Zimbabwe: Lightning Strikes Dinde Twice - Defiant Villagers Battle to Stop Chinese Coal Project

(File photo).

Dinde is a sprawling, poverty-stricken community located 40km east of Hwange along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls road.

In 1937, this mixed community of Nambya and Tonga speakers was forcibly evicted from their ancestral homeland in Sinamatella and resettled in barren Dinde to make way for the Hwange National Park.

Dilapidated pole and mud huts sit atop the hillocks, defiantly proving that even after 41 years in an independent Zimbabwe, the benefits of trophy hunting they were told to expect from the game reserve they helped to create are still evading them.

The elderly who trekked from Sinamatella 84 years ago may witness history repeat itself when they are evicted to make way for a Chinese-owned start-up that was recently granted a licence to open a coal mine in Dinde, as shown in this track-down produced in collaboration with Information for Development Trust (IDT).

The IDT is a non-profit organisation supporting journalists to investigate public sector corruption and bad governance.

Beifa Investments is a Hwange-based, Chinese-owned coal exploration vehicle, which was in December 2019 licensed by government to carry out coal exploration in a special grant that covers virtually all of Dinde communal lands under the Hwange Rural District Council.

The company's main investor is an entity identified in official documents only as "Jinan".

It remains unclear if this is the same company or another linked to Chinese diamond miner Jinan, which operated in Marange for over a decade and was kicked out with several others over allegations of multi-billion gem leaks.

When the company surveyors went to Dinde in December 2019, they immediately angered locals by invading homesteads and farming fields to scout for drilling sites without consulting the occupants of the land, civic or traditional leaders.

Beifa Investments plans to drill at least 100 exploration wells over a total area of 21 000 hectares of land in wards 13 and 14. If coal mineralisation is confirmed, the company will start open-cast mining operations on 3 100 hectares and expand guided by the mineral resource.

Exploration is already underway with an initial staff complement of 13.

Although the company claimed in papers submitted to government that all 13 would be locals, it did not reveal that the workforce already includes seven Chinese machine operators and two surveyors, leaving locals to fight for just four menial jobs suited for unqualified personnel.

To date, Beifa Investments has not employed a single member of the Dinde community in any capacity.

Community grievances

In a list of grievances read out at a recent tense meeting where Matabeleland North Provincial Affairs minister Richard Moyo, even dropped President Emmerson Mnangagwa's name to coerce the community into accepting eviction, Dinde residents said they did not want the Chinese in their area and told Beifa to leave immediately.

"The Chinese miners, who entered our area in Katambe village in December 2019 with machinery to start a mining project did so without consulting our community and its leadership.

"The entire community is now feeling very uncomfortable.

"The proposal by the Chinese to start mining activities in Dinde is not welcome and is hereby rejected by the community," said the community in a message read to Moyo by the Dinde Residents Association secretary, Benjamin Dube.

Dinde people are worried that they would be forced to leave their heritage sites.

Community assets likely to be lost include a cattle sales pen and loading bay, rest camp, dip-tank, two schools, a business centre, a roads maintenance unit camp and "the graves of our relatives buried here since we forcibly evicted from Sinamatella decades ago."

"We also have the Nyantue River, which is our only perennial source of water for animals and people running through the proposed mine site," the community leaders said.

"We are scared of the consequences of water pollution through discharge of mine effluent into this critical river system.

"Mining will create health problems arising from air and environmental pollution. It will desecrate our ancestral and cultural heritage sites."

Constitutional rights under threat

The villagers said eviction to make way for the mine would violate their constitutional rights to participate in decision-making where investment projects have adverse impacts on people and livelihoods.

They accuse the consultant hired by Beifa to do an environmental impact assessment of forging signatures off an old attendance register and never consulting the people.

The signatures were allegedly appended to the consultant's EIA report, which has not been revealed to or shared with the community.

Community members said the consultant lied when he told Moyo, the minister, that he held three consultation meetings with them.

Moyo expressed surprise that the villagers had not been consulted, after the consultant claimed to him that he held three meetings with them.

