By Carien du Plessis, directly extracted from Mongabay’s website.
- A forest reserve outside Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, has shrunk to just 716 hectares (1,770 acres) from its original 1,750-hectare (4,320-acre) span to make way for housing and lifestyle developments.
- The developments are also pumping sewage into the Chalimbana River, contaminating the fish and water that local communities rely on, and leading to outbreaks of diarrhea.
- Top government officials have been named among the recipients of some of the plots, including the vice president, chief justice, and ministers.
- Activists mounting a legal challenge to end the construction and restore the forest to its previous state saw an earlier ruling in their favor overturned, and are skeptical about getting justice in what they call “an engineered case.”
LUSAKA – On a chilly August afternoon in Chongwe, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, a handful of children warm themselves around a small fire on the banks of the Chalimbana River. In the mud near the water rests the mosquito net they have been fishing with, a wriggly mass of tadpole-sized fry too small to eat dying in its folds.
One girl, shivering in her wet clothes, proudly shows off a plastic shopping bag filled with her catch. The children have been taught it’s wrong to use these nets but they still do so openly, compromising future fishing by trapping eggs and small immature fish in its fine gauze. One older boy explains the river water is contaminated, so they shouldn’t drink it. When he’s asked why, he shrugs. Worrying about the sewage that might be washing down the river from a posh new development upriver in Lusaka East is left up to the adults.
Earlier in the day, village leaders held a strategy meeting at the local clinic, where they expressed their concern over developments in Forest Reserve 27, a 1,750-hectare (4,320-acre) patch of green from which the Chalimbana River flows. In 2017, a 70-hectare (173-acre) triangle in the southeast corner of the reserve was degazetted to allow development of upmarket residential complexes.
Over in the northeast part of the reserve, plans are afoot for one of the most luxurious estates Lusaka has ever seen: Kingsland City. Sunshare Estates, a public-private partnership between the Zambian Air Force and three Chinese companies — Datong Construction, Drimtown Investments and Shangria Investments — advertised the development with the slogan “For Your Noble Life.” More than 1,000 homes had already been built for personnel at the Zambian Air Force’s Twin Palms Base. Now a further 380 hectares (940 acres) were targeted to build 2,500 more housing units, a shopping mall, sports complex, hotels, a university, a golf course, an amusement park, and a Zambian Air Force academy.
It’s not all been smooth sailing for Kingsland City. In January 2018, Zambia’s Water Resources Management Authority warned that raw sewage had started seeping into the Chalimbana where the new homes have gone up. The authority’s report said the old sewer ponds had been built for a limited number of houses and cautioned that the system will not be able to cope with further development. It warned that contamination had been detected downstream of the discharge point, with reports that some people had gotten sick with diarrhea.
But later in 2018 President Edgar Lungu redefined the forest reserve’s boundaries to exclude the Kingsland City area on the Twin Palms Base side and the residential developments in the southeast. In 2019, a further piece on the eastern side was taken out of the reserve, leaving only 716 hectares (1,770 acres) of forest protected. The forestry department was not involved at any point in this degazetting process.
‘We are drinking fecal matter’
In October 2019, the Zambia Daily Mail carried an advertisement for the development, declaring that the first phase would be ready for handover in December 2019. It also boasted of a “6 km track between the trees” in an area dubbed “Lusaka Central Park.” The slogan under one of the pictures reads “Safe. Glory. Honor. Community. Eco-friendly.”
Traditional and community leaders strongly disagree with this description. At August’s meeting in the clinic, they expressed concern. “It first started with the fishermen,” said George Kebelabo, the vice headman of Kabareka village. “Those who go to fish in the river, they started saying that there are some developments happening upstream, and [asked] ‘Is it not going to affect our industry?’”
Another headwoman, Beatrice Kabeleka, said people in her village have reported getting diarrhea. “That’s where we drink water, where we grow our vegetables, so how are we going to survive drinking dirty water? How are we going to survive?”
