Chinese Hwange invasion and disruption of ecological stasis

BY TATENDA CHITAGU

THE scenic drive to Robins Camp, past Sinamatela in Hwange National Park starts off as pleasurable, kilometre after kilometre of intermittent botanic serenity, with elephant dung the only litter on the grey earth.

Broken tree branches from the tuskers looking for leaves sandwiches the narrow unpaved road that snakes through the thick, untamed jungle.

As we drive almost halfway between the two camps, the dung suddenly disappears and the chances of seeing wild pigs, springboks and other not-so-hard to find animals we had occasionally sighted get slimmer and slimmer.

By noon, we finally get to the place where Chinese miners in September last year put a rig to start coal exploration in the country’s biggest wildlife sanctuary.

Around the site, the grass has been trampled to bare soil and deep cracks run across the scarred landscape, a sad reminder of human existence there.

“This was an unexplored, serene place, where you could bump into any animal, but the noise and human activity by the miners could have moved them further,” our fixer said.

In September last year, the government granted two Chinese companies licences to start mining for coal in the country’s flagship wildlife conservation area, host to an estimated 40 000 elephants and many endangered species.

The miners were found by a Black Rhino conservationist group, Bhejane Trust, which alerted parks officials who arrested and handed them over to the police, but they were released and returned after producing a permit giving them the right to carry on with exploratory drilling in the national park, which straddles more than 14 500 square km (5 600 square miles).

According to a statement by Bhejane Trust on its website then, the mining concessions — secretly awarded without the knowledge of the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks), the custodians of the area — were given to two Chinese companies as “special grants”, which “apparently can only be awarded by the President”.

Officials from ZimParks, the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate; and Tourism, as well as the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), professed ignorance over the mining permits. The Bhejane Trust also said exploration activities were started without carrying out an EIA (environmental impact assessment) study, a requirement to gauge the feasibility of the operations.

Sources said the “hazy allocation of the mining claims” confirmed that “there was an element of favouritism”.

The coal mining concessions are SG7263 and SG5756, which had been granted to Afrochine Smelting (Pvt) Limited and the Zimbabwe Zhongxin Coal Mining group, respectively.

Afrochine is part of the Tsingshan Group, the second largest producer of stainless steel items in China. A quick check on its Linkedin profile shows that Afrochine Smelting has built a ferrochrome smelting plant in Selous, about 80 km west of Harare.

The Zimbabwe Zhongxin Coking Company is building a coal-fired power station near Hwange town, which will produce 300MW of power. Its mine in the park was planned to cover 105 square km (40,54 square miles)

The exploratory efforts, which came as Zimbabwean wildlife officials were investigating an unrelated cause of the deaths of more than 20 elephants in a forest area near the national park, attracted local and international condemnation by conservationists, environmental lawyers, eco-tourism players with safaris in the park, as well as the general public, who launched a Twitter campaign dubbed #SaveHwangeNational Park.

The Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (Zela), an environmental law group that aims to promote environmental justice, sustainable and equitable use of natural resources, lodged an urgent chamber application at the High Court interdicting the two mining companies, citing “ecological degradation” from the activities.

In court papers, Zela argued that the park would be reduced to a “site for drilling, land clearance, road building and geological surveys” if the Chinese miners were not stopped in their tracks.

“The issuance of the special grant in February 2019 before environmental impact assessment is in violation of section 97 of the Environmental Management Act. The upending of the legislative process entailed failure to provide interested and or affected persons an opportunity to participate in the administrative decision making. As a result the decision makers failed to avail themselves of the benefit of all the relevant factors and considerations.

“Authorisation of, and commencement of, mining in a protected national park is in breach of the constitutional duty on all respondents to protect ecological degradation and promote conservation in terms of section 73 (b) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe,” read the application.

Safari operators also complained that they would lose revenue from ecotourism, while villagers who rely on them for income were going to be affected.

Increase in human-wildlife conflict

Villagers living in communities surrounding Hwange National Park have complained of a sudden increase in incidences of human-wildlife conflicts.

