Zambia sacrifices National Park on the copper mining altar

By Richard Lee | January 28th, 2014

The Zambian government’s decision to overrule the serious objections of its own Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA) and approve the controversial Kangaluwi copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park highlights three sad realties – multinational mining companies continue to exercise vast power in Zambia despite their chequered history, coalitions of civil society and community groups can rant and rave but their rage doesn’t seem to matter, and the boundaries of protected areas are not even worth the maps they are drawn on.

And it’s particularly sad because the shocking decision by the Minister of Lands and Environmental Protection to permit the open-cast copper mine to go ahead comes after a concerted campaign to prevent the project and protect one of the country’s most fragile and precious environments – a campaign that many of those involved thought they were winning.

But there is clearly no way to beat the power and the promises – and the deep pockets – of the mining industry.

Even when the government’s own environmental agency has rejected a project because of grave concerns about its long-term impact. Even when local community groups have rejected it and urged the government to promote sustainable economic development through tourism instead. Even when civil society groups across the country have rejected it, pointing out that mining never produces the jobs it promises – while always damaging the environment despite its promises.

And even when the project entails digging a massive open-cast mine – and building all the roads and other infrastructure that comes with it – inside one of the country’s most important, biodiversity-rich, and highly protected areas.

There is no way that this project should have been given the green light. It will pave the way for the destruction of a large chunk of the Lower Zambezi National Park – sacrificing its sustainable wildlife wealth for a few years (decades maybe) of cash from copper.

And the Minister’s justifications are woefully thin.

"Firstly, the project should go ahead because it will eventually create employment for ordinary people in the area” – except mining is highly mechanised and skilled these days and few locals ever secure decent, full-time employment.

“Secondly, there are currently available cost effective technologies and methods to adequately address all the identified negative impacts that may arise from this project” – except that ZEMA’s objections have not been answered and mining companies’ pre-project promises to protect and preserve the environment have invariably been broken.

“And lastly, wildlife management in the area will be enhanced and conserved by the proposed managed scheme contained in [the mining company’s] submissions” – except that the park’s wildlife can never benefit from mining, from all the infrastructure and pollution that comes with it.

Once again, a government in southern Africa has ridden roughshod over the concerns of local communities and civil society organisations, even though Zambian laws, international best practice and the African Mining Vision call on them to take the voices of these groups into consideration.

The question now is – where next? The government has already granted gas concessions to large tracts of land, including North Luangwa National Park. Will it be the next priceless natural resource to be sacrificed on the mining altar?

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