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New mine threatens the land rights of some Zambian residents

[By Chilombo Musa]

In 2019, Silver Shell Limited (SSL), a Chinese mining firm, expressed interest in setting up granite mining operations in Nyimba District, Eastern Province, Zambia, a customary area under His Royal Highness Chief Ndake of the Nsenga-speaking people. The traditional authority granted 430 hectares to SSL, although the Environmental Impact Statement report says the company will only use 200 hectares for mining activities. The area has now been zoned as industrial by the Nyimba Town Council. SSL projects to produce 10,000 granite cubes annually, which they will export to China and other countries, while the mine is expected to operate for 100 years.
As with most large-scale development projects, setting up the mine would require communities to be resettled. At proposal time, SSL had estimated that it would be necessary to relocate forty-four households from four communities, as per their Resettlement Action Plan. The four communities to be affected were Sanjilo, Soka, Pita, and Jamu villages. SSL would build houses for all the displaced families, sink two boreholes, and compensate them. Today, the company has built forty-two houses following a physical assessment that determined that two households were erroneously included in the initial assessment. SSL has widened the existing roads to the mine site, and mining operations have commenced.

Although the resettlement of the displaced families is seen as the only disruption to the locals, their social and cultural practices have been markedly disturbed. They can no longer access the fruit trees they previously did because that land now belongs to the mine. They also must use longer routes to access their farms because the mine has closed some roads they once used.
The residents also believe the mine and traditional leaders have not told them the truth about the extent of the mining operations and which households will be affected as the mine continues its operations. They say that even those who have not been displaced have woken up to beacons on their land, electricity poles erected, and new roads passing through their residential and farmland. They add that they do not know what is happening and fear losing their land in the future. Specifically, those who have lost agricultural land say they have not been compensated because they do not have any structures on their land. An 88-year-old divorcee, Mary Sakala*, says, “I don’t know if I will do any farming this year because the mine has taken my farm.” Peter Mwale* adds, “That road over there is passing through my land. I was not told anything when they were grading it. And now there is a beacon in the middle of my land. I don’t know what their plans are.” The locals also say that of the two boreholes that SSL sank, only one is working.

New hope in a new land policy?

On 11 May 2021, following more than two decades of drafts, consultations, technical reviews, and attempts at validation workshops and only three months before the general elections, Zambia launched its land policy. The Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources spearheaded the process, which saw the participation of various stakeholders from traditional leaders, civil society organisations, and international donors. In contrast to previous stakeholder engagements that were often explosive, the policy launch proceeded with relative calm and sedateness. CSOs and the international community welcomed the new policy, calling it ‘progressive’ and an ‘important achievement’. However, the final policy is conspicuously weaker than the draft document and remains silent on some constitutional provisions, such as the establishment of a Lands Commission and the UN principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), which gives indigenous peoples the right to grant or withhold consent to a project.

What does the new land policy mean for people like Mrs Sakala and Mr Mwale in Nyimba? Despite the gaps in the approved policy, a chance remains for the government to protect people’s land rights in rural areas as it develops its implementation plan. Provisions such as reducing the risk of displacement of local communities without adequate compensation when development projects are being undertaken and sensitising chiefs on the risk of allocating large tracts of land to non-Zambians need to be strengthened in their implementation. Further, the 2015 National Resettlement Policy guides the resettlement of Internally Displaced People (IDP). It outlines procedures for resettlement processes, including engaging the affected communities and hearing their views on the proposed project. The policy also emphasises the need for investors and all parties involved to disclose all relevant information to the affected communities throughout the resettlement process. Through its various ministries and departments, there is an opportunity for the government to create synergies in implementing these policies to ensure absolute protection of land rights.

Most importantly, locals need to be aware of the laws and policies that protect them to ensure that they hold political and traditional leaders accountable and negotiate with investors from an informed position. Therefore, the accessibility of these policies to locals is non-negotiable if their rights are to be protected.

*not real names
Picture: Silver Shell Limited carrying out excavation works less than 100m from Kazolwe Baptist Church, Nyimba (Picture credit: author/October 2021)

Chilombo Musa is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK

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