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China’s environmental footprint in Zimbabwe

Having managed to effectively soil relations with the Western world, the Zimbabwe government’s hopes for economic revival were all placed in the Look East policy — which saw the country intensifying business linkages with Asian businesspeople, especially the Chinese. As implementation of the policy gathered momentum, in no time the country was a favourite destination for Chinese nationals.

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Today, Chinese businesspeople have claimed their place in the mining, forestry, agricultural and manufacturing sectors, among others, with the ruling Zanu PF claiming more “mega deals” with other Chinese investors are in the process of coming to fruition.

For their part, the Chinese businesspeople operating in the country have settled in comfortably and are busy at work mining the country’s minerals, farming the land, exporting timber, buying baby elephants and retailing China-made goods.

As the years go by, it is easy to tell that the Chinese have their peculiar way of doing business that may not be in the best interest of the country. Besides their reported harsh treatment of local workers and unwillingness to invest in the country’s infrastructure, Chinese businesspeople have little, if any, respect for environmental protection.

Considering that China is currently under fire for being the major driver of global carbon emissions — with its emissions said to equal those of the United States and European Union combined — one is tempted to conclude that China is on an agenda to address its domestic pollution problem by relocating some of its highest polluting industries to places such as Zimbabwe.

While the presence of Chinese businesspeople may to some extent be good for Zimbabwe’s economy as it helps create the much-needed jobs, it has not at all been good for the environment or local people’s health.

It is said that Chinese businesspeople enjoy operating in developing countries that pay little attention to the enforcement of environmental laws, or any law — which might explain why they continue to flood Zimbabwe. Because the country’s leaders are desperate to keep the Asian “friends” happy so they may remain operating in the country, some laws do not seem to apply to Chinese businesspeople. They, therefore, continue to get away with wanton destruction of the environs in which they operate.

In fact, so happy are Chinese companies operating in Zimbabwe that one is said to have written on its website that the environmental laws in Zimbabwe are lax and that “it is cheaper to pollute and pay fines than to prevent pollution”. And polluting they most certainly are!

Just last week, for instance, a street in Graniteside was engulfed in smoke from open burning of plastic waste from a Chinese-owned plastic manufacturing company. The acrid smell that emanated from the black smoke was enough to make one throw up — although that may turn out to be the least of one’s worries when respiratory illnesses from breathing fog-filled air are put into consideration. The fact that they could even do it during daytime says a lot.

But nothing beats the amount of destruction that has come from Chinese operations in the mining sector. Besides destroying what would have been beautiful landscapes through their open cast mining methods, leaving pits and heaps of rubble as they extract the country’s precious minerals — proceeds of which the ordinary Zimbabwean has no share of — their mining operations are endangering the country’s water resources.

As a result of diamond mining in Marange, a study revealed “siltation and bacterial, chemical, and heavy-metal pollution, including the presence of potentially cancer-causing agents that are constituents of a chemical used to extract diamonds” in the area’s main water source — leaving poor villagers that depended on the water in a quandary. The fact that the country is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts ever witnessed, only makes the situation that much dire.

It is not possible to conclude without mentioning the Chinese people’s suspected heavy involvement in the country’s wildlife depletion by having a hand in poaching.

While poaching has always been a challenge in the country, the influx of Chinese nationals coincided with the escalation of the problem to unprecedented levels.

Poaching has lately become a much more organised crime in the country, apparently backed by big syndicates. It is becoming increasingly difficult for national park rangers to detect poaching activities on the wildlife reserves until it is too late.

There are also growing cases of the underpaid rangers themselves being bribed into becoming accomplices in the crimes against the country’s wildlife. Although there’s been a few occasions when Chinese nationals have been arrested after being found in possession of mostly elephant tusks, it is suspected many more are getting away with it.

It is not a secret that Chinese people have a great penchant for elephant tusks, so much that they are willing to source them from wherever they can get them. Recently, two Chinese nationals were jailed for 30 years in Tanzania for killing 226 elephants and possessing 706 tusks.
In the meantime, Zimbabwe has over the last few years lost hundreds of elephants and other wildlife to poaching.

So while in all fairness, Zimbabwe’s business with Chinese businesspeople may have brought some element of financial relief to the country, what is even more apparent is the rapid loss of the country’s biodiversity through deforestation and loss of vegetation cover — which has exacerbated droughts and food insecurity — groundwater pollution/depletion and surface water pollution, loss of landscape resulting in aesthetic degradation, noise and air pollution, among other problems.
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