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Environmental laws only good on paper

If Zimbabwe was as well-run as the country’s different laid down pieces of legislation suggest, then it would without doubt be among the best governed countries not only in Africa, but in the world. Sadly, evidence points to the fact that what’s on paper is far from what is prevailing on the ground.

Chipo Masara

Long Cheng Plaza was built on a wetland
Long Cheng Plaza was built on a wetland

Zimbabwe is one of the few African countries with comprehensive environmental legislation. The Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27) is proof of the country’s profound understanding of environmental issues. It covers all the important problem areas that include water, land and air pollution, unsustainable wetland utilisation, illegal mineral extraction and processing, implementation of projects without carrying out environmental impact assessments (EIAs), unsustainable clay and sand abstraction, veld fires and deforestation, among others. The environmental protection rights have even been enshrined as part of the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, while a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on environment to oversee and bring to book serial offenders through parliamentary intervention has been set up. These legislative measures would have been enough to ensure that Zimbabwe’s environment is very well-guarded, if theory was related to practice.

The Environmental Management Act is clear on what constitutes environmental crimes and the course of action that should be taken to bring to book any offenders. The discharging of raw industrial effluent into water sources, for instance, should carry a fine of $5 000 or imprisonment for up to a year, or both fine and imprisonment. The same offender is additionally supposed to pay the cost of cleaning up or restoring the affected area to its former state.

In reality, however, the country has seen wanton pollution and in some cases complete destruction of water sources mostly through industrial, mining and individual activities, with impunity. In Penhalonga for example, discussions have centred on the alluvial mining method by Russian miner DTZ-OZGEO. While the Environmental Management Act states that no one is allowed to mine within 30m of a water course, DTZ-OZGEO are being allowed to extract gold not only from the river bed but also from an extensive area away from the river bed, destroying the whole river valley in the process. Through the Russian company’s mining methods, considerable distances along Mutare River have reportedly been replaced by “deep excavations and large water impoundments where water is pumped into”. Small-scale alluvial gold panners in the area have questioned whether the pieces of legislation that apply to them are not also applicable to large-scale miners such as DTZ-OZGEO.

In the diamond-rich Marange area, also in Manicaland, the five diamond companies — Marange Resources, Anjin Investments, Jinan Mining, Mbada Diamonds and Diamond Mining Corporation — were finally kicked out, but not before they had reportedly extensively polluted Save River, leaving what had been a major source of water for surrounding communities a shadow of its former self, and filled with numerous harmful chemicals that today renders it unsafe for human and livestock consumption.

In spite of cases of polluted water sources being too numerous and well-documented, there has not been a case of any major offender being fined or imprisoned. There is strong belief that some companies are treated by the law enforcers as “sacred cows”. Chinese businesspeople — that make up the bulk of Zimbabwe’s foreign investors — for instance, are well-known for preferring to pollute as much as their environmentally-unfriendly extensive operations require them to, and then pay the fines later, if necessary. But even as the Chinese continue to pollute, they have remained untouched by the law. It would seem some of the laws do not apply to the country’s “mega deal” investors.

Add to that, the Environmental Management Act clearly states that the unsustainable utilisation of wetlands and the implementation of any project without carrying out an EIA is a serious offence. However, if in reality this piece of legislation carried any weight, the now famous hang-out spot — the Chinese-built Long Cheng Plaza — would not today be standing on what used to be a major wetland. Ironically, some members of the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), whose duty it was to stop the developments on the wetland before they even began, can often be spotted enjoying their nights out at the controversially-built plaza.

In regards to the projects that have been undertaken at the detriment of the environment, many have often questioned how such projects would have been awarded the EMA-issued EIAs in the first place and afterwards, why the site visits by EMA to verify suitability of the proposed sites would not have helped stop the destructive projects before they even began. This brings to the spotlight how EMA operates as many wonder whose interests they are serving.

Like many other pieces of legislation in the country, the environmental laws have proved to be good only on paper.

l Feedback: Email cmasara@standard.co.zw

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