A convoy of trucks laden with huge black granite rocks trundles along the dusty pathway as a group of villagers look on grimly.
Every day more than 60 trucks take granite for export along this rugged road through Nyamakope village in the district of Mutoko, 90 miles east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
The air reverberates with blasts and heavy machinery noises as the mountain above the village is slowly reduced, slab by slab. Quarrying has been happening here since the 1980s.
Mutoko stone is sought after for its lustre. It is a popular material for tombstones. An extension to the Danish royal library in Copenhagen, known as the Black Diamond, is clad in Mutoko granite.
The Buja people who live here say that as mining companies extract wealth from the mountain, they leave behind a trail of damaged roads and bridges, hazardous pollutants and dirty air. Cracks can be seen on houses and blast debris is everywhere.
Now 50 families in the village have been told by a Chinese mining company that they will have to leave their homes and land. People in four other villages in the district fear they will also lose their ancestral lands.
Two families, including an 82-year-old villager and his wife, have already been relocated by Jinding mining company, which wants to build a polishing plant.
“The 82-year-old man collapsed when he heard the news because he never anticipated it. He was later resuscitated at the hospital. This is how bad things are here,” says Claudine Mupereri*, 38.
She says the man was told his house was within the area licensed to the mining company by the government. Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Act gives the president power to decide the use of an area that makes up 40% of the country’s land, home to about 70% of the population.
“These companies do not respect communities. If the government does not protect us, then where will we get the protection we need?” says Mupereri.
Two other families were given $2,500 (£1,840) to rebuild their homes, but community leaders say this is insufficient.
“There is uncertainty around this village. Right now, we do not have anyone willing to help us because our councillor does not want to help us. Anyone who dares to speak out is threatened. Whether they remove us or not, we are already scared to speak out,” says Anesu Nyamuzuwe*.
The 40-year-old father of four fears losing five hectares (12 acres) of land, his only source of income.
“I have a good farm with fertile soil. My farming always meets my household requirements. I had built a good home and I am close to Mutoko centre, so I am not sure if I will ever get such a piece of land again,” he says.
“What is more important, investors or the villagers? We should have the right to reject these people from entering our community.”
Jinding mining company in China could not be reached for comment.
A manager and interpreter at the company’s plant in Mutoko says families who live within the 500 hectares the company is licensed to mine will be relocated, but adds: “the people who are giving out the claims [to mining companies] have a problem. Why are they giving them [companies] so much land? This land is almost 500 hectares, I am sure they already know that people live in this place.”
Zimbabwe has enjoyed a close relationship with China for decades. But the bond between the two countries solidified when western states imposed economic sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s government. As credit and investments dried up, China stepped in.
In 2018, Zimbabwe-Chinese relations were elevated from “all-weather friends” to strategic partners, paving the way for Chinese investors to pour money into the country, particularly in the extractive industries, where they have been accused of paying little attention to environmental damage by environmental and human rights activists.
Those living near granite mines say companies are failing to restore the land after extraction. Open pits are left uncovered, endangering children and wildlife.
Zimbabwe’s government has been accused of turning a blind eye to complaints because, critics say, it doesn’t want to anger its biggest investor.
Mineworkers speak of poor working conditions. At another mine in Mutoko, workers give accounts of beatings and poor pay.
“Imagine going to work every day for over 12 hours and getting $50 at the end of it all. When I get home I am tired. My home knows no peace,” one worker tells the Guardian.
“My friend was beaten with a steel rod and another 17-year-old boy had his arm broken after coming to work late. He was given $250 as compensation after villagers complained.”
In 2020, two workers were shot and wounded in Gweru, central Zimbabwe, allegedly by a Chinese miner after a quarrel over salaries.
Evelyn Kutyauripo, a paralegal with the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela), who has been rallying villagers in Mutoko to resist evictions, says local officials need to protect people.
“I blame the headmen and the councillors because they are working with the Chinese. They should stand with the community,” she says, adding that companies were taking from communities and not helping them develop.
