When mining undermines life and development


Minister of Mines Walter Chidhakwa

A FORTNIGHT ago, the country’s environmental watchdog, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), dragged Diamond Mining Company (DMC) — one of the companies that until recently were operating in the Chiadzwa diamond fields of Marange — to court for polluting Save and Singwizi rivers by discharging hazardous chemicals .
This was after samples collected at the company’s slime discharge points and from the two rivers had tested positive for hazardous chemicals.
The company’s deputy managing director, Paul Kutsira, did not waste the court’s time, readily pleading guilty on behalf of DMC.
EMA wanted the court to impose a fine of US$5 000 on the offender, but the magistrate decided that a US$1 000 fine was fair. The highest possible penalty — level 14 fine — against corporate environmental offenders is only US$5 000, according to EMA’s fines schedule. The lowest fine is US$5.
The company is one of several that have been forcibly merged by government into the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company.
Even though the defendant readily admitted to polluting the two rivers, which are a source of life for thousands of families living along the rivers, including their livestock and various types of wildlife, at no point did EMA demand that DMC take measures to cleanse the fouled water bodies.
With DMC easily agreeing to pay the peppercorn fine, the otherwise grave matter was settled once and for all.
Such is the sad situation in Zimbabwe when it comes to mining and other business operations that wantonly pollute water bodies, the air and the environment in general. To them, it makes economic sense to pollute the environment and — in the rare cases where they are brought to book — just pay the fine and go back to pollute more, than to sink jaw-dropping amounts of money investing in environmentally-friendly processes.
While mining companies in many parts of the world have transformed the lives of people living in the areas around their operations, in the case of Zimbabwe, it is one story of increased misery after another.
In the case of Marange villagers, more than a decade after diamonds where discovered in the area, their lives are worse off, despite official confirmation that the Chiadzwa diamond fields yielded a lot of gemstones worth more than US$15 billion which were looted.
As the satisfied miners leave the area, which is now a wasteland, it is time for the hapless villagers in the areas affected by the mining operations to count their losses.
The same situation has been repeated in many parts of the country where mining operations have taken place.
Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral resources, which have for centuries attracted treasure hunters of all shades, shapes and sizes, but there is hardly anything the communities in these areas have to show for this vast mineral wealth.
What the villagers are certainly assured of are forced evacuations, with the resultant loss of their homes and farming land as well as increasing cases of poor health and loss of livestock resulting from drinking from poisoned water bodies. The villagers also lose livestock that often fall into the pits the miners leave, while cases birth defects are being traced to some of the chemicals that have found their way into both the surface and underground water sources.
This is the price that they have to pay for being indigenes of areas with minerals in the ground waiting to be a blessing to the lucky, the brave and the cruel.
Zimbabwe has environmental laws that are so weak as to be ridiculous.
In the case of DMC highlighted earlier, it could have cost EMA more than the US$5 000 fine it was demanding in investigating this case and bringing the culprit to book, yet at the end of it all, the offender happily got away with a mere US$1 000 fine.
Farai Maguwu, the director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance told the Financial Gazette in an interview that for as long as the country’s environmental laws remain weak and the “polluter pays” principle does not apply for offenders in Zimbabwe, these cases would continue unabated.
“Now, this company polluted two major rivers with severe consequences to flora and fauna downstream. The impact will be felt for many years to come; some lives have been or shall be lost sooner or later and it’s fined US$1 000. This is why New Reclamation Group, the parent company of the Mauritius registered Grandwell Holdings which partnered ZMDC to form Mbada Diamonds in 2009 recently posted on its annual report that in Zimbabwe they found it much cheaper to pollute and pay the fines than use environmentally friendly methods. This is what happens when a government values the crumbs that fall from mining corporates’ tables more than the lives of the people they swear an oath to serve. What is US$1 000 to a diamond mining company that took part in the looting of US$15 billion?” Maguwu asked.
He said while he might appear to be radical, he believes that there is no purpose for any mining to take place in Zimbabwe until its activities start benefiting local communities.
