Lament for a lost African wilderness

1610_man

HOWZIT, my China? That’s the new catchphrase across much of southern Africa as a new scramble for resources gathers pace. And the scramble – and the rampant destruction of the environment – is nowhere more evident than in Zambia.

It smacks you in the face as you leave the little border town of Sesheke, across the Zambezi from Katima Mulilo. What was a rough bush track two years ago is now a broad highway, not yet fully tarred, but with long stretches of brand new tarmac between the indiscriminate grading that is taking place.

Indiscriminate is the word. The Chinese road builders have taken the straightest line they can, just above the Zambezi’s high water flood mark, and have bulldozed great swathes of miombo and mopani woodland. The road has cut villages in half. Hectares of bush have simply been smashed aside and the earth ripped asunder to create huge borrow pits where the road builders have removed rock and gravel to use as foundations and infill for the highway.

It must all be horribly visible via satellite on Google Earth.

Sitting on a deck in an idyllic setting under a huge pod mahogany on the banks of the Zambezi, we are told of how, since the road camps have moved in, the wildlife has disappeared. Our host tells us that “prostitution is rampant here now, and this was an isolated and innocent community just three years ago.” A recent report in the Times of Zambia had it that 90 percent of recent poaching incidents took place within a 10km radius of Chinese road camps.

But everyone agrees that Africa will win – the road builders have put huge causeways across what are now dry tributaries of the Zambezi, with just a few small, relatively puny culverts to cope with the annual floods. “This road will wash away with the first rains, and that’s what everyone’s praying for,” our host says.

The road is a massive scar, running all the way from Sesheke, up the west bank of the Zambezi past the Ngonye Falls, and will soon link Senanga and Mongu in Barotseland with the Copperbelt. The plan is to link towns like Ndola, Mufulira and Kitwe with Katima Mulilo and the Caprivi Highway, and then down to Walvis Bay, so that the new Chinese owners of some of the big mines can export the ore through Namibia.

It is the end of one of Africa’s great wilderness areas. By this time next year, if the road survives the rains, 40 to 50 ton trucks laden with smelted copper will be thundering through Barotseland, down the Zambezi and through the Caprivi.

But it doesn’t end there. For some bizarre reason, the Chinese (with the backing of the Zambian government) are determined to complete a project begun 10 years ago to build a 74km tar road from Mongu, across 35km of the Zambezi Flood Plains, to Kalabo, and then to Sikongo on the Angolan border, eventually linking all the way to the Angolan coast.

Only one problem: the causeway has washed away almost every year since they started. The Zambezi is a mighty river in flood. When we drove through, it was just three or four weeks before the annual rains began in earnest, the first small rains had already started falling. There was frantic construction going on, Chinese trucks thundering back and forth, and a massive section of the Zambezi Flood Plains had simply been bulldozed and ripped apart. It was heartbreaking.

But it is a road to nowhere... until you read Duncan Clarke’s Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa’s Oil Prize and realise that western Barotseland is thought to have vast oil and gas reserves.

I went to the Times of Zambia website and typed the word “Chinese” into their search engine. In just two months of reports, I found the following new Chinese projects: $300 million Pensulo-Kasama power scheme to be constructed (July 22); the Zambia-China Economic Zone, including the Chambishi Copper Smelter established, valued at $820m (July 27); Chinese investor, Henan Guoji Investments, to construct 1 000 houses, a luxury hotel and a mall in Ndola at a cost of $200m (August 2); China CAMC Engineering and Chinese government building the $150m Mbala-Nakonde Road (August 7); Changfa Resources Mokambo Copper Mine to invest $500m near Mufilira (August 30); Sino Metals Leaching invest $67m (September 2); and China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation announces $400m investment on top of an existing investment of $1billion (September 27).

These guys make Cecil John Rhodes look like a rank amateur.

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