“They are not developing anything in the community. They should have a strong corporate social responsibility because they are killing our environment. We are suffering, our houses are cracking and there is pollution. The government should come to see what is happening.”
Another Chinese mining company, Shanghau Haoying Mining Investments, is also causing unease among Nyamaropa villagers.
Last year, the company was reportedly given a government licence to mine granite on tracts of land belonging to local people.
“I hear they want to remove us so that they take the rock, which is underneath, but the people do not want to. They will have to use guns to remove us here,” says Gladman Murape*, 34.
Shanghau could not be reached for comment.
Richard Ncube, a legal officer at Zela, says people in Mutoko were “extremely worried” about evictions. “The major challenge is they are living in the dark, and they are not sure what is going to happen.”
He said people were too scared to challenge the company. “We have gathered that most of the communities [in Mutoko] are afraid to come forward and take these matters to court due to intimidation and fear of being victimised,” says Ncube.
Attempts to challenge the mining companies elsewhere in Zimbabwe have had mixed results.
In November, Heijin mining company lost its mining licence in Murehwa, a district about 55 miles from Harare, after local leaders complained to the government that the company planned to evict locals.
In 2020, Zela was involved in the successful fight to overturn licences to mine coal in Hwange national park, the country’s largest national park, home to 40,000 elephants. Following protests, the government banned mining in all its national parks.
However, in September, hundreds of people in Chikomba district, 80 miles south of the capital, were evicted from their ancestral homes to make way for a $1bn iron and steel mining project.
The Zimbabwe government says it has not received any reports of abuse of workers in Chinese-owned mines, but it did encourage workers to report any incidents.
Deputy mines minister, Polite Kambamura, urged villagers to approach the ministry if they had problems.
“We haven’t heard of any Chinese company which has relocated people in Mutoko. If villagers are not happy, they may approach our provincial mining office in Marondera or come directly to the ministry,” he says.
“We understand that if ever there is a company that wants to relocate the people, they should engage the community, to buy that social licence from the community.”
Kambamura adds that an environmental impact assessment – to ensure the environmental, social, economic and cultural issues related to any mining project are considered before it begins – must also be conducted by the company and should address any concerns.
The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Mutoko leaders were also approached for comment.
* Names have been changed
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Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules
Environmental lawyers are threatening to take legal action against the European Commission if gas is included in the new EU guidelines for sustainable energy investment.
The draft proposal, controversially released late on 31 December, would see certain investments in gas and nuclear included in the so-called EU taxonomy, under the category of “transitional economic activities”.
But a legal analysis carried out by ClientEarth found that such a move would clash with several EU laws — the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Climate Law and the Taxonomy Regulation itself — and international commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“Failing to take these legal obligations into account puts the commission at serious risk of legal challenge,” environmental lawyer Marta Toporek from ClientEarth warned on Friday (21 January).
The London-based NGO said that they are exploring all legal avenues, including an internal review request.
Under the Aarhus regulation, NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions to assess their own decisions — with a right to appeal before the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The commission must respond to such requests within 22 weeks.
“While it is a lengthy process, it is an important right for environmental NGOs, and in very limited cases individuals, to ensure that EU institutions and bodies comply with EU laws that are meant to protect the environment and human health,” ClientEarth told EUobserver.
The draft taxonomy has triggered discontent not only among environmentalists but also among some EU member states, MEPs and some financial institutions.
Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg united to reject the draft proposal, ahead of an informal meeting with EU environment ministers taking place on Friday (21 January) and Saturday — where EU countries can tell the commission what they think about including gas and nuclear into the EU taxonomy.
“This draft sends the wrong message to financial markets and seriously risks being rejected by investors. It jeopardises the purpose of the taxonomy to create a common language,” the group of four countries said in a statement earlier this week.
They argue that natural gas and nuclear power do not meet the legal and scientific requirements to be qualified as sustainable activities.
Vienna previously said it would sue the EU executive if it goes with its plans to include gas and nuclear in the EU taxonomy.