“It’s pure logic. If we were robbed of US$15 billion in Marange, if the community is not benefiting anything in Mutoko and Hwange is not even able to pay workers their salaries for two years, Bikita Minerals remains as secretive as ever, DTZ OZGEO destroyed Penhalonga and failed to construct even a single staff housing unit despite harvesting tonnes of gold since 2004 – then we better leave our minerals in the ground and focus on investments that improve the welfare of the Zimbabwean people. We must think of real alternatives to mining. Maybe future generations will have a better plan of how to turn these minerals into wealth. As for the current crop of leaders, I throw my hands up in the air — I surrender!” Maguwu said.
However, the situation is different in other countries. In neighbouring Zambia, a seminal environmental pollution case has been raging for years after, in 2007, more than 2000 residents of Chingola town in the Copperbelt province dragged mining giant, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) — which is owned by Vedanta Resources — to court for discharging sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into their source of water resulting in a 2011 judgment in which the company was ordered to pay US$2 million compensation to 2000 aggrieved residents.
In his ruling, High Court of Zambia judge, Justice Phillip Musonda, had no kind words for the mining firm.
“The courts have a duty to protect poor communities from the powerful and politically connected. I agree with the plaintiff’s pleadings that KCM was shielded from criminal prosecution by political connections and financial influence, which put them beyond criminal justice,” Justice Musonda said in a ruling that reverberated the world over.
“I order KCM to pay four million kwacha to each plaintiff (2000 plaintiffs) as general damages, one million kwacha as punitive damages, total 10 billion kwacha. This is to deter others who may discharge poisonous substances without diminishing their potency not to cause harm to the environment, human beings, animals, etc. I reiterate that this was lack of corporate responsibility and criminal and a tipping point for corporate recklessness. Costs will follow the event. This judgment may appear to be investor unfriendly, but that is having a dim view to KCM’s ‘don’t-care’ attitude whether human life, which is sacrosanct in our Constitution, was lost or not. International investors should observe high environmental standards, that is a global approach. Some nations like China even criminalise the bringing into their countries of obsolete technology,” Justice Musonda said in the no-nonsense ruling.
“The fact that the host country (Zambia) is in dire need of foreign investment to improve the well-being of its people, does not mean its people should be dehumanised by ‘Greed and Crude Capitalism’, which puts profit above human life.”
The mining firm went on to feed an army of lawyers appealing against the ruling, but in April 2015, the Supreme Court of Zambia upheld Justice Musonda’s 2011 landmark ruling.
Global petroleum firm, BP Shell is currently sweating over a US$17 billion fine imposed on it by the American government over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a disaster that resulted in its Deepwater Horizon rig spewing 4,2 million barrels of oil into the sea over 87 days.
This record fine is on top of over US$26 billion (or £18 billion) the firm had already spent (based on the polluter pays principle) on response, clean up and compensation to businesses and individuals affected by this environmental disaster.
The highest penalty EMA has even ever collected from one environmental offender is the compounded US$15 000 fine it imposed on the Harare City Council in 2012 for a triple crime of depositing raw sewage into water sources, dishing out stands on wetlands and failure to clean up the environment.
The penalty is a paltry figure to what the City of Harare saves when it avoids buying expensive sewage treatment chemicals and instead discharges raw sewer into rivers feeding into Lake Manyame, which is also the capital city’s primary water source. Sometimes the city also splashes the raw sewerage on some of its cattle farms under the caveat of irrigating the grasslands.
The same figure becomes even more ridiculous when it comes to the City of Bulawayo, which sometimes discharges sewer into Mazai and Pekiwe rivers, whose clean-up — together with several of the city’s water sources — it is estimated would cost up to US$15 million.
(For full article visit www.fingaz.co.zw)
Ironically, while powerful conglomerates that wantonly destroy the environment get away with laughable fines, as they are able to lobby people in positions of influence to ignore calls for stiffer and deterrent penalties, it is not the same case with the poor and powerless.
While it appears like EMA remains a toothless bulldog in the face of crimes of environmental nature, its sister organisation the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, which falls under the same Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate has — with the help of Western donors — successfully lobbied for legislation that allows the courts to jail people found guilty of possession of endangered animals or their products for a mandatory minimum sentence of nine years.
Ironically, while EMA is literally letting mining and other companies as well as local authorities go scot-free, it does not do the same with individual citizens. The same EMA is trying to push for legislation that would allow it to fine ordinary citizens US$100 for spiting in the open and up to US$5 000 for making noise. It could be a typical Orwellian case of some animals being more equal than others.

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