Activist Robert Chimambo [Honorary member of the ICCA Consortium] from the Chalimbana River Headwaters Conservation Trust helped set up this meeting. He has been working with the Chongwe community for a while. The trust and nine headmen from Chongwe, six of whom came to the meeting, obtained a court injunction on May 16 compelling Zambian Air Force Projects to obey a September 2017 order by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency to stop construction works and restore the area to its previous state.
This injunction was overturned on July 29 by another judge. “The judge said there is no cause for the men and women to sue,” Chimambo said. “We are drinking fecal matter, and he says there is no cause to sue. So, you can see this is an engineered case.”
The next step is to take the issue to the appeal court, which the community did on November 26, but they have lost faith in the justice system. “We are in a country where you find water is going up a mountain, so we are in a very, very difficult situation. Even the law, the law is straightforward about what it is that should happen, but different things are happening.”
In the forest, which is hilly compared to the rest of Lusaka, newly graded gravel roads lead past construction sites where big houses are shooting up. In some places, dusty footpaths snake through dry grass and among old trees still standing. Here you can find both taller canopy trees like the maputo, baobab (Adansonia digitata), chimpampa (Monotes tomentellus), ngalati (Burkea africana) and miombo (Brachystegia longifolia) alongside smaller trees like the masuku (Uapaca kirkiana), popular for its berry-like fruit.
In other patches, the trees have been cleared to make way for construction. Some buildings are close to finished, while elsewhere only high perimeter walls and metal structures bearing water tanks have been put up.
One of these unfinished plots belongs to the country’s chief justice. Work here stopped in June when it was revealed in the media that she, alongside a number of other high-ranking politicians, including Vice President Inonge Wina, Lands Minister Jean Kapata, Mines Minister Richard Musukwa, and a businessman friend of the president, also named Edgar Lungu, are beneficiaries of land in the de-gazetted forest.
Defending the forest
A group of people who own upmarket properties adjacent to the forest have been leading the charge to preserve the place. They called a press conference in August to get their message out, and they’ve also been very active on social media, in newspaper letter columns, and on the radio.
Forest Reserve 27 was first gazetted as a nature reserve by the British colonial administration in 1942; it was considered an important water and nature resource for Lusaka. The reserve also covers a mountain long regarded as sacred by local people.
Chimambo says the area was first de-gazetted in the 1980s for a golf course, spurring him to set up the Chalimbana Trust and lobby the government to re-gazette the forest. “We got almost 3,000 signatures from ordinary people to say, ‘Please, our river is dry because the source has been interfered with,’” Chimambo said. Then-president Frederick Chiluba listened, and the area was re-gazetted in 1996, “but the damage was already done and not all the water returned,” Chimambo said. The golf course never got past the planning stages.
Andy Anderson, a retired architect from Lusaka and a supporter of the Chilambana Trust, said the forest has declined. After he moved into his property adjacent to the forest in 1981, he did all his jogging in the forest reserve. “I knew every tree and every stream. I used to run about 5 km [3 miles]. There were perennial streams that I used to jump over, there were huge trees and there was wildlife. The name of my house is not Buckridge for nothing: we used to have buck here,” he told Mongabay.
“It was the most wonderful, pristine forest, and then slowly over a period of time, some of the bigger trees were taken out. They started to go for the big trees, and then I would notice, over a decade of time, the stream that was there last year wasn’t here this year, although it also depends on the rains. This was the most wonderful, lush, protected forest area. I have seen it degenerate into what it is.”
The picture may be more complex. Moses Chisola, from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Zambia, conducted a study of Forest Reserve 27 in 2018. He told Mongabay that while people “observed some drastic changes to the river flow regime” during the 1980s, more research is needed to evaluate how much of this perceived change was due to the de-gazetting.
“I am skeptical to blame everything on the first de-gazetting because most of the beneficiaries maintained the forest cover and have played a critical role in ensuring that the reserve is not encroached by political cadres, as was the case with other reserves around Lusaka and major towns in Zambia,” Chisola said.
