In 2018, Zimbabwe and China became official ‘strategic partners’. China provides a source of credit and investment that is important for Zimbabwe’s economy. The country would struggle without this investment. However, for those living in areas where Chinese companies mine, the relationship has instead resulted in serious environmental problems.
Many countries in Africa are increasingly reliant on China. The Zimbabwean case can encourage caution for other countries considering such a relationship. It may also encourage more sustainable organizations to invest in countries in need of capital and support.
ON THE GROUND IN ZIMBABWE
Chinese mining companies have been accused of paying very little attention to the environmental impacts of their work. According to members of a Buja village, they leave behind damaged roads and bridges and pollute the air. The explosions they use to access mining areas leave debris and damaged buildings. They do not restore the land they have finished mining. This leaves open pits which are dangerous for children and wildlife.
On some occasions, they are effectively evicting people from their ancestral homes, with promises of only limited compensation. They are often evicted from areas with good soil for productive farming. The Zimbabwean government has allowed this to some extent.
WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT ALLOW THIS?
Chinese companies are important investors in the Zimbabwean economy. The country would be struggling even more without its investment in many ways. It can improve incomes and living standards for Zimbabweans. The government has the tricky task of balancing these advantages with the disadvantages outlined above.
If the Zimbabwean people consented, one possible solution would be for alternative companies or governments to provide a substitute to China. If the Zimbabwean government was offered alternative investment, they would have good reason to accept. There would be a similar infusion of capital, with greater environmental safeguards.
This investment may come from the West. However, this would require Western countries to act differently from how they have at times in the past. There have been many occasions where the West has exploited developing countries and prioritized profit. Any contribution to infrastructure and economic growth should now be made sustainably and equitably.
HOW ARE LOCAL COMMUNITIES RESPONDING?
There have been at least two cases of Chinese mining companies losing their mining licenses after complaints from local communities. Grassroots effort was important in the decision to overturn licenses to mine coal in Zimbabwe’s largest national park. This verdict was applied to the remainder of national parks. The government now recommends that any mining company must conduct an environmental assessment before proceeding with their work. However, this is not yet consistently enforced.
Zimbabwe demonstrates the environmental risk of entering into a relationship with China. However, the government has little alternative due to a lack of support from other parties. Without offers from different investors, struggling economies may continue to accept the risks of unsustainable investment. This is regardless of the environmental cost they may have to pay.