Maverick Citizen: Zambia

Lower Zambezi mine issue is not over yet

By Sharon Gilbert-Rivett 7 November 2019
Caption
An aerial view of an Equinox copper mine in Lumwana, Zambia.

Various reports that the Zambian Government has put a halt on plans for an open cast copper mine in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park have been greeted with caution by tourism stakeholders and campaigners against the mine.

On 6 November a story surfaced from Smart Eagles, a Facebook-based media group, stating that during a joint press conference hosted by Zambia’s chief government spokesperson Dora Siliya, mines minister Richard Musukwa and tourism minister Ronald Chitotela noted that there would be no mining in the Lower Zambezi.

This story was quickly followed by further low-key online reports paraphrasing it, stating variously that the government had revoked the mining licence for the Kangaluwi Copper Project currently held by Mwembeshi Resources Ltd; that mining would not go ahead as planned and that the national park would “remain closed to mining until the country’s environmental regulator completes a fresh report on the potential impacts of extractive activities in the area”.

However, there is nothing concrete to say that the mine will not go ahead. The government has not issued any form of official statement on the current status of the Kangaluwi Copper Project or its intention to revoke the licence for the mine. Suspicions are that President Edgar Lungu will make a statement of some kind on the mine at a media briefing later today. However, in the absence of clear undertaking in writing by the appropriate government agency that the mining licence will be revoked and that any further applications for mining licences inside the national park will not be considered, there is little to celebrate just yet.

Lungu and his ministers were put under pressure from both the Zambian populace and opposition parties following a ruling in the High Court in Lusaka on 23 October that overturned a stay of execution on the mine and brought a long and bitter legal case against it to a close, pending an appeal. The pressure reached its peak at the end of October when Zambia’s founding father, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, issued a rare public statement against the mine, saying: “The proposed mining operation in the middle of the National park poses the biggest threat in history to the wildlife and pristine wilderness that has survived so many centuries of challenges and supported generations of Zambians.”

Kaunda’s statement ignited media interest in the issue from all over the world, with reports running in the Washington Post, New York Times and London Times among others. Together with the groundswell of opposition from ordinary Zambians, the global citizenry, conservation and environmental NGOs and politicians alike, this has most likely backed the government into a rather public corner, triggering the need for the press conference.

People in the Lower Zambezi valley, together with tourism and conservation stakeholders there, are reticent about celebrating in the absence of formal clarity on the government’s position and all are sceptical that this issue is, in fact, over.

“As far as we are aware, the minister of mines can revoke the licence but he has not done so, yet,” says David Ngwenyama, one of the appellants in the legal case against the mine.

“It could also prove misleading to focus on the licence since this has been consistently pointed out as having been illegally issued,” says Ngwenyama. “The original issue was with the environmental impact survey (EIS) approval, which has still not been addressed. The EIS was found to be fatally flawed and was rejected by the Zambian Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA).”

Ngwenyama points out that while the recent press conference included the ministers of mining and tourism, nothing thus far has been heard from the minister responsible for environmental protection, who is ultimately responsible for determining the validity of the EIS. This would be Dennis Wanchinga, the incumbent Minister of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection.

“It also has to be remembered that making a statement in a press conference or even in parliament does not mean anything tangible. We need hard evidence that the government is acting on this issue and how it intends resolving it,” says Ngwenyama. MC

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