“Both small-to-medium and large scale mining entities in Zimbabwe are encouraged to be sensitive to the environment and to invest in projects and technologies that minimize environmental risks. Relevant authorities and stakeholder representative bodies must embark on deliberate and co-ordinated environmental education and awareness programmes to educate mining entrepreneurs and the general public on the provisions of the law and imperatives of sustainable environmental management.”
Sustainable mining is an objective as well as a tool for balancing economic, social, and environmental considerations within the framework of mining projects. Each of these three dimensions of mining do not exist in isolation and they form the basis of sustainable development in the mining projects matrix. The key features of this matrix include (i) the framework and functionality of environmental regulation to protect the environment (environmental sustainability); (ii) competitiveness of the mining industry in light of environmental regulation and its enforcement (economic sustainability); (iii) public participation and the opportunities local communities have to influence their surroundings, as well as communities’ acceptance of projects (social sustainability) before and during operations; and (iv) the protection of local cultural rights in mining projects (social and cultural sustainability). 1
In this article, we shall briefly explore the environmental impacts on three main phases of mining projects and the extent to which sustainable mining is promoted or hindered in Zimbabwe.
Brief overview of mining activities in Zimbabwe
Mining projects vary according to the type of metals or minerals to be extracted from the earth. This ultimately defines the structural phases of a mining project which typically begin with the exploration phase and ending with the post-closure period after commercial production. The various stages in the mining project’s value chain are associated with different sets of environmental impacts.
Phases of a mining project
Prospecting and exploration are precursors to actual mining. These two processes are often linked and can be done simultaneously. Ideally, the exploration phase seeks to determine as accurately as possible the size and value of a mineral deposit, utilizing techniques similar to but more refined than those used in prospecting2. Environmental impacts of this phase can be profound due to resource feasibility assessments. It is for this reason that an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is a prerequisite to mining exploration in terms of the Environmental Management Act [Chapter 20:27].
At this stage, the work of opening the explored mineral deposit for exploitation is performed. With it begins the actual mining of the deposit. However, this phase of the mining project has two key preliminary components which precede actual mining activities:
Construction of access roads
This has substantial environmental impacts especially if access roads cut through ecologically sensitive areas.
Site preparation and clearing
Where a mine site is located in a remote, undeveloped area, the project developer will need to embark on clearing land for construction in terms of a Site of Works Plan. The Mines and Minerals Act [Chapter 21:05] requires for this site plan to be approved by the Mining Commissioner. Activities associated with site preparation and clearing can have significant environmental impacts, especially if they are within or adjacent to ecologically sensitive areas.2
This phase is associated with the actual recovery of minerals from the earth in quantity. The mining method selected for exploitation is determined mainly by the characteristics of the mineral deposit and the limits imposed by safety, technology, environmental concerns, and economics.
High-volume wastes, sometimes containing significant levels of toxic substances, are usually deposited on-site, either in piles on the surface or as backfill in open pits, or within underground mines.
The most critical environmental impacts at this mining project phase include:
Impact on water resources
The most significant impact of any mining project is its effects on water quality and available of water resources within the project area. Key considerations are whether surface and groundwater supplies will remain fit for human consumption, and whether the quality of surface waters in the project area will remain adequate to support native aquatic life and terrestrial wildlife.
The major challenges are usually with acid mine drainage and contaminant leaching3, erosion of soils and mine wastes into surface waters4, impacts of tailing impoundments, waste rock, heap leach, and dump leach facilities.
Impact on air quality
Airborne emissions occur during each phase of the mining project, but especially during exploration, development, construction, and operational activities. The two main sources of air pollution in mining operations are usually (i) particulate matter transported by the wind as a result of excavations, blasting, transportation of materials, wind erosion (more frequent in open-pit mining), fugitive dust from tailings facilities, stockpiles, waste dumps, and haul roads; and (ii) gas emissions from the combustion exploration, development, construction, and operational activities.
