By Paul Steyn
“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”
― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
If you look on a map of Zambia, about 100km to the east of Lusaka, you’ll see a massive green nondescript block of nothing on the Zambezi River.
This patch of 4000-square-kilometres is the Lower Zambezi National Park.
I visited the reserve in early 2012 and was amazed by it’s inaccessibility. There’s a single main road in the reserve that follows the 120-odd km of Zambezi River frontage. Opposite the park, on the other side of the river, sits the famous Mana Pools area, together making up an unfenced conservation space of over 6000-square-kilometres. While in the Lower Zambezi at a lodge called Baines River Camp, I saw massive breeding herds of elephants, I saw lion, leopard and large herds of buffalo roaming the floodplains. It seemed like paradise.
You want to mine where?
Shortly after visiting the park, I received the strangest news. In 2011, an Australian mining company by the name of Zambezi Resources had been given permission by the Zambian government (Patriotic Front) to begin plans for an open cast mine right on the Zambezi escarpment, slap bang in the centre of the reserve. That must be a rumour, I thought. How could anyone get permission to mine in a National Park?
It turned out to be true. I immediately began researching and learned that Zambezi Resources was part of a bigger Australian conglomerate called Proactive Investors, who’d just submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to the local environmental authority while confidently raising investment for the project as if it was about to go ahead. I wrote a story and tried to remain grounded about the whole thing, but still felt myself growing angry.
The main crux of my argument was simple: You don’t need an environmental impact assessment to inform you that it’s wrong to mine in the middle of a National Park. Other than the obvious ecological negatives, It’s just simply wrong to dig up a legally proclaimed conservation area.
But having already got government permission to go ahead, it all seemed painfully inevitable: The company was simply ticking the boxes before sending in the equipment.
And then the most amazing thing happened. The Zambia Environmental Management Agency rejected the EIS. ZEMA’s public statement went as follows:
“The proposed site is not suitable for the nature of the project because it is located in the middle of a national park and thus intends to compromise the ecological value of the park as well as the ecosystem.”
Of course, Zambezi Resources did not take long to appeal the decision and went straight back to the Zambian PF government for support. In a twist of painful inevitability, On 17 January 2014, ZEMA’s rejection of the project was overturned by the Minister of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. Now, despite a fully rejected EIS, full permission has been given for an open cast copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park.
So what does this mean for ordinary Zambians? Surely there must be some benefit to the people, the land and the country as a whole? Surely, in the end, that’s what really matters?
The truth is, even if there were major benefits to ordinary Zambians of mining copper in the Lower Zambezi National Park, whats clear is that these benefits are not even close to being realised.
In a recent alarming study of copper mining in Zambia titled: Copper Colonialism, the following was concluded in reference to the appalling mining practices of Vendata, another international copper mining company currently extracting minerals in various parts of Zambia.
Zambian politicians and newspapers often talk about foreign companies as ‘investors’ in their country, and companies themselves present their presence in Zambia as a benevolent effort to create jobs, even at their own loss. This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. Extractive industries come to Zambia to take advantage of low taxes and liberal policies which allow them to ruthlessly loot and exploit the natural resources, leaving behind corruption and environmental and social damage which their minimal tax contributions don’t come close to compensating.
Zambezi Resources may be different… but the truth is: there are very few benefits of mining in the Lower Zambezi National park that will trump the long term environmental, economic (from tourism), spiritual and cultural losses incurred over the next 25 years of open pit mining on the Zambezi escarpment. It’s as simple as that.
Yes, the mining companies may see the Lower Zambezi National Park as a blank space on the map, ripe for the picking – a ‘new copper province’ in Zambia, as it has been called, feeding a global demand. But we know this is not the real case. It’s a burgeoning tourism paradise with massive long term economic value; a spiritual home-land for thousands of Zambians and a haven for wildlife and biodiversity.
And of global demand? Just in case I’m accused of hypocrisy: yes, I use copper. We all use copper and need it for the cars and gadgets that we buy everyday. But it’s also one of the most easily recycled substances in the world. On top of this, world copper reserves are still huge. In fact it was reported by the Financial Times that 2013 saw an oversupply of copper, pushing the prices way down. There’s plenty out there without having to dig up a National Park.
Often expensive African projects like Kangaluwi fly under the media radar, too far removed from the western consciousness to make a stink. These projects are often drawn out over many years, waxing and waning in the limelight like the changing moon, often shrouded in bureaucracy, but always creeping towards the pot of gold in the distance.
This latest development is a major step towards that pot of gold, and I believe it’s our job to continually question who or what get’s trampled on the way.
Please keep talking about this, questioning the motives and putting pressure on those involved. Does an Australian company have the right to apply financial muscle in Africa? As a prospecting company, are they simply going to sell off the rights to a Chinese investor once the battle is won? Who takes responsibility for the damage at the end of it all? Where is a summery of the plan to mitigate damage? None of these questions have even been addressed in the thin media statements made by the australian company.
Africa still has many blank spaces on the map, saved from the claws of heavy industry because of whatever reason. National Parks are one of the few ways to keep them as such; a mechanism put in place to preserve things the way they are now, for the future. How can we justify bending the rules to this extent for the purpose of short-term gain for the few? Map and photos.