Zambia: Hichilema backs open pit mine in national park, in test of reform promises

By Chiwoyu Sinyangwe
Posted on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 11:00

Lower Zambezi National Park
Lower Zambezi National Park (twitter @VictorKanyense)

Zambia’s ruling party United Party for National Development (UPND) has given the green light for large-scale open-pit mining in Lower Zambezi National Park (LZNP) following a court order. The move has sparked outrage and put President Hakainde Hichilema on a collision course with environmentalists, the middle class and some Western organisations who touted him as a reformist.

On 31 January, the green economy and environment minister, Collins Nzovu, told journalists that the open-pit mining project in LZNP would go ahead under strict adherence to measures set by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) to approve its plans to commence large-scale mining.

Nzovu said the government’s “hands were tied” because “….Mwembeshi Resource has been allowed to go ahead with mining by the Court of Appeal. As the New Dawn, do we agree? No we don’t, we want to ensure that there is environmental sustainability, all our promises, we want to keep them but remember we are also a government of laws”.

Hichilema, who does not shy away from public debate, has not directly commented on the matter that threatens to divide interest groups in Zambia and beyond.

Civil society organisations, traditional leaders, artistes and safari operators – led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – have urged Hichilema to oppose the project.

Open-pit mining would permanently destroy the landscape of the park, thereby reducing the tourism value…

“We call on President Hichilema to honour his undertaking to keep the Lower Zambezi National Park untouched. We believe mining activities should be restricted to […] mining areas of the country and should not be allowed in high profile tourism and wildlife conservation areas that have their own ecological and economic value to the country,” they said.

“The mine will have potentially grave consequence[s] on people, water, the land and the environment in the entire Southern African region….”

Environmentalist Peter Sinkamba says allowing mining in LZNP could strain Zambia’s relations with Zimbabwe.

UK charity Oxfam says though mining is strategic for Zambia, the sector has historically been the cause for environmental and human rights concerns. Examples of affected areas include towns in the Copperbelt, Central and North-Western Provinces.

Zambia’s mining sector has a legacy of widespread pollution, with some cases ending up in the UK courts.

  • Last November, the UK and Zambia signed a landmark “green growth compact”, which is expected to create jobs through sustainable investment and strengthen economic partnership between the two countries.

Britain has pledged to provide Zambia with over £100m ($136m) of new financial resources to small and medium sized enterprises.

20 years in the making

Attempts to begin copper and gold mining in the highly sensitive and pristine national park has protracted for close to 20 years as the process has been embroiled in legal and regulatory battles.

An Australian company, Zambezi Resources Limited (ZRL), through its subsidiary, Bermuda-based Mwembeshi Resources, sought permission from ZEMA.

Mwembeshi Resources plans to develop two open pits in LZNP – Kangaluwi and Chisawa – with an initial investment of over $500m to mine 90,000tn of copper sulphide annually. Kangaluwi Copper will cover a 12km radius. It is located 180km southeast of Lusaka and 40km from Zambezi River.

The company submitted its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to ZEMA in March 2012.

In August 2012, ZEMA rejected the EIS after findings revealed that the location of tailings storage facilities in the earthquake-prone Zambezi escarpment posed serious risk to the Zambezi River. It also risked a possible catastrophe to neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

LZNP has trans-boundary impacts on Mano Pools in Zimbabwe in the south. Mano Pools is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Zimbabwe’s key tourist destinations.

“Open-pit mining would permanently destroy the landscape of the park, thereby reducing the tourism value of the Lower Zambezi National Park,” ZEMA said in its rejection letter to the Mwembeshi Resources in September 2012. “The benefits from [the] mining operations may be for a very short period of time, but the consequence may be far more reaching.”

The proposed mining operation in the middle of the national park poses the biggest threat in history to the wildlife and pristine wilderness that has survived so many centuries…

However, ZEMA’s decision was later quashed by Harry Kalaba, the minister of environmental protection at the time, as the government expected the project to create employment. Zambian law allows a minister to overturn the final decision of the environmental authority.

However, Kalaba’s decision angered many Zambians, who demanded that the government’s decision be shelved.

Hichilema, who was an oppositionist at the time, joined the majority of Zambians who were against the development of the Kangaluwi Copper Mine. “What will the PF leave with us with if they can overturn a decision made by a competent authority, such as ZEMA, #lower Zambezi stays untouched,” Hichilema said on Twitter in 2014.

Some interest groups opposed to the Kangaluwi mining project filed a lawsuit, but they lost.

Case dropped

Following Kalaba’s decision, ZEMA wrote to Mwembeshi Resource in 2014 detailing conditions that the company needed to adhere to as it conducted its mining activities.

However, the company couldn’t proceed due to court cases which blocked its planned mining activities.

  • In 2018, the High Court dismissed the case on a legal technicality in favour of Mwembeshi, as the plaintiffs did not show seriousness in pursuing the matter further.
  • “The decision letter for Mwembeshi Resources Limited expired on 4 February, 2017; failure to commence a project in the required timeframe rendered the authorisation granted to Mwembeshi Resources Limited invalid,” former mines minister Richard Musukwa said in November 2019. Musukwa added that Mwembeshi Resources Limited was required to resubmit the EIS assessment report to ZEMA.
  • In February 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the earlier High Court ruling which found that the five NGOs had failed to prosecute the matter.

Key figures who criticised the ruling

Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who died in June 2021, had said: “The proposed mining operation in the middle of the national park poses the biggest threat in history to the wildlife and pristine wilderness that has survived so many centuries of challenges and supported generations of Zambians.”

Kaunda was key in halting rampant poaching in LZNP, especially during the independence wars in Southern Africa, which saw the rhino population in the park completely wiped out.

On 7 May 2021, ZEMA wrote to Mwembeshi Resources to say it had approved of the Mwembeshi Resources’ 2013 EIS after having reviewed the addendum, but the decision was not publicly announced.

The government is lowering taxes and eliminating bureaucracy in order to ramp up copper output in anticipation of a rally in copper prices, as the world transitions from fossil fuels to electrification.

Support for the project

According to multiple inquiries by The Africa Report, lodgings at the LZNP cost a minimum of about $1,500 per night for a family room.

Locals who have endured a fractious relationship with safari operators are delighted at the prospect of copper mines, as they see bigger benefits.

“…when we talk about jobs, there is nothing significant. Most of the lodge owners are employing Zimbabweans because even if they are mistreated, they have nowhere to go to get relief…so in tourism, we are not getting any benefits. If the mine is not opened, Luangwa [for the mine] will be turned into a desert due to charcoal burning. As the people of Luangwa, we are ready to fight for that mine until the last drop of blood and if the doomsayers are ready, we will take them on,” says Emmanuel Tembo, a PF member of parliament for the area.

We want something for Zambians. We are crying for that mine – we need jobs for our young people.

Local Chief Mphuka says: “When I hunt an animal for food in my own national park, you call me a poacher! When I want to visit animals, lodges along the Zambezi River, [it] cost[s] $2,000 per night – so, conservation and tourism; what the hell are you talking about? We want something for Zambians. We are crying for that mine – we need jobs for our young people.”

New dawn, new direction

Hichilema’s UPND regime wants to anchor Zambia’s economic revival and job creation for the majority of youths on the country’s lifeblood: the mining sector.

Zambia’s mining fortunes have not flourished in the last 10 years due to unstable fiscal policies and the government’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the sector through higher taxation, which discourages fresh capital.

The government is expecting to mine 1.3m tonnes of copper this year as it targets to produce 3m tonnes of the red metal in the next 10 years.

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