Chisola conceded that his study didn’t focus on the impact the planned golf course might have had. However, he said the research did show that the 2017 Zambia Air Force development in the reserve actually helped maintain the forest, because people in neighboring communities “fear the soldiers” and stayed out.
Further de-gazetting by the government was, however, threatening the forest, he said. “The biggest mistake in our view was the merging of the Ministry of Environment (and forest department) with the Ministry of Lands, under a permanent secretary from Lands. This weakens the bargaining power on the environment side, and the environment is always bound to lose in favour of the need for land for development,” he said.
He said respondents in their study outside the Chalimbana catchment felt the forest reserve should at some point give way to developments, while those within the catchment area felt it needed to be preserved for “the ecosystem services it provides.”
Chisola, however, said the remaining forest reserve showed no signs of degradation when they studied it. “Our survey on the regeneration and stocking density on the currently gazetted portion [1,440 hectares, or 3,560 acres at the time of the study] shows that everything is normal for that type of miombo woodland,” he said. He added that it would have been even better if the forest department “were actively implementing the required management activities such as fire management.” Further de-gazetting would also not be wise and would affect the water situation negatively, Chisola said. Agricultural activities and developments outside the gazetted areas were also using a lot of water from the river.
Besides the wealthier neighbors of the forest who use it for recreation, residents from Bauleni, a high-density, low-income suburb also bordering on the forest, use it for hunting: trapping small animals like scrub hares, genets, giant rats, and the endemic Ansell’s mole rat (Fukomys anselli). They also draw water from streams, and gather firewood, honey and mushrooms, and make charcoal here.
Many, however, support the changes to the forest as they can now find work as domestic helpers in the Kingsland complex, or as builders on the new developments. Eric Chimese, the commander of the Zambian Air Force at the time, told the Zambia Daily Mail in February 2018 that the project had employed 400 people from the nearby townships and would eventually create 2,000 job opportunities.
The $1.4 billion Kingsland City development is being held up as a model for innovative ways to finance development without relying on loans. The Chinese developers have facility concessions ranging from 20 to 28 years, after which the Zambian Air Force will become complete owners of the project. The Zambia Daily Mail quoted Chimese as saying maintenance of the air force was costly, and it did not want to rely on government for all its funds.
“We are demonstrating that we cannot just be cry-babies, but supplement government’s efforts,” he told the paper. “Instead of crying with a list of problems, we want to provide solutions and we have begun doing so by going into public private partnerships using land as equity.” Construction workers have been working day and night shifts to ensure that the project is finished by 2022, when Lusaka is expected to host the African Union’s mid-year summit. Chimese said that if successful, this project could be replicated on other pieces of land owned by the air force.
(Chimese was dismissed by Zambian president Edgar Lungu later in 2018, and arrested the following February on charges of abuse of office, wilfully giving false information, and concealing property in the upmarket Ibex Hill neighbourhood of Lusaka – property suspected by the country’s Drug Enforcement Commission to be the proceeds of crime.)
The de-gazetting has also started affecting the 716 hectares of the forest reserve that remain protected, as some of the local people, struggling to make ends meet, have grasped the opportunity to move in and turn the remaining trees into profit, cutting them down indiscriminately and burning them for charcoal. Those who use the forest recreationally for walking and cycling have reported seeing ovens set up inside the forest for this.
Authorities are apparently making no attempts to stop this, and members of the Chilambana Trust report being violently threatened by the loggers. “Eventually it will affect the water and the climate, and the future generation. What we are cutting down now are trees that have been there for a very, very long time. The future generations might not have water anymore,” said a supporter who preferred to remain unnamed.
Kidan Araya, the Africa program campaigner at the U.S.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said this was a bigger problem. Forests across Zambia have been taken away from local communities “who do not benefit from the deals but suffer the consequences,” she said. “The trend in de-gazetting through statutory instruments without due process or involving local communities also reveals the lack of transparency in the land and natural resources sector. Decisions involving forests should be participatory processes that aim to empower communities and avoid environmental degradation, especially now as the forests of the world are turning into blaze.”
Which way through the trees?