And the Dutch parliament said this week that it will not accept the inclusion of gas, because “‘green’ should really be green”, as Dutch Green MP Suzanne Kröger put it.
No impact assessment, no public consultation
Similarly, centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who lead the European Parliament’s work on this file, have said that the draft proposal fails to live up to the co-legislators expectations.
They see the selection criteria used for gas power plants, co-generation and district hearing as being in breach of the “principle of technological neutrality”.
Scientists from the EU Commission expert group concluded that for gas power plants a threshold of 100g CO2e/kWh of electricity should be applied to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement.
But under the draft proposal, instead, gas power plants would be taxonomy-compliant if their emissions are lower than 270g CO2e/kWh of electricity.
“We see no legal ground for the commission to create an exemption to this principle of technological neutrality,” the two MEPs said in a letter, regretting the lack of an impact assessment.
Earlier this week, MEPs Irene Tinagli and Pascal Canfin, chairs of the parliament committees for economy and environment, also deplored the lack of public consultation “in the light of the controversial nature of the subject”.
Meanwhile, civil society organisations and academia have warned the commission that the EU taxonomy, as it stands, would damage Europe’s reputation and ambitions to climate leadership.
Last year was marked by “a string of intense political rows, backroom deals and manoeuvring over how to bypass scientific evidence and classify fossil gas and nuclear energy as sustainable,” said Tsvetelina Kuzmanova from NGO E3G.
Experts had until Friday to provide feedback on the EU taxonomy. The EU executive will now analyse their contributions and it is expected to formally adopt the proposal before the end of the month.
A majority of EU countries, or the European Parliament, could still object and revoke the decision, after four months of scrutiny.
Taliban launch raids on homes of Afghan women’s rights activists | Women’s rights and gender equality
Taliban gunmen have raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting female campaigners in a string of actions apparently triggered by recent demonstrations.
Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, who participated in a series of protests held in Kabul over the last few months, were seized on Wednesday night by armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department.
Shortly before Paryani and her sisters were detained, footage was posted on social media showing her screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.
“Help, please, the Taliban have come to our home … Only my sisters are home,” she says in the clip.
Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s dented metal front door sitting slightly ajar. A witness said the armed men went up to Paryani’s third-floor apartment and began banging on the front door ordering her to open it.
The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.
He tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated any more”, a reference to Sunday’s rally during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the head-to-toe garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.
Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the west.
Similar raids were reported across homes of female protesters in Kabul. In another case, an Afghan protester whose name has been concealed to protect her, said she was physically assaulted and injured. She told the Guardian that the Taliban visited her house and “attacked” and “severely beat” her. Her whereabouts are now unknown.
“The Taliban had been patrolling near our homes since [Wednesday] afternoon. I talked to Tamana in the evening and then around 9pm I saw the video of her asking for help. We tried calling her from our burner phones, but her phone was switched off,” said Wahida Amiri, 33-year-old librarian and a fellow demonstrator, who is also on the run. “When we realised that they were raiding our homes one by one, the rest of us decided to go into hiding,” she added.
Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them against women. They have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
At Sunday’s demonstration, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They said they could be forced to wear the hijab. Organisers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired pepper spray at the crowd.
Paryani belongs to a rights group called Seekers of Justice, which has organised several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. Members have not spoken publicly of Paryani’s arrest but have been sharing the video of her.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since taking over, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many”.
“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban have responded by banning unauthorized protests,” HRW said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.
The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s rights groups, and local and international journalists covering demonstrations have often been detained and sometimes beaten.
“It is obvious the Taliban are intensifying their attacks on the civic space, and more specifically on women who are pioneers of the civic space,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“For over a month, we have seen the Taliban stifling dissent and intensifying their attacks on protesters across Afghanistan,” added Akbar. “Earlier we heard reports of protesters in Mazar being detained. There were also allegation of them being tortured, assaulted and harassed while in detention.”
Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban’s reaction was a sign of fear. “It might seem hard to understand why the Taliban would have such a violent reaction to 25 women standing on the sidewalk, protesting peacefully. But their fears make sense when you see how powerful and brave these women are, to be stepping out again and again even in the face of escalating violence by the Taliban,” she said.
She urged the international community to step up in support of Afghan women. “The Taliban seem to be struggling on how to respond to this, and seem to have decided now that increased brutality is the answer, and that is a very frightening moment. The international community has to stand by these women.”
Associated Press contributed reporting
Macron promises strong EU borders
Obligatory detentions, more security screening, and faster deportations – these are the French EU presidency’s migration priorities, in a right-wing home affairs agenda.
Immigration did not take centre stage in French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (19 January).
But what he did say emphasised keeping people out.
“We must protect our external borders, including by developing a rapid-intervention [military] force … to build partnerships with countries of origin and transit, to fight against [human-]smuggling networks, and make our return policy effective,” he told MEPs.
He voiced empathy for people “in great misery … and insecurity”, some of whom had walked from Africa or Asia to Europe, he said.
But Macron’s empathy had its limits. “It’s a horrendous humanitarian situation, but that’s reality,” he said.
And his speech was matched by his priorities on immigration for the next six months.
EU states should agree “common rules” on border “screening”, including “an obligation to ‘keep at the disposal of the authorities’ persons apprehended at the external borders, by increasing detention capacities,” France said in a memo to fellow EU states on 17 January.
Screening should include “health and safety checks” and fingerprinting, the memo said.
“The asylum procedure … would only be provided for in the later stages” of the security process, France noted.
And EU states should step up deportations, by concluding “more readmission agreements with priority third countries” and creating a new “EU Return Coordinator”, France added.
These were the “core” measures France believed EU states could agree on by July, following months of consultations.
France also discussed how EU states could show “solidarity” with front-line countries, such as Greece and Italy, without taking in asylum seekers.
They could pay each other off or send border guards instead, France proposed.
But there was as little in the French memo on protecting migrants’ lives or welfare as there was in Macron’s speech.
The EU should offer “dignified reception and better integration of people in need”, the memo said, in its only words on the issue.
Record numbers of people drowned last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, while others froze to death in the forests of Belarus and Poland.
At the same time, EU countries carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”.
Some built new walls and razor-wire fences, while conditions at many Greek migrant camps remained dismal.
But for all the human “misery” involved, EU migration has become a political weapon ahead of French elections in April, where Macron is running against three right-wing contenders, among others.
“We cannot have a sieve-like Europe,” the centre-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said while on a visit to Greece last week.
And one far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen’s party spoke out in Strasbourg.
“Your Europe [the EU] is 60 years old, but our Europe is 3,000 old,” one of Le Pen’s MEPs, Jordan Bardella, told Macron.
“Will Europe still be Europe if refugees are everywhere? Will it still be Europe if people swear allegiance to sultans in Turkey and Morocco?,” Bardella said.
Meanwhile, Macron’s migration agenda comes alongside other EU presidency projects on counterterrorism, antisemitism, and hate speech.
And some of these would also appeal to right-wing voters.
EU countries needed to tackle “the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene”, such as the lone knife-man who beheaded a French schoolteacher in 2020, France warned in a recent EU memo on terrorism.
It proposed a hawkish definition of antisemitism that was being used to demonise Israel’s opponents.
And for all the French concern on dialling down hatred, Macron’s vision of a secular Europe contained nothing on tackling Islamophobia.
For his part, French Green MEP Yannick Jadot took the French leader to task in heated, eyeball-to-eyeball comments in the Strasbourg chamber.
Jadot highlighted the death of a young Kurdish migrant in the English Channel.
“All that she wanted was to live and to love, Mr President … Why do you pull down the tents [in Calais migrant camps] every day?”, Jadot said.
But Jadot is also running in April and his intervention was just more French election fever for some MEPs, such as the Spanish leader of the socialist group, Iratxe García Pérez, who asked the Frenchman to cool his tone.
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