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A coal exploration exercise featuring heavy machinery in Zimbabwe
Hwange, Zimbabwe

Indigenous Communities at Risk of Displacement in Zimbabwe

Vusumuzi Ncube (34) walks out from the Lukosi irrigation scheme garden, standing at the gate looking up, gazing at the sky towards the south-eastern direction. Smoke is rising towards the clouds. He is upset every time he sees this smoke as it serves as a persistent reminder of the environmental contamination in his community.

“But my biggest worry is that Chinese businesses will drive us out if they decide to start mining in our fields or expand their activities to our land and forests. This has happened in nearby villages. It appears that no one values Indigenous people, who are the true landowners,” bemoaned Ncube.

Recent events in Zimbabwe’s farming villages, which involve both community and private lands, reveal weaknesses in the law and the vulnerability of communities. There are no definite agricultural regulations regarding ownership, tenancy, and land usage.

With thousands of people being relocated each year due to development projects all around the country, displacement caused by development has become one of Zimbabwe’s most urgent human rights concerns. The political stance that development projects are a silver bullet for economic growth has frequently made their socioeconomic effects on displaced people seem insignificant.

The founding tribe in the Hwange region — originally known as Whange — is the Nambya. For many years, they have coexisted peacefully with forests and their natural surroundings, utilizing the air, traditional medicines, and preserving the wildlife. Moving them away would harm their heritage, culture, and customs connected to the environment, according to Pious Shoko, a local.

“The government’s disregard for Indigenous and local populations in terms of environmental preservation is regrettable. Indigenous knowledge is significant in any investment. Not that we don’t desire investment — far from it. But, the Chinese businesses that are moving in conduct operations that are disrespectful of our land and the ecology,” said Shoko.

The mining business is usually linked to choices that have significant societal repercussions. Thousands of people being forced to leave their existing homes is one of mining’s most detrimental repercussions today. Displacement brought on by mining is a serious societal issue and a threat to human rights.

In a bid to address this form of displacement, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons mandates states to prevent development-induced displacement.

The Convention’s Article 10 mandates that displacement brought on by development must be avoided. The recent eviction threats and displacements in Hwange have demonstrated how mining regulations supersede agricultural legislation. Several communities have lost their land, culture, history, and ecology due to legal conflicts. Indigenous tribes are not safe in the event that minerals are discovered in their communities without parliament altering these laws. In Hwange rural where Chinese companies are running coke batteries, the destruction of nature is evident. 

A Chinese corporation named Beifer Investments entered the village of Dinde in February 2021 with the aid of the local chief in an effort to evict the local Nambya people and begin coal mining operations. The Chinese sent in security officers to scare the villagers after the move was thwarted by locals in a heated confrontation. The penalty of the villagers’ resistance to the eviction, though, was that several of them were detained and taken to court.

The Kampala Convention acknowledges everyone’s right to be shielded from arbitrary deportation in article 4(4). Internal displacement is not expressly forbidden by the Kampala Convention, but it is subject to an arbitrariness test. The defining section makes no mention of arbitrary displacement.

According to studies conducted by numerous organizations, Hwange possesses enormous coal resources that can be exploited for the next 1000 years. The high-quality black rock reserves have drawn investors and miners from all over the world, with some of them forming partnerships with locals, particularly for the manufacturing of coke. On international markets, coke and coking coal are both sold for good prices. 

The greatest danger posed by mining appears to be land loss. It causes loosening of economic links in addition to economic issues. In comparison to the long-term social, environmental, and economic consequences of mining activities, temporary cash compensations seem insufficient.

Findings by Community Podium News show that evictions result in hardship such as losing land, short- and long-term health concerns, a lack of access to resources, homelessness, loss of income, social disintegration, food insecurity, a loss of civil and human rights, and spiritual doubt. Indigenous Peoples who have a close connection to the land, according to rural development researcher Cosmas Banda, are especially vulnerable to the effects of displacement.

