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MINING IN LOWER ZAMBEZI – Power of cartels, lies & money

By Chimwemwe Mwanza

As an idiom, scratching where it doesn’t itch refers to the act of aggravating an itch that doesn’t exist or worrying about a sore that isn’t just there (ukufwena apashili ichilonda). In this context, it’s akin to repeating a lie hoping it will turn into truth.

There are parallels to draw from this idiom and the raging battle for the soul of the Lower Zambezi National Park which has captivated Zambian courts over the years. And, mining the truth from the rubble of disinformation and court documents filed by protagonists, Mwembeshi Resources and a coalition of business formations (lodge and campsite owners) opposed to construction of a mining plant in the park, has been a pain. The irony of it all is that while Mwembeshi’s application to set up this mine has prevailed in Zambian courts, it’s losing this fight – at least in the court of public opinion.

Thanks in part to questionable research and an uncritical backing from a biased media both local and foreign, the campaign to reinforce a deeply held antipathy towards Mwembeshi has taken effect. And the narrative advanced by business – backed by cash flush Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) has skewed the truth.

At best, this status quo illustrates the impact of big money in Zambia’s tourism and wildlife industry. It’s run by a sophisticated but influential cartel that for long has been pillaging wildlife either for auction to game breeders based in neighbouring countries or for sale to high-net-worth trophy hunters.

This easily explains why the anti-mining establishment is succeeding in cementing the impression that a reckless mining firm is at the gates of a renowned Zambian national park, ready to walk in and desecrate a tourism heritage site. But is this true? The answer lurks somewhere in this rubble of information. For the record, this battle has raged from the lower courts all the way to Zambia’s highest court of appeal – with all rulings favouring the mining company. That the proposed mining site is 42km away from the Zambezi River is cold comfort for business owners.

We can argue all we like and write voluminous research papers on this matter but facts are what both the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) and the courts have relied upon for their determination. Curiously, some objections raised by those opposed to mining border on absurdity including a claim that human encroachment would pose a big threat to wildlife – yet they themselves have encroached the very land they claim to be protecting. Another oddity is that most lodges in the park are built on lands that business annexed from locals – whom they banished to the periphery of the valley.

Even their argument that they are the biggest employer of the more than 160,000 inhabitants of the valley is laughable. Majority of people in this area have taken to fishing for a livelihood.

A cursory research shows that lodge and campsite owners employed no more than 1,220 people across the valley with menial jobs such as cleaning and waitering topping the list as the highest paying at K700/month (US$38) in some cases. Yet, businesses charge as much as K63,750/night (US$3,541) with the cheapest rates pegged at K2,150/night (US$119) for lodging.

What is day light robbery if this doesn’t qualify for a definition? Hence the perception created by business that they are the true defenders of the sanctity of the park and not the Chikunda, Soli, Tonga, Goba or Swaka speaking tribes who are the ancestral owner of the land is disingenuous. Fact is, the 4092 sq kilometers long, Lower Zambezi Park is a natural habitat for some of Africa’s rarest game making it an easy cash cow for sophisticated wildlife traders. This is largely the motivation for opposing any competing economic interests in the park.

Unmasking an old boys club

To be candid, in no way is this argument meant to support Mwembeshi’s mining project. No matter its mitigating interventions, mining will somewhat impact the ecology of the park. Yet there is nothing more detrimental to any economy than protecting dubious investors that choose to flout simple rules. About 96% of tourism related investors operating in Lower Zambezi have domiciled their businesses abroad. It makes you wonder; do they even pay their taxes? ZRA, go figure.

For tax avoidance, their clients pay accommodation and trophy hunting fees into foreign accounts with little finding its way into the Zambian fiscus. If in denial, the dismal performance of the local tourism industry shines excruciating light on how these so-called investors are robbing the treasury through use of convoluted schemes and other tax loopholes. On last figures obtained from the International Growth Centre (IGC) – which is a policy research center at the London School of Economics (LSE), tourism accounted for a paltry 7% of Zambia’s GDP in 2019.

The industry injected a mere US$1,7m (K30 million) into the economy creating about 469 000 jobs. Does this make sence? Disappointing as these figures are, they however raise a critical question. How is it possible that an industry that is so rich in resources is failing to contribute meaningfully to the national treasury? For answers, look no further than the antics playing out in Lower Zambezi. There might well be several dubious foreign businesses in tourism that have adopted similar tax avoidance practices.

If you care to know, fact is the battle for the soul of the Lower Zambezi National Park has nothing to do with preserving the park’s heritage or ecology but competing economic interests between a very powerful ‘old boys club’ looking to preserve the status quo and a small mining house that simply wants in on spoils of the park.

That said, mining a national park is a very bad idea.

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