When wildlife monitors came across a group of Chinese men drilling in Hwange National Park, they assumed they’d wandered into the park by accident.
Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the world’s most diverse game reserves, home to over 100 mammals and 400 species of birds.
Located in the northwest of the 5,600-square-mile park, the Sinamatella area is dominated by hills and rocky outcrops, and is one of only two forested areas in the park. It’s dotted with mineral springs and watering holes that attract a large proportion of the park’s huge herd of 40,000 elephants.
Among its most important residents are the last of the critically-endangered black rhino population, which have been decimated in recent years as a result of poaching and environmental impacts.
So it’s the last place you’d expect to find a group of Chinese men drilling core samples for coal.
The rhino monitoring team from Bhejane Trust who came across the men assumed they were lost and had wandered into the park by accident.
“You can’t have coal mines in the middle of a national park,” Trevor Lane from Bhejane Trust told VICE News. “It would destroy the integrity of the park and it would destroy the tourism industry.”
But it was no mistake. The men were able to produce permits that revealed that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa had granted coal mining rights to their company-Zhongxin Coal Mining Group-and another Chinese company-Afrochine Smelting-for large swaths of the country’s biggest national park.
Once the mining in Hwange National Park hit the international news Sept. 3 and caused a huge uproar, the government quickly backed down a few days later, announcing it would ban all mining activities in national parks in the country.
The world cheered the news, but VICE News has learned that the praise may have been premature.
On Tuesday, the High Court in Harare threw out a legal challenge brought against the two mining companies, meaning the mining rights remain in place and, despite the government’s declaration last week, no legal or legislative papers have been produced to put the ban into effect.
“The licenses are still valid, and we haven’t seen any legal evidence of cancellation except the statement issued by cabinet,” Shamiso Mtisi, the deputy director of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) who brought the legal case against the Chinese companies, told VICE News.
When the Bhejane Trust revealed the news earlier this month, it led to an angry backlash both locally and from the international environmental activist community who were shocked that the Zimbabwe government was willing to open one of their most pristine national parks to coal mining, a move that could drive endangered animals including the black rhino from the park and cause untold environmental damage.
But for those who track China’s symbiotic relationship with Zimbabwe, the decision would have come as much less of a surprise.
For decades, Beijing officials have cultivated close relationships with leaders in Harare, and among the most important aspects of that relationship is coal, one of Zimbabwe’s greatest natural resources. Now, as Zimbabwe continues to suffer from crippling energy shortages, and China is the only one offering the financing and expertise to build coal-fired power plants the country needs to meet its energy demands, the government is willing to do what it takes to keep its closely international ally on side.
“China uses its debt diplomacy to lethal effect against weak governments and to the detriment of the indigenous people, whose resources become an immediate curse,” Arnold Tsunga, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists, told VICE News. “The desire to keep the patronage system and the systemic corruption that has assumed a life of its own has created this filthy feeding enterprise that has no respect for the natural heritage of Zimbabweans.”
“China uses its debt diplomacy to lethal effect against weak governments and to the detriment of the indigenous people”
While Lane remains positive the government will follow through on its promises, there are many reasons why Mnangagwa and his government will be keen to keep their Chinese partners happy.
China’s empty promises
China is attempting to change its image as a major polluter. It is now the world’s biggest investor in clean energy technology, and President Xi Jinping has promised to cut coal’s share of China’s total energy capacity to 50% by 2030.
Even in its hugely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which consists of infrastructure projects around the globe, the Chinese government has promised to make them green where possible. Xi personally pledged last year that the program must be green and sustainable.
But for all its green claims, in reality China stands alone as the only country in the world backing coal projects—and Africa is where it is spending most of its money.
Chinese companies and banks—many of them state-owned—are involved in financing at least 13 coal projects across Africa, with another nine in the pipeline, according to data compiled by Greenpeace.
The reason for China’s continued desire for coal is simple.
“China has enormous state-owned thermal-power manufacturing and engineering firms that rely on overseas deals to stay in business,” Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Energy Research and Clean Air, told the International Energy Agency recently.
In Zimbabwe, the government has been trying for decades to build a giant coal-power complex close to the world’s biggest man-made reservoir. Just three months ago, in the middle of a global pandemic and a climate crisis that is threatening all corners of the planet, the government announced that China was willing to bankroll the project to the tune of $4.2 billion.
The giant plant, when finished, promises to generate 2,800 megawatts (MWs) of electricity. To put that in perspective, Zimbabwe currently generates and imports only 1,300 MWs of electricity, which is about half of the total 2,200 MWs of output it requires daily.
The result is that Zimbabweans experience daily electricity outages of up to 18 hours per day, which is not only an inconvenience but also cripples any possibility for sustained economic growth.
So the attraction of a single power plant that will supply more than the needs of the entire country, built and financed by China, is quite clear.
But, for environmental activists, so too is the damage the power station will do.
Besides the obvious damage burning coal will do to the environment and the air quality around the plant, the amount of coal needed to fuel the power station when it’s at full capacity will mean that more mines like those proposed for Hwange National Park will be needed, further damaging the environment and harming local flora and fauna.
In addition, burning coal consumes a huge amount of water, which is a problem for the Sengwa region that is prone to disasters like drought and might even face floods in the coming seasons.
Providing water for the plant will be Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made reservoir. But activists warn that Kariba is already so depleted by recurrent droughts brought on by climate change, that its hydropower turbines operate at a fraction of their capacity.
And in Hwange National Park, the damage may already have been done.
Fidelmis Chima, 38, who has lived all his life in Hwange and joined ZELA in bringing the legal challenge against the Chinese mining companies, believes that work that has already been conducted in Hwange National Park has led to the deaths in the park’s buffalo herd.
In a sworn affidavit presented to the Harare High Court and reviewed by VICE News, Chima says that buffalo have been seen fleeing from the park, toward human settlements.
“The sighted animals were markedly emaciated and dehydrated, thus leading to the conclusion that they must have fled from the mining and other disruptive activities inside Hwange National Park, a significant distance away,” Chima says.
At least three animals were reportedly shot by park rangers as they approached people’s houses, Chima says. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority did not respond to requests for comment on the situation.
The judge ruling in the case this week said he would require further proof that the buffalo deaths were connected directly to the coal mining activities. But it is clear that any large-scale mining inside the park, as outlined by the rights granted by the Zimbabwe government, would cause extensive damage.
“This irresponsible decision to parcel out a natural heritage to the Chinese will have severe catastrophic consequences on the environment, Tsunga said. “There will be carnage against this deep natural wealth, all for greed by a few Zimbabweans and the unscrupulousness and mercilessness of the Chinese.”