“For them, land serves as a point of cultural reference in addition to serving as an economic and social network. People only reluctantly consent to being relocated because, in addition to a loss of sovereignty, it entails social exclusion and atomization,” said Banda.

According to the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA), relocation plans must be carried out completely and correctly. According to the group, mining corporations are responsible for paying for displaced people’s expenses rather than passing them on to the displaced.

“There must be a plan for relocation or displacement before any displacements are carried out. You can adhere to the World Bank’s guidelines for involuntary resettlement. According to the World Bank’s guidelines on forcible relocation, persons who will be relocated should be made aware of their legal rights. A new legal framework controlling development-induced displacements must be established, and the 1992 Local Authority Circular Number 162 (Policy on the Relocation of Persons Affected by Development Projects) must be amended,” stated ZELA.

In Zimbabwe, notable instances of Indigenous Peoples being displaced include the 57000 people who were displaced between 1956 and 1959 as part of the construction of the Kariba dam. 4300 households were displaced after diamonds were found in the Chiadzwa region of eastern Zimbabwe in 2006, and 2000 homes at the Tokwe Mukosi Dam were impacted. Villagers in Hwange, where Chinese businesses are present, complain about noise, air and water pollution, deforestation, and environmental harm.

In the majority of these cases, the government has disregarded the significance of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). IKSs encompass African Traditional Religions (ATRs) behaviors and rituals as well as the beliefs of rural people. IK is a crucial component of the poor people’s survival tactics. It serves as the foundation for decisions made within communities on food security, animal and human health, education, and resource management.

Zimbabwe has not yet adopted any legislation or policies with a specific focus on safeguarding internally displaced people (IDP) and those impacted by development-induced displacement (DID). Despite Zimbabwe having signed the Kampala Convention of the African Union on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, it has not yet been approved and domesticated. A complementary review and harmonization of legislation, policies, and practices intended to protect the rights and livelihoods of rural communities affected by development projects is required to support new government policies geared toward rural development, economic growth, and foreign investment.

Currently, the Zimbabwean parliament is working on amending the mining legislation, including the law proposes coking cola as one of the strategic minerals among others. The new act promises to protect the local communities from forced eviction. Hwange Central Member of Parliament Daniel Molokela said the bill presents a good opportunity to push for major reforms which  recognizes the local communities and  the environmental issues.

“We must actually make sure that no local villagers are evicted in the first place under the new act. We must push for negotiated resettlement together with financial compensation and employment opportunities for local communities,” said Molokela.

Human rights experts said even if impacted individuals are not physically transported from one location to another, they may nevertheless be economically displaced as a result of the development project harming their socioeconomic rights, livelihoods and way of life.

“Losing agricultural land or access to commons like grazing pasture, woods, and fishing grounds as a result of development projects like mining, urban development, or dam construction is an example of economic displacement. Environmental damage caused by mining operations may also make agricultural land unusable, leading to the economic eviction of nearby communities,” said Mike Mukwashi, a human rights activist.

Assessing the environmental and social effects of development projects and allocating enough resources and facilities for relocation, compensation, and the socioeconomic development of the affected people have rapidly become standard practices and financial requirements on a global scale. Multilateral financial organizations, including the World Bank and African Development Bank, do not want the development programs they support and facilitate to be linked to a negative social impact or human suffering.

A human rights monitor, the Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR), condemned the way people are relocated across the nation, particularly in mining communities.

“They dismantle local people’s social, cultural, and religious structures and values, which they have fostered and passed down for many generations as markers of local identity. The local communities’ ties to their social, cultural, religious, and environmental heritage are being destroyed. These connections constitute a strategic community asset that supports the resilience of the ethnic and indigenous groups,” said MIHR.

This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Community Podium News on 11 April 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: A coal exploration exercise by Beifa Investments, a Chinese mining firm behind Janet Shoko's homestead in Dinde Village, Hwange, Zimbabwe/Credit: Calvin Manika.