking Company chairperson Liu Jianshen, who advised him that the firm had signed a “joint venture agreement with the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) under the observation of His Excellency (HE) President”.

In the letter seen by the Independent, the Chinese firm sought for permission (which was granted) to “do drilling so as to determine for later the mining areas within the concession. If Cabinet had not reversed the mining license issued to Zhongxin Coking Company, the Chinese firm intended to “fence off the area for later exploration and mining . . .”

Presidential spokesperson George Charamba was not reachable on his mobile phone number. He also did not respond to questions sent to him.

The Chinese firm had been granted a Special Grant coal concession registered under the number 5767, before its licence was revoked this week.

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