"We are worried that this failure to consult us threatens our constitutional right to partake in deciding matters that affects us," the community leaders added.

"We were not consulted during the Environmental Impact Assessment. We contend that the EIA was not done.

"If the company has it (EIA certificate), it was obtained through forgery, misrepresentation and signature fraud because the people whose signatures were used to legitimise it were never consulted and did not consent to the mine as claimed.

"Beifa Investments have consistently refused to engage with the community on that matter, leaving us with no choice, but to take legal action against the mine."

The community said the mine would violate their right to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or human well-being as guaranteed by Section 73 of the Zimbabwe constitution.

The community said it wants to avoid the fate of villagers in Chiadzwa, who were evicted to make way for diamond mines only to be left wallowing in abject poverty when the Chinese mines closed.

Dinde residents are worried that mining would contaminate water quality and bring new health problems as already seen in communities living along the nearby Deka River.

Through a tributary that runs full circle around Hwange, the Deka carries effluent from all the coal mines and power generation stations in Hwange, into the Zambezi River.

"The experience of people living along the Deka River is among the reasons why we reject this proposal," read the community's message to Moyo.

"Along the Deka River, livestock suffer miscarriages because the water is contaminated with raw mine effluent.

"Women in Deka complain of corrosion of their private parts because they only bath with contaminated water.

"In Dinde, there is no farming and all our savings are held in livestock. If these exploration operations hit an underground aquifer, acid mine drainage occurs and we will be in trouble. So the Chinese should leave."

Unleashing army on subjects

However, the people of Dinde appear to be fighting a losing battle because their traditional leader, Chief Nekatambe, is actually leading efforts to coerce them to make way for the coal mine.

In a meeting held on November 26, 2020, he allegedly threatened to deploy the army and police to evict all those opposed to the coal mine.

Chief Nekatambe allegedly told villagers that refusing to make way for the mine was disloyalty to the government and disrespect for his personal authority.

There is no resettlement plan for the Dinde people, and the chief has told them to choose where to go after eviction.

According to community meeting records, the chief is reported to have angrily told the defiant villagers: "Next time, I will bring you 10 strong and fit soldiers and police officers to deal with you."

Chief Nekatambe is also reported to have bragged that the Chinese company agreed to build him a palace with a modern traditional court and that would only happen if the mine opens.

Efforts to get a comment from Chief Nekatambe were unsuccessful

But his lifestyle stands in stark contrast with the penury typical of Dinde.

Hwange Colliery Company (HCC) built him a rural mansion, electrified his home and drilled a solar-powered borehole, in addition to paying him a monthly stipend.

The colliery fuels and maintains a Mazda 6 vehicle it bought him and has also given the chief a company house in Hwange town.

This is in addition to a government salary of at least US$300 and freebies that include a top-of-the-range Isuzu KB twin cab vehicle bought and maintained by taxpayers.

In country where influential traditional leaders often become active proxies of government and ruling Zanu PF strategies and policies, Chief Nekatambe has strong backers pushing the Beifa cause.

The Fools' Day meeting

After numerous clashes between the Chinese company and the Dinde community, a government delegation led by, Moyo visited the villagers on April 1.

The minister's delegation included two representatives of Beifa Investments, who were introduced to the community as "investors".

Provincial heads of government ministries and uniformed officers from the army, police and prison services also attended the meeting.

The minister began his address by declaring that, when Mnangagwa took power -- with military assistance -- in 2017, one of the first things he did was to go to China in search of investors to help develop the country.

"Among the investors he found in China, there was Beifa Investments, which wants to mine coal here.

"You have always complained that there is no investment happening in Matabeleland North, so here is the opportunity you have been waiting for," declared the minister.

"President Mnangagwa wants this project to succeed and you should support it.

"Work with the investors and we will talk about whether there will be evictions and compensation when the time comes," Moyo said to loud interjections from the villagers.

The sensitivity of the matter was underlined by the presence of 16 agents from the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Criminal Investigation Department and military spooks.

But the Dinde residents remain adamant that they do not want the mine, preferring to take their matter to parliament and the courts with the help of local advocacy groups.

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