“We cannot co-exist”: Locals decry new coal project in Zimbabwe
As delegates discuss the future global impact of coal use at COP26, Dinde villagers fear immediate displacement and environment degradation.
At the sight of an approaching vehicle, Janet Shoko and her family of five anxiously gather at the centre of their homestead. This has become a reflex action for them since last year when they were told of a new coal project near their village of Dinde. Their eyes transfixed on the pathway ahead, they cross their fingers hoping this is not the moment they are served an eviction notice ordering them to leave their family home for generations.
“We have lived in this area since the 1980s and for us it feels so unfair that we are being pushed out to make way for this so-called development,” says Shoko.
The Dinde community, made up of around 700 households in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North Province, were told in late-2020 that the Chinese mining firm Beifa Investments was beginning coal exploration in the area. Afraid at what it means for the region, villagers have protested the project but with little success. Earlier this year, Never Tshuma, vice-chair of Dinde Residents Association, was arrested for allegedly inciting the community against Beifa Investments. Shortly after, Richard Moyo, Minister of State for Matabeleland North Affairs, warned that the government will not tolerate any resistance to the project.
One of the Dinde community’s main concerns is that the extraction of coal would lead to environmental devastation in the area. They have reason to be alarmed. An hour or two away, mining activities have reportedly polluted the Deka River, killing hundreds of fish and livestock. There have also been reports of coal dust covering the town of Hwange, allegedly ruining vegetation and leading to widespread breathing difficulties among residents.
“The nature of our settlement and coal mining cannot co-exist because our livestock will suffer from the effects,” says Shoko. “The moment they start mining, our displacement is inevitable. We cannot wait until we start to experience the damaging effects of mining as is happening in Deka.”
The other source of the Dinde villagers’ opposition to the project is that they believe they will be forced off the land they have lived on for generations and receive none of the benefits of the development.
“We do not get anything from these investments,” says Barnabas Dube, a representative of the Dinde villagers’ association. “[Investors and politicians] are the ones who get the coal and benefit from the profits. We are not even connected to the grid, our road network is a mess, and we end up drinking contaminated water.”
“A lot of people will be moved along with their belongings without clear explanation or compensation,” he adds. “How can this be a fair investment?”
Beifa Investments and officials from the Zimbabwean government did not respond to requests for comment.
Coal vs. climate
Outside of Dinde, many others are concerned about the new coal project in relation to the climate crisis. As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26, high on the agenda is the urgent need to transition away from dirty fossil fuels, of which coal is among the most polluting. Yet under its Vision 2030, Zimbabwe aims to develop a $1 billion coal mining industry as part of an ambition to build a $12 billion mining economy.
Part of the government’s plan for coal is to help increase national generation capacity from 2,300MW to 6,000MW by 2025. This may be necessary to reduce Zimbabwe’s huge energy shortages, but activists and scientists argue that turning to coal is not only environmentally damaging in this pursuit but unnecessary. Zimbabwe’s National Renewable Energy Policy, launched last year, found the country has vast amounts of clean energy potential through solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal and wind.
According to climate activist Elizabeth Gulugulu, Zimbabwe ought to focus on finding projects that can increase energy generation through renewable sources while also benefiting local populations and keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.
“The country needs investors that put sustainability at the core of all projects,” she says. “By doing so, we will be killing two birds with one stone, which is providing energy as a basic human right and unlocking green jobs for young people, who are 60% of our population.”
For now, however, coal exploration around Dinde continues despite Zimbabwe’s climate pledges. Resistance from villagers may continue, though some are beginning to feel powerless, locally and globally.
“We are useless in [leaders’ and investors’] presence so we will just watch them and hope they make the right decisions,” says Shoko.