Tension ran high on 13 January during an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultative meeting for the ongoing development of the protected Borrowdale vlei area amid accusations by environmentalists, residents and other concerned parties that the developers have used political pressure to push their project through.
The barring of members of the press from at least three media houses that turned up to what was supposed to be an open public meeting, did little to create an atmosphere of openness or confidence in proceedings. Harare News only managed to remain in the meeting after much arguing and with support from other members of the public.
After more than two hours of discussion – that failed to touch on a wide variety of related issues − the EIA and other presentations were dismissed as technically and procedurally flawed and the developers were accused of being insincere.
Borrowdale Residents and Ratepayers Association (BRRA) Chairman Marek Dergiman would later describe it as “a tightly controlled meeting” during which the developers failed to convince residents and other stakeholders of the socio-economic need for the estimated $500 million project that boasts a luxury high-end mall, multiple housing clusters, offices and medical centre, altogether called Borrowdale West Multipurpose Millennium Park, to be built on the land in question.
The independent scientists and technical experts present rejected the findings of the developer’s EIA team which stood accused of grossly and intentionally understating the negative effects of the plans to Borrowdale’s wetland.
Wetlands are regarded as crucial to maintaining urban water supplies. They absorb rainfall and hold it as a natural reservoir that constantly feeds water to supply dams. They also purify the water and hold delicate ecosystems that keep wetlands alive. Scientists warn that the destruction of the Borrowdale Vlei will severely reduce inflow of water to Harare’s dams, already incapable of meeting the City’s needs. The claim at the meeting by the developers that the project would maintain the core area of the wetland and “adequately” preserve wetland system was met with alarm.
Ward 18 Councillor Rusty Markham expressed his disdain for the EIA and the presentation made by the Augur Investments/West Properties team led by Michael van Blerk of West Properties, and backed by Ken Sharpe of the Estonian-based parent company, Augur Investments. “I fully expect the developers to sell us a marketing pitch. That’s their job. I do not expect the EIA to be a marketing pitch. It should be a learned document on our natural resources,” said Markham.
There is concern among environmentalists that the EIA process described in the Environmental Management Act needs reform, in particular Section 98 which makes the developer – and not the Environmental Management Agency − responsible for producing an EIA. This raises questions of objectivity and fairness, with the adjudicators of any negative environmental impacts sitting on the payroll of the investing party.
Augur enlisted a firm called Plan Afrique to carry out their EIA. In later correspondence with Harare News, van Blerk defended their appointment and work saying, “Plan Afrique is we understand the leading consultant registered with EMA and to our knowledge the most experienced with a wide portfolio of clients. We believe the EIA conforms to the requirement of the Act and that Plan Afrique are extremely professional.” Sharpe also wrote to say that they had no previous relationship with the firm before the Borrowdale project in question.
Another cause for concern among residents was that Augur was allowed by EMA to roll out a ‘Partial EIA’ − which meant that the impacts of the development were assessed in two parts, first roads and sewerage, and the second the construction of buildings − one project falling under two distinct EIAs, rather than as a whole.
During a follow up interview, Ward 18 councillor, Rusty Markham said, “there is no way that a partial EIA could or should have been granted by EMA. Once you give a partial one and you pass the first phase, you can’t stop it (development). Once you put roads and sewerage in, you’ve acknowledged that there are going to be buildings.”
During the January 13 meeting, EMA Director General Mrs Mutsa Chasi alluded to the separation of Housing Developments from Infrastructure in Schedule 1 of the Environmental Management Act that lists projects requiring EIAs, saying only that “we are guided by the Act.”
Retired expert on inland water, Professor Chris Magadza, rejects this. “The notion of a partial EIA is not found anywhere in any act. The roads should be part of the entire assessment, but EMA allowed Augur to separate them,” he said in a follow up interview. Magadza believes it boils down to political pressure.
Addressing the public meeting, Magadza also raised the issue of zoning. The land in question is a gazetted wetland, but was re-zoned to allow for development, which according to Magadza violates the law.
“Whatever jurisdiction that minister used to rezone a wetland into a commercial area cannot supersede the provision of the environmental management act, because that is superior to whatever act was used,” said Magadza.
The meeting lasted a full two and a half hours, which though long, was far from exhaustive. The social, economic, environmental, financial and legal implications are enormous, far reaching, and, for many, hugely emotive.
In his opening presentation, Van Blerk said crime on the vlei was on the rise, squatters were moving in, fly tipping of waste and illegal cultivation were increasing, and more, and claimed that Millenium Park could mitigate all of these. But this idea was rejected.
“Building the mall of Zimbabwe and other developments is not addressing a solution to the problem. The solution is to educate people about the negative effects, to involve the police and to involve the city council. I do not accept this argument,” said one concerned resident.
Residents feel that if the project is built on the wetland, it will create more problems than it solves. “No one in his right mind is saying that we do not want foreign investment in this country. Not one person in this room can say that they have enough money to get to the end of the month. What we are saying is that we can develop somewhere else, and not in the wetlands, because we need the water,” said Julia Pierini of Birdlife Zimbabwe.
Pic: Ken Sharpe of Augur Investments and Michael Van Blerk of West Properties leave a meeting which saw the press barred and the public still determined to see the Millenium Park development halted.