19 January 2012

Zimbabwe: Chinese Hotel Construction Angers Residents

TREES planted by heads of state on wetland between Belvedere and the National Sports Stadium have been cut down to pave way for the construction of a multi-million dollar hotel.

The project has angered Belvedere residents and environmentalists who want the piece of land to remain an International Friendship Forest.

The ecologically sensitive piece of land was commissioned by President Robert Mugabe in 1987.

It was set aside for the growing of indigenous trees to preserve it as a wetland and several visiting heads of state planted trees as a symbol of friendship and solidarity with Zimbabwe.

African luminaries, including former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, planted trees on the site.

The late First Lady Sally Mugabe also led First Ladies in planting trees on the land during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Harare in 1991.

A wetland is categorised as an area of ground that is saturated with water either permanently or seasonally. Wetlands are also categorised by their characteristic vegetation, which is adapted to these unique soil conditions. The water found in wetlands can be saltwater, freshwater or brackish.

The main functions of wetlands are as water purification systems, flood control, shoreline stability, and as reservoirs of biodiversity.

Despite its historical and ecological importance, the government acquired the wetland "for national use" before giving it to a Chinese contractor to build a hotel. According to Harare City Council minutes, the Local Government ministry made the request in September 2010. The council initially approved the request on condition that the government availed an equivalent piece of land in Caledonia or elsewhere in the city.

In October 2011, the council's finance and development committee called for the reversal of the decision after Belvedere residents and their councillor Paula Macharangwanda complained about the destruction of vegetation at the site.

"A perimeter fence was being erected and trees at the site were being uprooted," read the council minutes. "The committee noted with concern that the site had been preserved as a wetland and trees had been planted at the site on numerous occasions in an endeavour to preserve it as a wetland."

The council noted that no projects were allowed to take place on wetlands and recommended that "urgent" measures be taken to stop the development. The council also said the government had not said what it wanted to use the land for, save to say it was wanted in the national interest. Despite the protests, the Chinese developers have continued working on the site.

Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo referred questions to his permanent secretary Killian Mpingo, saying he did not have details on the project. Mpingo could not be reached for comment.

The Environmental Management Authority (Ema) has also slammed the project and called for it to be halted.

Ema spokesman Steady Kangata said the authority had instructed the developers to stop because an environmental impact assessment had not been carried out on the site prior to the commencement of the project.

He said the contractor only submitted an environmental impact assessment after Ema had given the order but the assessment had not been approved.

"The order to stop operations is still standing. If they continue building they are doing so illegally," said Kangata.

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