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Feature: Mutoko villagers living on the edge as yet another Chinese miner advances

By Thando Khumalo

SINCE the current administration took over power, there has been a flurry of high-level attempts to displace thousands of residents from mineral-rich communities, which remain vulnerable to the removals due to violation of existing laws as well as gaps in policies and legislation.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power with the assistance of the military in 2017, before he was confirmed as president after the July 2018 general elections. Since the elections, Western isolation of the administration has resurged over reported human rights violations and bad governance, forcing the government to look to China and eastern Europe for investments.

Investments from these sources mainly span mining, services, agriculture, infrastructure, logistics and transportation.

Growing displacements

Most of the attempted or actual displacements are linked to Chinese investments.

Investigations carried out with support from Information for Development Trust — a non-profit organisation supporting independent investigative reporting — that focused mainly on Mashonaland East province’s rural Mutoko district revealed that host communities remained vulnerable to arbitrary and sporadic displacements on the backdrop of numerous factors that include the deliberate violation of the law, connivance between the investors and influential community leaders, out-dated laws and politically-induced fear.

Displacements infographics

Mutoko, which is located 150km north-east of Harare in the sprawling Mashonaland East province, is currently a hotspot of Chinese granite mining projects.

Chinese companies that include Shua Win, Tsing Shan and Jinding Mining Zimbabwe are already operating or seeking to set up business in the same district.

Further afield in the province, another Asian investor, Heijin Mining Company, had its licence cancelled last year following angry protests from villagers who were accusing it of invading their land and desecrating their ancestral sites.

Residents live in constant fear that they will, any time, be removed from the land they have lived on and tilled for scores of decades. Shanghai Haoyun, a granite mining company from China, is among the investors setting up mining ventures in the community and wants the people out.

In an interview, the company said it recently got a 24-hectare granite claim in the district’s Ward 10, but observations and testimonies from the locals suggest the area is way bigger.

In the dark

The villagers were never told about the project, nor do they have information on where they would be relocated to or how that would happen.

If the displacements take place, they will be forced to leave behind the houses they have invested a lot in to build, farmland, family graves, pastures, the schools they children attend and the health centres that have served them for a long time.

Those that volunteered to talk — mostly on condition of anonymity — fear that they may be forced to go to areas without schools, clinics and adequate farmland.

The people from this area know that the government and ruling Zanu PF — which traditionally dominates in rural Mashonaland East — consider the Chinese their “all-weather friends”.

The province was a hotbed of political violence in 2008 when hundreds of people were maimed, killed or displaced for allegedly supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Because of that, they hardly speak ill of the Chinese publicly, for fear of being labelled opposition members.

“This is the only home I have known. My family has built this house from the land we got from my father-in-law,” bemoaned Shonisani Mundwa, who has lived in Katsukunya village in Ward 11 all her life.

“Imagine being told you will move and start afresh in a different location without schools or clinics guaranteed. Where do you even start?”

According to her, villagers were only informed that they would be moved to a place called Area C in Mudzi district without any consultation.

The law requires that host community members be consulted over a planned project to determine its environmental, cultural, economic and social implications, but that has hardly been done in Mutoko, according to residents who were interviewed.

They said the investors were using divide-and-rule tactics, whereby they targeted influential community decision-makers.

A female Mutoko community leader alleged that Shanghai Haoyun only talked to the headman and the councillor, while the rest of the community was excluded.

“We approached the councillor on where people will go, but we haven’t been getting straight answers,” she said.

Exclusion of community members started at the stage of prospecting, where they are also supposed to be consulted. Quite often, they saw Chinese nationals visiting their villages in the company of a traditional leader, politician or an official from the local authority.

After several visits, the villagers testified, the Chinese would set up some structures on their land and then mark it off for a project, before bringing earth movers and machines.

Success infographic template with stair step building

Still counting

Prospecting for minerals and mining activities have increased in Mutoko since the last elections in 2018. This matches the pace at which the Zimbabwean government is dishing mining and exploration licences to Chinese investors nationwide as it purportedly ratchets to grow the mining sector into a US$12 billion sub-economy.

The Mines ministry says a total of 28 Exclusive Prospecting Orders (EPOs) were issued from January to June 2021.

These EPOs will stretch to 2024 and cover 1 506 073 hectares, adding to the already existing nine prospecting orders that span over 255 530 hectares.

In Mutoko, investigations revealed, government gave out special mining grants for granite and other minerals to Chinese firms in or close to Wards 10 and 11 made up of Katsukunya, Chingamuka, Makochera, Pasirai, Tome and Karimazondo villages.

Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) director, Farai Maguwu, says actual or attempted displacements are mainly unprocedural.

The Mines and Minerals Act, through Section 31, prohibits prospecting within 450 metres of a principal homestead, 90 metres of permanent improvements and 15 metres of cultivated land.

