By Nokuthaba Dlamini
Another storm is brewing over the proposed location of a Chinese owned coal mine in Hwange with villagers in the Dinde area raising questions about a special grant given to an investor from the Asian country under controversial circumstances.
Beifa Investment has given villagers Hwange’s ward 13 area notice that it will begin exploring for coal in the area in a fortnight and that if economically viable deposits are discovered there would be forced relocations.
Those backing the project, including the area’s chief, said President Emmerson Mnangagwa gave the Chinese the nod to set up the coal mine that is set to displace hundreds of families.
Investigations have revealed that the Dinde community has not embraced the investment and want answers about the Chinese mining grant, which they believe was granted without proper consultations.
Some villagers fear that besides being forced out of their ancestral lands to pave way for the new coal mine, the development will cause irreparable damage to the environment.
Parallels are already being drawn with futile attempts by two Chinese firms to set up coal mines inside Hwange National Park early this year.
The government was forced to stop Afrochine Energy and Zimbabwe Zhongxin coal mining group from establishing the mines at the giant reserve following a public outcry.
Dinde community leaders strongly feel their case is not any different amid protests that the special grant given to Beifa was issued without consideration of the fragile ecosystem in the region.
Never Chuma, the Dinde Residents Association deputy chairperson, said the Chinese arrived unannounced in the area in December last year and started exploring for coal.
“We just saw them moving up and down between people’s homesteads,” Chuma said.
“When we enquired from village heads about the presence of the Chinese in area, they were equally shocked by their presence.
“We requested a meeting with them and that’s when they told us that they had been given a grant to explore minerals with special interest in coal.”
Dinde villagers have been trying to get answers from the local authority since then without any joy.
“We have been raising our concerns with the Chinese that we cannot have a coal mine in the middle of our village where there are dip tanks, schools, churches and roads but they said they will attend to our issues after the exploration work,” Chuma said.
He said after failing to find common ground with the Chinese, villagers engaged their chief and Hwange Rural District Council as well Agritex officials, but the consultations have not yielded anything tangible.
“We decided to engage Chief Nekatambe, who then came with council officials, the Chinese and other villagers for a meeting,” he added.
“We then asked them to produce their papers, but they could not do so.I78
“They only showed us a map, which covered 4070 hectares and this means hundreds of homesteads will be affected if they are allowed to set up the mine.”
At a follow-up meeting, Chief Nekatambe told his subjects that the government had given the Chinese permission to explore for coal and no one was supposed to stand in their way.
The Chinese were allegedly accompanied by armed police officers and a soldier.
“People felt intimidated and this saw some village heads succumbing to pressure to allow them to go ahead with the drilling of holes for sampling purposes,” Chuma added.
“Our people are now helpless and our future is uncertain.”
In desperation, villagers suggested that the Chinese should be given an alternative site to set up their coal mine, but they were rebuffed.
“They told us that they want to be in an area that had electricity and roads,” Chuma claimed.
He said on November 26 officials from the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) ordered villagers to allow the Chinese to go ahead with the project.
Beifa is expected to start the exploration work in January.
The company will drill 13 linear holes in an area stretching 1.9 kilometres, villagers were told.
Moffat Sikapila, the Katambe village head, said Beifa’s presence in the area was disrupting his people’s lives.
The 93-year-old village head said what worried them the most was that the Chinese have not shown them any proof that they indeed hold a special grant allowing them to set up a coal mine.
Sikapila said traditional leaders were never consulted about the mine, raising suspicion that it was not above board.
“Their surveys are being conducted inside people’s homesteads, fields and grazing areas,” he said.
“When we met them we told them that we were against them setting up a mine, but they told us the government had given them permission to explore for coal.
“Their mining operations are interfering with our way of life and we are shocked that they keep coming back despite the fact that we made it clear that we don’t want them here.”
Sikapila said some of his subjects have been arm twisted to accept the Chinese project, but warned that allowing the project to proceed will turn villagers lives upside down.
