Zimbabwe: China’s Environmental Footprint in Zim


Chipo Masara, The Standard

Date Published

Having managed to effectively soil relations with the Western world,
the Zimbabwe government’s hopes for economic revival were all placed
in the Look East policy — which saw the country intensifying business
linkages with Asian business people, especially the Chinese. As
implementation of the policy gathered momentum, in no time the country
was a favourite destination for Chinese nationals.

Today, Chinese businesspeople have claimed their place in the mining,
forestry, agricultural and manufacturing sectors, among others, with
the ruling Zanu PF claiming more “mega deals” with other Chinese
investors are in the process of coming to fruition.

For their part, the Chinese businesspeople operating in the country
have settled in comfortably and are busy at work mining the country’s
minerals, farming the land, exporting timber, buying baby elephants
and retailing China-made goods.

As the years go by, it is easy to tell that the Chinese have their
peculiar way of doing business that may not be in the best interest of
the country. Besides their reported harsh treatment of local workers
and unwillingness to invest in the country’s infrastructure, Chinese
businesspeople have little, if any, respect for environmental

Considering that China is currently under fire for being the major
driver of global carbon emissions — with its emissions said to equal
those of the United States and European Union combined — one is
tempted to conclude that China is on an agenda to address its domestic
pollution problem by relocating some of its highest polluting
industries to places such as Zimbabwe.

While the presence of Chinese businesspeople may to some extent be
good for Zimbabwe’s economy as it helps create the much-needed jobs,
it has not at all been good for the environment or local people’s

It is said that Chinese businesspeople enjoy operating in developing
countries that pay little attention to the enforcement of
environmental laws, or any law — which might explain why they
continue to flood Zimbabwe. Because the country’s leaders are
desperate to keep the Asian “friends” happy so they may remain
operating in the country, some laws do not seem to apply to Chinese
businesspeople. They, therefore, continue to get away with wanton
destruction of the environs in which they operate.

In fact, so happy are Chinese companies operating in Zimbabwe that one
is said to have written on its website that the environmental laws in
Zimbabwe are lax and that “it is cheaper to pollute and pay fines than
to prevent pollution”. And polluting they most certainly are!

Just last week, for instance, a street in Graniteside was engulfed in
smoke from open burning of plastic waste from a Chinese-owned plastic
manufacturing company. The acrid smell that emanated from the black
smoke was enough to make one throw up — although that may turn out to
be the least of one’s worries when respiratory illnesses from
breathing fog-filled air are put into consideration. The fact that
they could even do it during daytime says a lot.

But nothing beats the amount of destruction that has come from Chinese
operations in the mining sector. Besides destroying what would have
been beautiful landscapes through their open cast mining methods,
leaving pits and heaps of rubble as they extract the country’s
precious minerals — proceeds of which the ordinary Zimbabwean has no
share of — their mining operations are endangering the country’s
water resources.

As a result of diamond mining in Marange, a study revealed “siltation
and bacterial, chemical, and heavy-metal pollution, including the
presence of potentially cancer-causing agents that are constituents of
a chemical used to extract diamonds” in the area’s main water source
— leaving poor villagers that depended on the water in a quandary.
The fact that the country is currently experiencing one of the worst
droughts ever witnessed, only makes the situation that much dire.

It is not possible to conclude without mentioning the Chinese people’s
suspected heavy involvement in the country’s wildlife depletion by
having a hand in poaching. While poaching has always been a challenge
in the country, the influx of Chinese nationals coincided with the
escalation of the problem to unprecedented levels. Poaching has lately
become a much more organised crime in the country, apparently backed
by big syndicates. It is becoming increasingly difficult for national
park rangers to detect poaching activities on the wildlife reserves
until it is too late. There are also growing cases of the underpaid
rangers themselves being bribed into becoming accomplices in the
crimes against the country’s wildlife. Although there’s been a few
occasions when Chinese nationals have been arrested after being found
in possession of mostly elephant tusks, it is suspected many more are
getting away with it. It is not a secret that Chinese people have a
great penchant for elephant tusks, so much that they are willing to
source them from wherever they can get them. Recently, two Chinese
nationals were jailed for 30 years in Tanzania for killing 226
elephants and possessing 706 tusks.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe has over the last few years lost hundreds of
elephants and other wildlife to poaching.

So while in all fairness, Zimbabwe’s business with Chinese
businesspeople may have brought some element of financial relief to
the country, what is even more apparent is the rapid loss of the
country’s biodiversity through deforestation and loss of vegetation
cover — which has exacerbated droughts and food insecurity —
groundwater pollution/depletion and surface water pollution, loss of
landscape resulting in aesthetic degradation, noise and air pollution,
among other problems.