The divisive fight for wetlands – with developers and authorities in one corner, and residents and conservationists in the other – has seen shifting front lines in recent weeks.
Reports from Monavale, Marlborough and Ashbrittle, and the ongoing Borrowdale Wetland saga, show movement in both directions as this legal and ethical debate rages.
Borrowdale residents and conservationists are cautiously pleased with the actions of the Ministry of Environment, after a letter from the office of Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere said that developers of the vlei are required to conduct a fresh Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), that “holistically takes into consideration all facets of the proposed development.”
The letter was sent to lawyers representing Borrowdale Residents and Ratepayers Association (BRRA). It followed up on a heated stakeholders meeting held in January at which residents rallied against the splitting of the EIA for the project, with the roads and other infrastructure being assessed as a separate development to the buildings. Critics said that it helped the assessors soften the negative impacts, in what community leaders have stated to be a flawed procedure, biased towards the developers that include Augur Investments, City Council and others.
There is hope that a ‘holistic’ EIA might paint a more realistic picture of the impacts of the planned development. However, email correspondence between several conservationist and community figures from the area reveals a fear that without proper stakeholder input and independent scientific consensus, the process could well cement the position of the developers. This could set a precedent that would be the death knoll of Harare’s remaining wetlands
Inland water expert Prof Chris Magadza suggests that EIAs should not be conducted on wetlands at all, as they are protected by the Environmental Management Act. “The Environmental Act is the highest in the land and supersedes all other laws. The fact that some developers own wetlands does not mean they can do whatever they like with them. It is time the law was interpreted well,” he said.
Prof Magadza believes that the various authorities are struggling to appear consistent in the face of erratic and often ill-informed decision-making and legacy issues. Indeed, it was the previous Environment Minister, Francis Nhema, who authorised the split EIA.
In Marlborough meanwhile, residents have taken various authorities to the High Court over plans to build blocks of flats, cluster houses and office parks in the Ashbrittle and Marlborough wetlands and open spaces.
The residents, who have long argued against the developments known as Plan 45, said the move has been necessitated by the council’s disdain for their views and concerns. The plan has gone to council and back to residents on three occasions, and is now set for court.
The respondents to the case are Harare City Council, the Environment Management Agency (EMA), and Urban Planning, which sits under the Ministry of National Housing and Social Amenities.
“The court action has been taken in response to pressure by council and developers to push on with the plans to develop, disregarding residents’ position and constitutional rights,” said Shungu Chirimuta, chairperson of Marlborough Environmental Action Group (MEAG). He suggested that Plan 45 will violate sections of the constitution that protect residents’ rights to recreational facilities, environmental rights and provision of water and health services.
“Council has failed to tell us what will happen to inhabitants if their boreholes dry up. Council water and sanitation is inadequate already for the current population living in the area. There is a threat to health services of the population in Marlborough, as the proposed plan wants to take out the only clinic and replace it with a block of flats,” says Chirimuta.
City of Harare Environment Committee chairperson, Chris Mbanga, told Harare News that the matter is now under the City Legal Unit, but maintained that “the committee’s position still remains that no development should take place in wetlands.”
Meanwhile, across town in Monavale, long standing conservation signs along the vlei were torn down on 16 May.
The land on which they were placed in 2009 is privately owned by a family by the name of Patel, although it is also a gazetted wetland and protected under the RAMSAR treaty. It comprises 16 hectares of what is perhaps Harare’s best restored and preserved wetland.
The signs and a bird viewing platform were erected by the Conservation Society of Monavale (COSMO), a community group comprised of wetland advocacy stalwarts. In conversation with Harare News, Mrs Patel expressed frustration at the behaviour of the group, accusing them of being aggressive, short sighted and unwilling to talk.
“They seem to override everything we do. We were thinking of making a little park, some houses… People build on wetlands and do it so beautifully,” said Patel. A letter from Harare City Council delivered to nearby houses the week prior had given notice of an application made to build 160 cluster houses on the land. The letter explains that residents have one month in which to lodge their complaints, though being undated and unsigned makes deadlines and authority unclear. A petition launched this week via activism website avaaz.org and started by Birdlife Zimbabwe, is calling for an end to these plans.
Photo: Construction work on Borrowdale Wetland earlier this year (Graham van de Ruit)