The Protea Hotels group in South Africa appears to be disregarding concerns raised by communities near the site of the group’s proposed 72-room hotel on the Zambezi River, the location of which has been opposed by tourism operators and conservationists, both in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Operators in the area say community representatives have said, in writing, they would not object to the development if it took place outside the eastern Chiawa Game Management Area (GMA) and closer to the Chiawa community bordering the GMA. Protea, however, claims the community has approved the current site inside the GMA.
The community’s letter includes signatures of the Community Resources Board Chairman and the Royal Establishment’s representative to the Board. The CRB is empowered by the Wildlife Act of Zambia to manage land use in Zambia’s game management areas
The proposal by the Zambian franchise owner of the Protea Hotel brand, Union Gold, to build the hotel and conference centre in a wilderness area has raised a storm of protest from operators in the area, Lower Zambezi, and the general public.
The double-storey hotel, if built on the site currently proposed, would compromise the unspoiled wilderness appeal of the Chiawa GMA and the adjoining Lower Zambezi National Park. The site is just 500m across the river from the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site.
Currently there are 136 commercial beds available in the GMA provided by 12 camps and lodges along the river. The biggest lodge in the area has 28 beds, the maximum the management plan for the area allows. The new 144-bed hotel will double this overnight, changing the high-value, low-impact tourism the Lower Zambezi is popular for.
Protea Hotels head office in South Africa issued a statement this week defending its actions. An abbreviated version of the response to it by lodge and safari operators in the GMA is carried below.
Protea says a recent media article stating that 12 out of 15 traditional leaders in the Chiawa Region have signed a petition against the development is not true. It further states these traditional leaders do not exist in the Chiyaba Chiefdom in Chiawa, which is ruled by Chieftanness Chiyawa who has supported the hotel project..
Safari operators agree that Chieftainness Chiyawa is the one traditional ruler of the area although they are concerned that Protea Hotels’ avoidance of the relocation request by the Community Resource Board may be viewed as an attempt to undermine the board’s, and hence the Wildlife Act’s, authority and purpose to protect and sustain Zambia’s GMAs and National Parks.
Whilst the Chieftainness and operators continue to show support for economic development in the Chiawa area, community leaders say they will not object to the project provided it is located on an alternative site outside the protected area, a view widely shared by operators.
Protea says the development site is outside the Lower Zambezi National Park.
The impacts of the development will inevitably include the park itself, as well as the GMA and Mana Pools World Heritage Site in Zimbabwe. This statement only highlights the seemingly scant regard for the extent of the proposal’s impact.
These impacts will include: additional settlement within the protected GMA; light and noise pollution in the wilderness area; a significant increase in road and river traffic; and an estimated 30 000 additional visitors annually to an area that is already stressed.
Protea says written submissions on the project were made 18 months ago and Protea Hotels has consulted with all stakeholders.
Apparently no submissions were ever received by any of the interested and affected parties in Zimbabwe, whilst many Zambian stakeholders were given just two days notice of the Protea Scoping Meeting on 19 April 2009 and were not able to attend.
Protea says the Zambian government has been involved at every stage of planning.
Lodge operators say Protea’s environmental impact study (EIS) ignores the Zambia Wildlife Authority’s General Management Plan for the Chiawa GMA and Lower Zambezi National Park, ratified by the Minister of Tourism in 2001. This imposes a moratorium on all new tourist developments within the area.
Protea says the ecologically sensitive Mana Pools area is in Zimbabwe and the proposed hotel development in Zambia.
Lodge operators say the hotel site is located less than 500m from the Zimbabwe bank of the river in a shared eco-system. Protea’s response also implies insufficient due regard for initiatives planned for the area such as the proposed Transfrontier Park linking national parks on both sides of the river, suggesting Protea’s interests transcend global conservation initiatives
Protea says it is the only operator in the Lower Zambezi doing a full EIS and it is lobbying Zambia’s government to ensure all developments in the area comply with the same requirements to comprehensively understand the environmental impact there.
Lodge operators say this development is five times larger than any other establishment in the area and will require permanent infrastructure in the form of all-weather roads, electric power and telecommunications to facilitate construction in an area with no other permanent human settlement. Therefore Protea is creating the environmental concerns it claims to be trying to address in its EIS.