He said even the Hwange local authority claims it does not have anything to do with the Chinese.
Sikapila and his subjects are also worried about lack of clarity on compensation if they are relocated.
“I was born in Chinamatila village where we were forced out to make way for the Hwange National Park,” he said.
“For me, it won’t make sense to relocate again given my advanced age.
“This is one of the reasons why we are resisting the setting up of the coal mine.”
One of the activists resisting the Chinese mine, Barnabas Dube, believes close to 600 homesteads would be affected by the controversial project.
“The sampling area has our dip tanks and villagers’ homesteads,” Dube said.
“This is why we have been resisting the mine, but EMA is insisting that the grant cannot be revoked.”
Dube said their chief has not been forthcoming with answers to their many questions about the Chinese project.
Chief Nekatambe, however, dismissed the protests by his subjects, saying the Chinese had a special coal mining grant that was signed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“These people have a concession that was signed by the president,” the chief said.
“The president says we are open for business, so if they have been granted that right, we cannot challenge it.
“After all, this is not the first Chinese project (in Zimbabwe).
“These are massive investors, so the issue of relocation will be discussed later.”
The traditional leader was amused by accusations from his subjects that he could have been paid by the Chinese to back the project.
Chief Nekatambe charged: “How can it benefit me as an individual?
“I have my own wealth, what will these Chinese give me?
“I have a lot of companies that are already within my area of jurisdiction, so what am l going to benefit from them?
“These people came under the president’s instructions and l cannot stand in their way.
“If I wanted to exercise my powers like what other chiefs are doing, I would have given them the go-ahead to mine without consulting the villagers.
“So if they think l have a hidden agenda, then tough luck to them.”
Chipo Zuze, EMA’s manager for Matabeleland North, said the agency’s role will only be to ensure that the proposed mine does pose any threats to the environment.
“We cannot stop them from taking samples, but I think the main concern from these villagers is what would happen to them if this company finds coal during their exploration,” Zuze said.
“So, for now, this is what this company wants to do and we shall be putting our recommendations after.”
Efforts to track down Beifa officials for comment were fruitless.
Farai Maguwu, the executive director of Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG) condemned the project saying for it to begin, there should have local people involvement and environmental impact assessment which looks at the environment and social impact.
“We have become very fertile grounds for those investors who have no consideration for human rights,” Maguwu said.
“The people have got a right to object the proposed project according to the environmental management act, and it’s unfortunate that the government has gotten themselves power to bring in an investor without any consideration for those people.”
Maguwu said apart from displacement, their activities were going to lead to irreversible damage to the environment and serious pollution of major water sources.
“This means that we are also going to see the degradation of cultural heritage sites and water sources, and its quite a shame to see many Zimbabwean being evicted in their own land,” he noted.
“We have witnessed the biggest evictions of people in Marange gold area, and now we have Chivi and Mt Darwin where Lafarge company wants to displace thousands of villagers from their homeland so this is a very disturbing trend given our disrespect for human rights.”
Mnangagwa has been pushing for massive development of the country’s coal sector as part of his government’s vision to establish a US$12 billion mining industry by 2023.
In the past three years, Hwange has seen the emergence of a number of coal mining projects, but environmentalists say the development has come at a great cost for communities surrounding the Hwange National Park – the home of the Big Five – as wild animals are being pushed out of the reserves by the coal miners, fuelling a deadly human-wildlife conflict.
Squeezed out of the park, wild animals are now straying into Hwange town and surrounding villages, leading to an unprecedented number of people being killed or crops being destroyed.
At least 50 people were killed this year due to human and wildlife conflict in the Hwange area, a big jump from the 42, who died the whole of last year and almost double the 26 that died in 2016.
The rush for Zimbabwean coal by Chinese firms, particularly around the country’s largest game reserve, has also alarmed conservationists who say the mines would worsen pollution in Hwange and contribute to global warming.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development Onesimo Moyo said he was on leave and could not be drawn to comment.