“It was very rare for animals to stray to nearby communities. It would be a year of great drought to experience that. However, this year, despite the good rains, we have already lost human lives, livestock as well as our crops. By the end of the year, more lives could have been lost.

“We believe the animals have been disturbed by the exploration activities and are now running away from their original natural habitat,” Sibongile Nkala, from Lopota, under Chief Dingane, said.

Jamela Nkala, from Nelikova area, said people are now afraid to move at night especially when they disembark from buses and they end up sleeping at shop verandas.

“The wild animals are terrorising us. Most problem animals include lions, elephants, baboons and hyenas. Most affected areas include villages around Detezone. We spend nights awake scaring the animals away from our fields by beating drums. During the day again, we also guard our fields against baboons. But sometimes they will not go away and we watch as they feed on our harvest,” Nkala, from the Phikani area, said.

Ivis Vambe, from Cross Mabale, said he lost five cattle from lions and has never got any compensation.

“I no longer have draught power and this year I could not till a big portion of my farming land. Our cattle are our banks and source of income, as well, as we sell some for survival. Now I am left poorer. It is not me alone; many others also lost their livestock and in serious cases, human life is lost,” he said.

In February this year, Doubt Dube of Dopota village was mauled by hyenas on his way home at night from a beer drink. The incident happened near Cross Mabale, about 10km from Hwange National Park. The wild animals pulled his body for about 2km into the bush and started chewing off parts of his body.

His in-law, Malvin Sibanda said they had to “pick his remaining body parts and put them in a makeshift coffin” after his limbs, intestines and other parts had been eaten.

“It was a very gory sight . . . We started seeing his devoured lungs. We were picking some of the parts that had remained along the blood trail left from the attack.

“We did not get any help from Parks and we made a makeshift coffin to carry his remains home for burial. We are very pained because this problem of people being killed by animals is not a new thing, it is still going on unabated.

“Some villagers lost cattle and goats. When we call the Parks Department, they take long to respond. We are not benefiting anything from the wildlife,” he said.

ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo admitted that there has been an increase in human wildlife conflict not only in Hwange, but other communities near various parks this year as compared to last year.

“Unlike last year, the number of people killed by wild animals increased in the first quarter of this year,” Farawo said.

“Twenty-three people have so far been killed by wild animals — 12 by crocodiles, eight by elephants, two by hippos and one by buffalo. Only last week, a village head was killed by elephants while trying to scare them away from his fields. Last year, 60 people died from attacks by the animals the whole year,” Farawo added.

He said ZimParks has received 1 000 distress calls which they responded to by either capturing the problem animals or shooting them.

Zela, in its application last year, had warned of an increase in such incidents, as well as likelihood of poaching and pollution of water sources in the park, the world’s largest natural mammal colony.

“Already, loss of both human and animal life has occurred as a direct result of the inevitable emigration from the National Park by the various animal species fleeing their former habitat. There is an acute risk of irreversible ecological degradation including unmitigated loss of animal and vegetative species, reduction of animal habitats of many rare species including black rhino, pangolin, elephant, and wild (painted) dogs, ” the court challenge read.

Before the matter could be heard at the courts, the government, after holding a weekly cabinet meeting, bowed down to pressure and announced a blanket ban on mining in all the country’s national parks.

The Chinese firms had planned to mine in the park in a joint venture with the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation.

Following the government ban, Presidential spokesperson George Charamba attacked environmental campaigners on his Twitter account, accusing them of “pseudo scholarship”.
He vowed that the government was free to change land use and humans should preside over wild animals as national parks “are not God-ordained”.

True to his word, barely eight months later, the government ordered the return of one of the Chinese companies — Afrochine, to prospect for coal in the Hwange area. This was done through a Government Gazette published on April 16 this year, which reads: “the Mines and Mining Development minister, with the authorisation of the President, has . . . issued special grant No 8477 to Afrochine Smelting (Private) Limited, for a period of three years . . .”

The Gazette did not, however, specify the area of the coal mine, which up to now remains a mystery.

No comment could be obtained from Afrochine by the time of publishing.

This story was supported by GRID-Arendal, a non-profit environmental communications centre that aims to inform and activate a global audience and motivate decision-makers to effect positive change.