Zambia approves a controversial mine despite huge opposition

A huge open-cast copper mine in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park threatens to obliterate the ecosystem and millions of livelihoods.

After prospecting minerals for two decades in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park (LZNP), the Zambian government has approved a controversial proposal to open the Kangaluwi open-pit copper mine. The proposed mine is located in a protected area, 174 kilometres southeast of the capital Lusaka, which is currently a haven for endangered wildlife and other natural resources. For years, environmental groups have been battling against the proposed mine. Sadly, the final appeal to the Court of Appeal of Zambia was dismissed in a judgement delivered by Justice Ngulube in February 2021, possibly marking the end of any legal challenges open to those looking to stop the mining operations. Critics say that the judge dismissed the case based on legal technicalities and ignored public interest.

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The Lower Zambezi National Park is one of four national parks that generate up to 96% of Zambia’s non-consumptive wildlife tourism revenues © Edward Selfe

Disaster looms

On the other hand, a consortium of Conservationists has strongly opposed the opening of a mine in the National Park. They assert that an internationally important protected area, designed to preserve critical ecological processes, will be irreversibly damaged in return for a 15-year short-term economic gain, coupled with eroding the park’s tourism industry and conservation reputation. The activists have urged the newly elected Zambian President, Hakainde Hichilema, to urgently intervene and halt the proposed mine.

“We are appealing to His Excellency the President as we know he fully understands that the large environmental, social and financial costs our country will incur if this mine is allowed to go ahead will be catastrophic. We believe mining activities should be restricted to happen in mining areas of the country and should not be allowed in tourism and wildlife conservation areas that have their own ecological and economic value”.

Biodiversity conservation at stake

In Zambia, mineral exploration shows no signs of slowing down. The latest example, from the Lower Zambezi National Park (LZNP), is being carried out by Mwembeshi Resources Limited. This subsidiary of Zambezi Resources Ltd, an Australian Stock Exchange Listed Company, was granted an exploration licence covering a 240sqkm area in the Lower Zambezi National Park, a haven for 124 animal species, 403 bird species, and 54 aquatic species that attract tourists from all over the world. Two major rivers, the Chakwenga and Mushika, as well as several streams, flow through the proposed mining area into the Zambezi River.

The proposed mine is the first in Zambia which involves a foreign-owned company with a poor mining track record being permitted to develop a giant mine inside a national park. In March 2012, Mwembeshi Resources Limited submitted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which was strongly rejected by the Zambian Wildlife Agency (ZWA). In rejecting the EIS, ZWA said, “the proposed mining 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”.

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The Lower Zambezi Mine poses a threat to the wildlife communities. Timeline of the proposed mining site in Zambia © Zambezi Resources Limited

Later that year, Mwembeshi Resources quickly submitted the rejected EIS to the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA), which subjected the EIS to a series of public hearings and consultations. After a huge uproar, coupled with petitions by various stakeholders, the agency rejected the  EIS.

Community concerns remain undressed

Environmental activists have rubbished the data which was presented in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the subsequent documentation, saying it is insufficient to meet EIS requirements and objectives, adding that the company failed to detail the scope of the mine, the life of the mine, or its potential social, economic and environmental impacts. These findings strongly reinforce the decision of the Zambian Environmental Management Agency to reject the mine proposal. Critically, all community and stakeholder concerns remain unaddressed.

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The Lower Zambezi National Park provides refuge to globally threatened wildlife species © Edward Selfe

“One particular concern is that since the EIS submission in 2012, the nature of the underlying copper resource has been changed by Mwembeshi Resource Limited from copper sulphide to copper oxide, yet no new EIS documents have been supplied nor any announcements made to Zambian authorities or stakeholders,” asserted environmentalist Dr Kellie Leigh. “The economic value of the project, its full scope, and its potential impacts remain unclear due to the extremely poor quality and inconsistency of the information provided by the Company to date. There is no convincing nor even coherent economic argument for allowing this mine to proceed.”

Flawed underlying economics

An independent expert review of the EIS revealed a high likelihood of contamination events that were dubiously or deliberately omitted by the Company and sadly, to date have not been addressed. This puts Zambia’s natural resources, ecosystem services, and biodiversity at significant risk by the recently approved mine. In addition, modelling figures suggest that the project is not only economically unviable, but it will result in a net loss of jobs for local communities and will generate a financial loss over the first seven years of operation of a minimum of US$13 million, coupled with severe water pollution. The proposed site for the mine lies within the boundaries of the national park, an International Conservation Union (IUCN) category II protected area in South-Eastern Zambia, on the Zambezi River, in close proximity to the Kafue and Luangwa Rivers.

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The looming open-pit mine will severely damage the ecosystem of the Lower Zambezi National Park © Edward Selfe

The strong arm of greed and kick-backs

The main political argument advanced by Zambezi Resource Limited about the Kanguluwi Mine is that the mine will create jobs for local community members, particularly those living in the Luangwa town region. Shockingly, the highest estimates of the number of jobs promised by the Company are for just 300 employees, as stated in its Project EIS.  However, while the company outlines that local Zambians will be employed, the company also clarifies that: “Whilst the philosophy commences with engaging personnel from the local and regional communities, it is acknowledged that this will not be possible or feasible in all cases”. This leaves options open for the Company to employ skilled workers from other areas, since a philosophy is not a clear commitment.

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A map of the proposed mining site.

Legal loopholes

While both the Mines and Minerals Development Act (2008) and the Zambia Wildlife Act (1998) allow for mining inside national parks, unfortunately, there is no policy or legislative framework to guide implementation, monitoring, and mitigation of impacts, nor to ensure full site rehabilitation as outlined by the Mineral Resources Development Policy (2013) and the Mines and Minerals Development Act. Sadly, the documents have no criteria set by which to evaluate whether each mine proposed within a protected area should be permitted.

Meanwhile, a petition against the mine has already reached over 36,044 signatures. The petition organisers hope to receive as many signatures as possible to put pressure on the Zambian government to reconsider and revoke the permission to mine the Lower Zambezi. The petitioners have strongly declared that they will not be silent until the strong arm of greed and kick-backs has been completely vanquished and the proposal of mining for copper in the precious Lower Zambezi is stopped.

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