Reframing The Lower Zambezi Copper Mining Project Debate

The Zambian government recently made a controversial decision to grant a licence to Zambezi Resources Ltd for copper mining activities in the Lower Zambezi National Park. The action triggered a hullabaloo that has no signs of abating, what with a court injunction granted to environmental groups to halt the process for the moment. Although I am a very fierce critic of the the current Patriotic Front government, this is one of the few things they have done right, even if it is for totally selfish reasons. The main argument given by opponents of the project is an environmental one (ie that mining activities will destroy the beauty of the national park and reduce its tourism value). There are also arguments on pollution from the mining process. My observations:

1. Have the people opposed to this project produced any figures of how income generated from tourism in Lower Zambezi compares with projected income from the mining? The park collected about $600,000 in 2011. Compare that to the revenue that will be collected when the planned half a BILLION Dollars is invested.

2. The mine will only use up 245 square kilometeres out of 4,092 (6%). Why are people acting like it is the whole park? Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo gave the most dishonest argument in her submissions to the parliamentary committee on tourism and arts by claiming that Government risks losing safari fees amounting to over K84 million and photographic revenue worth over K9 million if mining is allowed in the national park (about $17 million in total). How does the usage of 6% of the land conceivably translate into such a loss?

Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo

Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo

3. Mining activities have a far greater impact on the economy than tourism. This stems from the higher value of copper and poor infrastructure in tourist attractions (roads, bridges, airports, telecommunications, etc). In contrast, the mining sector is well-developed with a ninety-year history. Lower Zambezi is massively inaccessible (it takes three hours of excruciating driving in a 4X4 to get there from the nearest town, Chirundu). It is ludicrous to think that this problem will be sorted out anytime soon and make Lower Zambezi a cash cow. All the fancy statistics of how tourism in Zambia is growing after the WTO summit last year are meaningless with respect to the park because the vast majority of the tourists are not going there. In contrast, Zambezi Resources will get proper roads built which will infact make the national park more accessible and ironically increase its tourism value.

4. Why are animals and plants or the natural beauty of the park more important than the lives of people? How do you reduce poverty without increasing economic activity through projects like this? Imagine if this argument had been used for every single mine that currently exists and all projects were shelved. Where would we be today? I will never understand how people can essentially argue for MORE POVERTY in the name of the environment.

5. Giving examples of pollution on the Copperbelt Province as an argument against the project ignores the fact that Copper mining techniques have improved and pollution is much less a problem.

Lower Zambezi National Park

Lower Zambezi National Park

6. Lower Zambezi National Park is just a creation of man that can be “uncreated”. It was actually a game reserve for first president Kenneth Kaunda until 1983 when he turned it into a national park. There is so much idle land in Zambia and other national parks can be easily created to replace Lower Zambezi if necessary. Someone has to explain what is so special about it that we can just throw away all opportunities to exploit the resources there and improve the lives of Zambians.

7. There are countries in the world that do not have national parks (eg Hong Kong, Singapore, etc) and they are not any worse off.

8. A totally dishonest argument people make against mining is that copper mining contributes only 2% to domestic revenue. This figure only measures direct taxation through mineral royalty and corporation tax but ignores secondary taxation. Mines engage thousands of contractors who they pay for various goods and services like lubricants, fuels, clothing, cleaning services, food, safety equipment, outsourced employment, etc. These contractors pay taxes and they consume goods and services from other companies who also consume from yet other companies, and so on. Imagine if we add up all the taxes levied on the income from this long chain in the country. It certainly will not come out to a measly 2% by any stretch of the imagination.

Now, there are legitimate concerns from the opposing camp. The Environmental Impact Assessment report raised some red flags. But this cannot be a showstopper as there is an abundance of technology to mitigate negative effects. Environmental groups should just lobby for better inspections to keep pollution in check, not for outright banning of mining. There is also the argument about the possibility of high-level corruption in this deal but this is just a red herring. It is like nationalizing Zamtel by claiming that the deal was corruptly done.

In conclusion, it appears to me that this is another issue where too much mob psychology rules, instead of rational sober analysis.

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