Zambian mine threatens world heritage site

The high court in Zambia is hearing an application from civil society organisations that are trying to stop the granting of a licence for a copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park.

Australian-owned mine Zambezi Resources Limited was given a 25-year permit in 2011 to prospect and mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park. The Kangaluwi Copper Project will see an opencast mine being built in the park, which is a formally protected area and part of the Zambezi River’s catchment zone.

It is also across the river from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, a world heritage site.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Lower Zambezi National Park as a category two protected area. This means it must be maintained for “ecosystem protection” and recreation. In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation encouraged the Zambian government to apply to make the park a world heritage site – this would then create a trans-boundary park with Mana Pools.

Compromising ecological value
The park stretches along 120km of the Zambezi River, and the government’s tourism agency says it is the fourth most visited park in the country. In 2012 the Zambian Environmental Management Authority rejected the mine’s environmental impact assessment.

“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,” it said.

But in February the mine was given permission to go ahead by Zambia’s minister for Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. But this was temporarily halted, thanks to a court challenge from the Zambia Community Natural Resources Management Forum.

The mine has said it will make a mine that does not damage the ecosystem in the park. Earlier this year it released a statement saying, “Zambezi Resources promises to build the world’s greenest copper mine.”

Negative consequences
Groups opposing the mining say it is within the middle Zambezi elephant corridor. This was created to allow the herbivores to move freely along their traditional migratory routes. It is also home to several endangered species, such as the African wild dog.

One of the principal opposition groups, the Zambian Community Based Natural Resources Forum – a grouping of non-governmental and community organisations – said the mine would “generate negative impacts” beyond Zambia’s borders. It would lead to “significant alteration of the area’s hydrological system”.

This would threaten Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, and was therefore threatening to create conflict between the states, it said in a statement last week. It would also be in contravention of regional water sharing agreements, it said. “The mining operation is likely to increase surface and ground water contamination in the Zambezi River and other local streams.”

It said that while the mine would create 250 jobs, more than 800 people were employed in local tourism. The mine would “lead to significant loss in tourism operations”.

Given the mine’s sensitive location and potential adverse impact on tourism, the group said it should not go ahead. “There is no feasible scenario under which the proposed project would proceed without causing severe and far-reaching environmental and geopolitical impacts.”

‘Stop the mine’
A discussion document paper on best practice for mining in the whole Southern African Development Community region, drafted by mining consulting firm Estelle Levin and released two months ago, found that Zambia’s “strong legal framework” was not being implemented. 

It used the Kangaluwi Copper Project as a case study. “Flaws have resulted in expert advice being disregarded and mining developments permitted in protected areas of high biodiversity call,” it said.

A comprehensive report by independent reviewer Dr Kellie Leigh, done for opposition groups, and released last week, proposed that the mining be scrapped. “There is considerable risk of long-term damage beyond the life of the project, to the health and well being of communities, wildlife and the environment.”

It also said that if the mine went ahead, it would set a dangerous precedent for other mining in national parks.

Last week a coalition of Zimbabwean civil society groups called on their environment minister to put pressure on his Zambian counterpart to stop the mine.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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