By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Conservationists are up in arms, again, and quite rightly so. The latest gambit is that of the intended prospecting and exploration for heavy mineral sand deposits (HMSD) of two rivers: the Rukomechi River, along the western boundary of Mana Pools National Park and the Chewore River, along the eastern boundary of the Sapi Safari area. Both of these rivers are tributaries to the great Zambezi River and wind across the Zambezi Valley which is within the declared UNESCO Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve. Mana Pools is a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet mining magnets are just about to rip it apart.
There is a long history of environmental activism opposed to mineral sands mining and for good reason too. Heavy mineral sands are referred to as a class of ore deposits yielding minerals such as zirconium, titanium, thorium, and tungsten; not to mention diamonds and other gems. Precious metals may also be harvested and, with alluvial gold being not uncommon in the Highveld to the south, perhaps this is their ugly objective. Clearly, if prospectors have diamonds in mind, we know exactly in which direction this is going, and even which filthy politicians will fill their pockets.
This is the dire reality for conservationists; the underhand world of patronage politics is hard at play and usually gets its way with impunity. The indigenous venture which is at the core of this intended exploration is a company whose principals are apparently well connected in political circles and who, some reports suggest, have made much out of recent ignoble initiatives to indigenous mining in Zimbabwe. The influence of the party faithful in these matters should give all a cause for concern.
Exploiting HMSD is usually in the form of ruinous strip mining and probably the most destructive method of excavation in conservation terms. Mining these resources will result in the two river lines being ripped up, down to bedrock basically, and heavy, noisy machinery and processing lines moving down each riverbed with its commensurate destruction of the flora and fauna in its path, not to mention the toxic filth of such process. Progressive miners may attempt to rehabilitate the ecosystem they usually destroy with ecologically similar species, but Zimbabwe’s nouveau indigenous miners have no good track record of this, or of pouring funds back into the local community.
Even more concerning is the fact that the Ministry of Mines has actually issued prospecting and exploration licences to a private concern to conduct business in a national park or, worse, a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, apparently without environmental impact assessment. What were they thinking? The area was set aside for the benefit of all Zimbabweans, and the world alike, to conserve the unique flora and fauna; and this purposefully excludes any human habitation or industry. Do you smell a rat yet?
Mana Pools is not without its recent controversy, involving a seemingly dodgy or at least an opaque deal, perhaps involving foreigners, politicians and those in trust or authority, along the way. More recently, construction commenced on a 24-bed Mana Pools Safari Lodge in an area that is considered environmentally delicate; despite strong objections and protestation by conservationists who know their business. Developers seem to have hung their success on a pithy, sometimes incorrect, ill-informed, and far from in-depth environmental assessment study. Clearly that rat is quite rotten.
The problem seems to be that those who protest the most about these invasions are seen or perceived as minority beneficiaries of what is about to be destroyed by those who now hold those positions of trust and authority. The current flush of bureaucrats brook no advice from experts that know and care, there is money to be made. That was the ethos of the ill fated land saga and now the business indigenisation process too.
The real trouble here is that the majority of Zimbabweans derive no tangible benefit from these fragile places, such as Mana Pools National Park, and, frankly, many may not care about their fate. Protest some may, but the cogs of contemporary politics and influence are not well attuned to what is good for all, but rather to that which is in it for them. That is why 30 tonne rigs are traversing Mana Pools’ delicate ecosystem with building supplies. That is why Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites have been destroyed. Do the people care? Yes, the rat is dead and smelling bad.
The question is, do Zimbabweans really want to see their natural heritage being pillaged and plundered by the connected elite, the chefs? Do they much really care? If anything these remote havens of the real Africa are not within the reach of the people and herein lays the Achilles Heel of any eco-protest. It all seems a too little, too late. Much needs to be done to convince the ordinary person that his natural heritage is perilously at stake, because when all is done and dusted, river lines have been destroyed, and eco-systems have collapsed, it will be futile to say “I told you so”.
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