Zambia’s economy is entering a downturn amid a prolonged drought, and the government is reluctant to enforce environmental conservation when making charcoal provides an income for the unemployed or those who previously relied on agriculture for an income.
Changes to the cabinet may have also weakened the government’s attention to protecting Forest Reserve 27 and other environmentally sensitive areas. William Harrington, a former environment minister, said it was much more effective when the Ministry of Environment stood alone. Responsibility for environmental affairs is now divided between the ministries of land on the one hand, and water development, sanitation and environmental protection on the other.
Electoral politics also play a role. The opposition United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema was blocked by police from meeting with Chongwe residents at the end of August. And a Chongwe community leader also let slip that since the southern part of Zambia was an opposition stronghold, he felt the government didn’t much care what happened to people in these parts. Meanwhile, activists like Chimambo have been careful not to appear to back any political party agenda, so that their protests can be heard, and they have urged caution around protest action directed at government buildings.
Andy Anderson, the retired architect, said that with the economy having gone into downturn, he reckoned a lot of the construction would remain unfinished as there would be no buyers. Already, along the road to the forest, grass is growing tall around half-constructed shopping centers and other sites that haven’t been touched in months.
He said he would like to see a proper environmental impact assessment carried out, and then if the development is given the green light, proper infrastructure should be put in place to make it work.
On top of the court action against development of Forest Reserve 27, Harrington is pushing for a tribunal to be appointed. Such a tribunal would investigate how the plots in the de-gazetted area were allocated and why no environmental impact assessment was done, he said.
“I don’t believe in commissions of investigation, because they’re a waste of time and end up being academic exercises. For a tribunal, these things are in an open court. The only problem with a tribunal is that it can only investigate and not prosecute.”
Activists have been in the process of applying for community management of the forest since 2016, but say the approval process has been very slow.
“If we could have stopped this [development], we would have taken it over and turned it into a community protected forest area with all the recreation facilities. We can still do that if we interrupt the development,” Anderson said.
Eventually, activists and residents of the Chalimbana’s catchment area want to see construction stopped, de-gazetting of the reserve reversed, and the forests restored as much as possible.
If not, Andrew Kapumba, the headman of Kapamangoma village, said he fears the worst: “This river will be a sewer in time. The problems the people are facing are as a result of the contaminated river. The sewage is affecting the fish what they are eating, and the same river is water for their livestock which they are keeping,” he said.
“At the end of it all is not just health, but children will be born with chemicals because of what they’re eating. Our livelihood is affected. That river is a provider for livelihood activities.”
- 1942: Lusaka East Forest Reserve No. 27 gazetted by the colonial authorities.
- 1957: Reserve boundaries, comprising approximately 1764 ha (4,360 acres), declared in a government notice.
- 1983: Degazetted by then-president Kenneth Kaunda to facilitate security infrastructure. Titles to degazetted land allow for property development and a horticultural farm.
- June 1994: More than 2,500 people sign Chalimbana River Catchment Conservation Committee’s petition asking for the re-gazetting of Forest Reserve No. 27.
- 1996: Protection of forest reserve restored by then-president Frederick Chiluba.
- 2012: Chalimbana River Headwaters Conservation Trust registered.
- 2015: Chalimbana Trust complains about encroachments and the Office of the Commissioner of Lands confirms that Forest Reserve No. 27 is a protected area.
- August 2017: President Edgar Lungu alters reserve boundaries, reducing the area by 67 ha (167 acres).
September 2017: Zambia Environmental Management Agency orders Zambian Air Force Projects to stop construction and restore the area to its previous state.
- July 2018: Lungu alters the boundaries again, excluding a number of areas from protection, including the Zambia Air Force Twin Palm Base development. 1193 ha (2948 acres) remain.
- February 2019: Lungu alters boundaries yet again, leaving just 716 ha (1769 acres) of forest reserve.
- May 2019: Chalimbana Trust obtains an injunction to force Zambia Air Force Projects to obey the September 2017 order by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency.
- July 2019: Injunction is overturned.
- November 2019: Chalimbana Trust appeals to restore the injunction.