All activities during ore extraction, processing, handling, and transport depend on equipment, generators, processes, and materials that generate hazardous air pollutants such as particulate matter, heavy metals, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.5
Impact on wildlife
Wildlife is a broad term that refers to all plants and any animals (or other organisms) that are not domesticated.6 Mining affects the environment and associated biota through the removal of vegetation and topsoil, the displacement of fauna, the release of pollutants, and the generation of noise. In a more recent case involving coal mining concessions in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s government through the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development resolved to cancel all mining concessions held in national parks and wildlife reserves.
Impact on social values
Mineral development can create wealth, but it can also cause considerable social disruption. Mining projects can lead to social tension and violent conflict if communities feel they are being unfairly treated or inadequately compensated. A case in point would be the human displacement and resettlement that took place at the Marange Diamond Fields in or around 2009. As such, the need to promote sustainability reporting and disclosure by mining project developers on economic, social and governance (ESG) issues can never be overemphasized in Zimbabwe.
Impact on public health
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.7”
Mining activities can suddenly affect quality of life and the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of local communities. Indirect effects of mining on public health can include increased incidence of tuberculosis, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and gastrointestinal diseases. EIAs of mining projects often underestimate the potential health risks of mining projects. Hazardous substances and wastes in water, air, and soil can have serious, negative impacts on public health.
In view of the foregoing, both small-to-medium and large scale mining entities in Zimbabwe are encouraged to be sensitive to the environment and to invest in projects and technologies that minimize environmental risks. Relevant authorities such as the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, and stakeholder representative bodies such as the Zimbabwe Miners Federation must embark on deliberate and co-ordinated environmental education and awareness programmes to educate mining entrepreneurs and the general public on the provisions of the law and imperatives of sustainable environmental management. This will go hand in hand with effective community participation in the articulation of these requirements.
It follows therefore that there is need to establish environmental oversight groups with a singular mandate of protecting the environment in mining communities. Effective community participation in environmental decision making is necessary for contemporary natural resources management practice, and is the cornerstone of responsible and democratic environmental governance and a fundamental prerequisite to achieving sustainable development.8 Furthermore, there is vast opportunity to reclaim and rehabilitate abandoned mining pits by both large and small-scale miners in order to curb further degradation of the landscape and finally revert these lands to further productive use.
There is need to create environmental awareness campaigns and/or education in various mining communities as a means of ensuring sound and sustainable use of the environment in the face of ongoing mining activities in the country. This will create the necessary balance between development/economic growth and mandatory environmental exigencies for community livelihoods. Effective community participation will protect project interests, promote democracy, increase accountability of projects, enhance project quality, enhance effectiveness of the EIA process, reduce conflicts associated with mining projects between mining companies and the affected communities, and help in effective environmental decision making and thereby ensures the sustainability of mining activities.
2Introduction to Mining, https://www.cienciaviva.pt/img/upload/Introduction%2 0to%20mining.pdf
3Earthworks Fact Sheet: Hardrock Mining and Acid Mine Drainage. http://www.earthworksaction.org/pubs/FS_AMD.pdf
4Environment Australia (2002) “Overview of Best Practice Environmental Management in Mining.” http://www.ret.gov.au/ resources/Documents/LPSDP/BPEMOverview.pdf
5Guidebook for Evaluating Mining Project EIAs, The Mine Cycle https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301823198_The _Mining_Cycle
6U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Title 40 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 70.2. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/ pkg/CFR-2009-title40-vol15/xml/CFR-2009-title40-vol15- part70.xml
7World Health Organization. 1946. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization. Official Records of the World Health Organization No. 2, p. 100.
8Bastidas S (2004) CIELAP Brief on Canada Trade Policy, The Role of Public Participation in the Impact Assessment of Trade Process. Speaker paper for the Impact Assessment for Industrial Development – IAIA (April 28 th 2004 , Vancouver ).