Conflicts between communities in Mutoko, Zimbabwe and Chinese-owned mining companies such as Shanghai Haoyuan, Jinding Mining and Bozimo are causing unease among Nyamakopa villagers.
Nyamakope village in the district of Mutoko is about 100 miles east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where indigenous communities say they are being evicted from their ancestral lands without compensation to pave the way for mining operations. They say they are not sure what the future holds now that these Chinese companies are exploring quarry mining of black granite in the region, a cause of concern.
Similarly in Marange, Manicaland province in Chiadzwa, hundreds of villagers were also evicted in 2011 and till today many face displacement to make way for Chinese firms.
It's 5am, the pale blue sky is floating with white clouds, the breeze blowing the leaves beside the road, while birds leap back and forth on the tree, as if telling us that a new day has begun. My cameraman and l are miles away from a town that we call home. With us is Ngonidzashe Chimombe, who is taking his cattle for an early morning graze before he heads to his daily job at Bozimo Granite, a Chinese-owned mine.
The granite mine has not yielded meaningful benefits to the community, he says, pointing to hips of black sand protruding from the trees in the distance.
From afar, we saw a cortege of trucks overloaded with huge black granite rocks whirl along the dusty pathway to an unknown destination.
On a typical day, it is impossible to fail to note many of these trucks, Chimombe continued. Every day more than 50 trucks take granite for export along this rugged road through this village in the district of Mutoko.
Bozimo Mining is one of the companies that have reportedly been given a government license to mine granite on tracts of land belonging to local people. Communities have expressed concern about increasing environmental and infrastructure degradation, including leaving trails of open pits, which are death traps for humans and livestock.
Zimbabwe has enjoyed a close relationship with China for decades. But the bond between the two countries solidified when Western states imposed economic sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s government. As credit and investments dried up, China stepped in.
Since 2018, Zimbabwe-Chinese relations were elevated to strategic partners, paving the way for Chinese investors to pour money into the country, particularly in the extractive industries, where they have been accused of paying little attention to environmental damage by environmental and human rights activists.
Mutoko stone is sought after for its lustre, and it is a popular material for tombstones. An extension to the Danish royal library in Copenhagen, known as the Black Diamond, is clad in Mutoko granite.
The increasing demand on the international market has spurred a rush by both local and Chinese companies to set up operations to mine the sought-after mineral in various provinces in Zimbabwe.
In Nyamakope village there are at least eleven granite mines, of which only seven of them are still functioning.
One of the villagers, Elizabeth Chikuni, 51, told us that most of them work without contracts, which makes it easy for the Chinese to manipulate them.
“We don’t have signed contracts, when they mistreat us we cannot complain because they always tell us that we do not have signed contracts, we are underpaid because of this," said Chikuni.
According to Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a UK-based international research organization, in Zimbabwe these impacts can only be described as catastrophic, as some of these Chinese companies don’t use proper channels to operate in Zimbabwe. The failure to rehabilitate land after mining is causing water pollution, air pollution, land degradation and in some cases, loss of life and displacement.
Villagers in these affected areas claim that some Chinese companies discharge toxic waste into their water sources resulting in human diseases, a drop in crop yields, death of livestock, and dwindling numbers of fish in the rivers. Tailings from the mines are clogging dams and rivers and affecting the availability of water for irrigation.
At least 20 families in the village have lost their ancestral land in previous years. Some of them were promised compensation that they have not received to date. Meanwhile, those who are still living in the community were promised jobs at the mine and a healthcare facility.
Eveline Kutyauripo, 43, a community paralegal from Ward Five has been living in this community for years, and she says their rights as the community are being violated by the mining company.
“We see our precious stones being transported out daily, but ... the community has no gain. They promised to build infrastructures for us in exchange but we have a clinic that has been sitting unfinished for thirteen years,” Kutyauripo says.
Those living near granite mines say companies are failing to restore the land after extraction. Open pits are left uncovered, endangering children. In 2020, two children fell in one of the pits and died.
Zimbabwe’s government has been accused of turning a blind eye to these complaints because, critics say, it doesn’t want to anger its biggest investor.
“They leave open pits, and it’s a danger to our children and livestock,” Kutyauripo added.
Locals allege that some Chinese companies do not pay any heed to Zimbabwean law, the citizens’ legal rights and instead discriminate against the on-site miners by paying them low wages of US$40 per month.
From the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) for Mashonaland East Province, Austus Mutikinimabwe said he denied the human rights abuses by some Chinese companies in the area. However, he acknowledged that his department has had several engagements on the allegations with the granite mining companies together with the community members and the civil societies.
“To some extent l can say yes or no that the Chinese granite companies are violating locals' rights. As far as EMA is concerned we do bi-annual monitoring where we check if the companies are adhering to the laws. Of course there might be any violations here and there but they are not as pronounced as the villagers claim,” he said.
He further said that his department does not deal with villager’s evictions and compensations.
According to a blog published by Aiddata which is affiliated with William & Mary's Global Research Institute, Zimbabwe has enjoyed benefits from Chinese financing, in exchange for securing licenses for Chinese companies to extract diamonds and other natural resources in high demand at home.
While mining has been identified as a key sector for the attainment of National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1) goals, the impact of some mining operations in Mutoko has become a cause for concern.
The Zimbabwean government availed Statutory Instrument 104 of 2021 Environmental Management (Control of Alluvial Mining) (Amendment) Regulations, 2021 (No. 2) which regulates the mining operations in the country.
Section 3(1) of the law stipulates that "alluvial mining shall not take place on — (a) land within 200m of the naturally defined banks; or (b) land within 200m of the highest flood level of any body of water conserved in a natural or artificially constructed lake or reservoir; or (c) any bed, banks or course of any river or stream; or (d) land within 200m from any wetland."
BHRRC in their report says Africa has the second highest number of allegations of human rights abuses, with 26.7 percent of the claims recorded against Chinese companies operating abroad from 2013 to 2020. Asia-Pacific has the most, with 39.6 percent, and Latin America had the third highest, with 26 percent. The report describes all three regions as “high risk."
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by The Sunday Express on October 22, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A child walks through the landscape / Credit: Bongani Siziba.