By Nokuthaba Dlamini
A fortnight ago, 22 elephants were found dead in the Hwange National Park, while the cause of death remains mysterious, it is suspected that coal mining activities by Chinese companies in the game reserve could be the reason for the deaths.
The elephants were found dead at the Pandamusuie and Woodlands forests inside Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, with the cause of deaths being attributed to an unknown illness.
Recent revelations that a Chinese coal mining company had started operations in the Hwange National Park have opened a can of worms, with activists and a former minister revealing that the practice could be widespread and poses serious risks to the biodiversity at the game reserve.
Former Environment minister Walter Mzembi said during his time in government he fought with his colleagues in cabinet who were pushing for the unchecked dishing out of mining grants inside game reserves throughout Zimbabwe
Mzembi said the deaths of the elephants in Hwange could be traced to the activities of mining companies that were allegedly given mining grants by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“That has always been a contentious subject,”Mzembi said when asked whether it has always been government policy to allow mining activities inside game reserves such as Hwange.
The number of coal mining companies around Hwange has grown three-fold since Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe, who was toppled in a coup in 2017.
From three coal mining companies, Hwange now has over 10 coal miners, and most of them have been described by conservationists as a danger to the delicate biodiversity around the national park.
Mzembi, who had a fall out with the present administration, said the situation appeared to have gone out of hand after Mnangagwa came into power and Environment minister Mangaliso Ndlovu appeared helpless to stop the Chinese miners that are encroaching into the Hwange National Park.
“The sense that I get is that the tourism minister has been overwhelmed,” he said.
The former minister, who is now living in exile, said there was evidence showing that the death of the elephants in Hwange was linked to mining activities.
“It is clearly linked to contamination of pastures from which the elephants were feeding on,” he said.
“The initial results or pronouncements made by the government itself suggest that those 22 elephants might have grazed contaminated or poisoned grass.
“The bacteria infection, I think it’s manufactured information. It’s clearly coming out from mining spillages.”
Zimparks national spokesperson Tinashe Farawo, however, dismissed Mzembi’s allegations saying they were unfounded.
“Mzembi is not a scientist to know about their deaths,” he shot back.
“Those elephants died from some bacterial infection and tests are still being conducted and we shall be getting final results once everything has been concluded. Everything he is saying[right now] cannot be proven.”
Farawo said tests were still being conducted on the carcasses of the elephants, which were found with their tasks intact, ruling out chances that they were poisoned by poachers.
Bhejane Trust, an environmental watchdog blew the whistle on the two Chinese companies that were doing exploratory drilling in the middle of Robins and Sinamatella at the Hwange National Park.
Afrochine Energy and Zimbabwe Zhongxin coal mining group were opening up roads and building camps as they started mining activities at the park.
Daniel Molokele, the local legislator, described the mining activities at the game reserve and around Hwange as a crisis.
He said Mnangagwa unilaterally granted the Chinese mining companies access to mine coal without consultations endangering wildlife and communities.
“What we have in Zimbabwe today is a serious crisis of democratic governance, where we have a political establishment that has no idea what the people of Zimbabwe want,” he charged.
“It does not care and this behaviour that we see at Hwange National park and everywhere else across the country is the evidence.
“How can a decision be made by a single person or the government without extensive consultation with all the relevant stakeholders?”
Molokele said he first learnt about the developments on social media.
He said he sought information from the district administrator, chiefs, civil society and community leaders, who were all clueless about mining activities.
His sentiments were also echoed by Hwange West legislator Godfrey Dube who said mining activities being conducted in Hwange were politically driven to benefit the few elite in the government.
He queried why the government was still granting coal mining licences to Chinese companies.
“Hwange needs to be protected by the people of this region in order for it to survive,” Dube said.
“We have not run out of coal but we keep seeing news mines being established, so this simply a political deal meant to fatten someone’s pocket at the expense of the current generation and those to come.”
Mzembi speculated that the coal mining exploitation rush by the government was driven by a need to exhaust all the coal by the year 2040, when the United Nations has called for the decommissioning of all coal-powered electricity plants globally to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“China itself, if you go to Beijing, they have decommissioned all the smokey polluting power plants, so there is some kind of senseless race to exploit all these resources within the UN timeframe in line with climate change (policy) that has been set globally.”
Mzembi said there was a huge appetite for Zimbabwean coal from Chinese industrialists, as the Asian giant is said to be developing an additional 121 Gigawatts (GW) of electricity from thermal power stations.
“I am aware that the Chinese are developing another 121gigawatts in mainland China to add to the existing 1 000GW and the awarding of this licensing in my view has absolutely nothing to do with generating internal capacity for Zimbabwe,”Mzembi claimed.
“I think it has a lot to do with what the government may be intending to do with exporting the coal to China, but now balance that with a desire to sustain wildlife management it doesn’t make sense.”
The government has since indicated that it will stop mining activities in game reserves following the outcry over the Hwange coal project.