However, observations made in Mutoko indicated that, in some cases, the prospectors flout the provisions under this section yet no action is taken by relevant authorities that include rural district councils, which, it was also discovered, take orders from prominent politicians from the ruling party, and the Mines ministry.

“The Mines ministry is very aware that it is breaking the law but it takes advantage of the fact its victims are poorly informed,” Maguwu said.

“Relocation should be handled in an apolitical manner and without coercing or intimidating the affected people. Given the government’s over-reliance on mining, which is unsustainable, Zimbabwe needs a relocation policy to safeguard the interests of the citizens in cases of mining-induced displacements.”

The mirage of EIAs

The villagers also complained that impact assessments were mostly shrouded in secrecy. It was noted that some of the investors rushed to start operations once they obtained mining licences, without the assessments.

“If one is given a licence, it doesn’t give them the right to immediately commence mining. They should get an environmental impact assessment (EIA),” said Polite Kambamura, the Mines deputy minister. “The assessment considers matters such as how the miner has consulted the community because the EIA requires that there is consent from all the stakeholders involved.”

Kambamura said where communities are resettled; the government expects them to be moved to areas which will improve their livelihoods through the provision of social services.

The investigations in Mutoko revealed that villagers do not understand the EIA processes.

An Environmental Management Agency (Ema) official who requested anonymity said their provincial office that covers Mutoko was not aware of an EIA done by Shanghai.

“We have not received any official document relating to Shanghai Haoyun at our Mutoko office,” the Ema official said. “We can only comment once we receive the EIA report because it guides us on the scope of the mining project — including how many people will be affected and the potential impacts on the environment.”

The Chinese miner, though, claimed it was still prospecting.

“The EIA process is almost complete and we are in the first consultation stage with the community as regards possible displacements and relocations should need arise,” Shanghai Haoyun managing director Shuoshuo Song said. “There are issues of cultural sites, communal graves and places of worship that we still need to navigate with the help of the community. We are still deliberating on those issues, so we wouldn’t want to pre-empt it. But, as a company, we have the policy to say, we would do relocations/displacements as the last option. We seek to work with the community.”

But his claim is inconsistent with other accounts from other players.

Head of Primechart Environmental Consultancy, Alphonse Haruzivishe, said disapprovals by the villagers, chiefs and churches had halted the EIA.

“We have some who claimed that the mining activities would encroach into their cultural rites places, some said their worship would be seriously compromised,” Haruzivishe said.

But that did not mean the assessment had been completely abandoned, he added.

Cuthbert Ndarukwa, the Mutoko Rural District Council acting chief executive said:  “There will not be any undue displacements in the area. Any developments will be above board and according to procedure,” he said.

Old laws

Zimbabwe is still using the Communal Land Act (1981), which mirrors the 1951 Native Land Husbandry Act that deprived indigenous people of their right to land and vests ownership in the president, who can arbitrarily move communities from the ancestral land.

The current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has strong ties with Beijing, which has been getting preferential treatment in mining and other investments as western isolation grew since he took over power.

Netsai Zvakasikwa, a senior law officer in the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs ministry, urged affected communities to petition parliament whenever they felt their rights were being violated.

“Land belongs to the state. When the state wants to use its land, it just tells you  that we are moving you from here to there. In as much as it is very unfair, Section 149 of the Constitution says petition parliament,” she said.

But a close reading of the law will show that this does not give the host communities, solid legal reprieve.

Section 32 of the Mines and Minerals Act, though, provides that, in the event of a dispute between prospectors and land occupiers, the parties must approach the administrative court for a solution.

Nyaradzo Mutonhori from the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela) urged the amendment of the Mines and Minerals Act to specify how consultations with the community must be done before an investor gets mining rights and titles.

“There is a need for the communities themselves to know their rights and to be able to exercise the rights that they have in the Constitution as occupiers of communal land so that they participate in terms of exposing the vulnerabilities and showing how solutions can be made from dialogue perspective,” Mutonhori said.

She also suggested that the Communal Lands Act must be revised to ensure that traditional leaders and community members are consulted and give their consent whenever there are intentions to take over the land they occupy.

As the Mutoko villagers wait to know their fate with bated breath, the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe urged investors from the Asian country to respect local laws and regulations.

In a statement, the embassy said: “It is the consistent position of the Chinese government that Chinese businesses operating overseas follow domestic laws and regulations.”

The embassy, while claiming that most Chinese investors were complying with local laws, also acknowledged conflicts that were emerging between the locals and businesses from China.

“When our closer economic ties bring more and more ordinary Chinese and Zimbabweans together in the workplace, it is only natural that problems emerge. Where concerns are warranted, we firmly support Zimbabwe’s law enforcement agencies in transparently and openly investigating and handling cases in accordance with the laws of Zimbabwe,” read the statement.

  • This investigation was done in partnership with IMS and Fojo.

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