Mine is an ecosystem

April 4, 1997

Eco-rehabilitation, finds David Jobbins, is refurbishing Zimbabwe's old mining sites

Western multi-nationals have wreaked severe environmental damage across swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in a search for profit in an epoch of unparalleled economic imperialism. Picking up the pieces of the environmental disasters just waiting to happen has fallen to local subsidiaries of these multi-nationals but also to national governments facing great economic and social challenge but environmental issues have implications beyond national borders - a fact reflected, for instance, by the involvement of the Stockholm Environment Institute in a project geared to developing low-cost ways of reclaiming the mine-waste sites of Zimbabwe.

The Stockholm project began in 1990 and has just reached the point when the Western scientists are about to disengage. It is coordinated from the institute's centre at the University of York, and involves the department of soil science and agricultural engineering at the University of Zimbabwe.

As well as scarring the landscape, spoil from gold, tin, coal, and asbestos extraction, along with fuel-ash slurry from power stations, create real dangers for local people. The waste threatens the health of humans and other animals, crops, and even people's homes if vegetation has not been established to bind the chemically hostile and often-toxic residues.

Melvyn Phia of the University of Zimbabwe, and the institute's scientists, led by Harry Vallack, tested the waste for heavy metals, salinity, extremes of acidity, and nutrient deficiencies before identifying indigenous plant species which could colonise the infill sites and lagoons scattered around the extraction sites.

Initially, samples were brought back to York for chemical analysis and statistical evaluation. But as the project came near to the end of its first phase, the University of Zimbabwe acquired the equipment and expertise to conduct the analysis. After carrying out field trials, the scientists were satisfied they had devised a low-input, low-cost methodology capable of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem requiring little or no after-care. "It is really accelerating the natural succession," Mr Vallack said.

One of Mr Vallack's colleagues, John Kuylenstierna, said: "Much of what we do is development of methodologies . . . we do not necessarily solve problems but we can highlight them and then suggest some solutions."

Originally funded from the institute's core funding, which comes from the Swedish government, the increasingly environmentally-aware mining companies in the developing world seem prepared to fund the project themselves. The team is confident that the rehabilitation methodology will be applicable to vast areas of land devastated by mining, elsewhere in the developing world.

Dr Kuylenstierna is involved in one of the institute's global projects to assess the risk to sensitive eco-systems of acid rain, a project with obvious implications for the rapidly-growing heavy industry of southern Africa. He emphasises the need to avoid being stigmatised as an "academic imperialist" - that is, a carpetbagging scientist concerned only to use the problems of the world's poorest nations as a way of enhancing a publications record and career back home. "We do not go there to tell the local people what to do, but how they can look at a problem and start doing things themselves."

Steve Cinderby, another York scientist, is helping local agencies and researchers to investigate the use of semi-arid land in South Africa, and has come up with some challenging hypotheses. Working with South African anthropologists and sociologists, he has investigated the assumptions surrounding grazing and agricultural practices. He has found that soil erosion, rather than appearing in new areas, is simply getting worse within existing pockets.

All the scientists are sensitive to the charge of academic imperialism and appreciate the value of organisations such as SEI which come with no historical baggage, compared with those agencies tied quite closely to their one-time colonial governments.

Mr Cinderby says: "There is resentment at European jet-set researchers who suck out the best information and research knowledge, then go home and write papers without bringing anything back to the country where they did the research. But the SEI projects have firm roots in the countries concerned, and are not aimed at furthering someone's career."

Dr Kuylenstierna said: "When we first went to southern Africa with our map of acid rain, some of them said 'another bunch of Europeans telling us what to do'. But when we convinced them what we were interested in was the process rather than good publications and career development, they became enthusiastic."

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