MASVINGO — At the end of November last year, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Sinomine Resource Group chair Wang Pingwei walked into a lithium processing plant, construction hats firmly on.

With a crowd of policymakers, company workers and press looking on, they hailed the mining group’s $300 million investment into processing plants.

The facilities will process the ore that the company unearths at its Bikita mine and turn it into a higher-value product for export.

“I commend Sinomine Resource Group for taking heed of my government’s call,” Mnangagwa said at the gathering in the southern district of Bikita.

Zimbabwe has banned exports of raw lithium, requiring companies to develop domestic processing facilities and increase local jobs.

The country is now calling on other companies to copy Sinomine’s footsteps, pushing forward a building boom by Chinese mining companies.

“This has contributed to the realization of our target of attaining a $12 billion mining economy by year end,” Mnangagwa said.

The sentiment was understandable for the 81-year-old president.

Zimbabwe has been cut off from global financiers over failure to service its debts. The country was also hit by sanctions and trade embargos by the European Union, U.K. and U.S. over serious human rights violations.

For the past two decades, it has turned to China, adopting what the government terms a “Look East Policy.” In 2020, Mnangagwa described the Asian giant as “our all-weather friends.”

But many workers and villagers in Bikita and Gutu districts aren’t feeling very friendly toward either Sinomine or the Zimbabwean government. They accuse both of sidelining environmental and social standards for lucrative lithium projects.

“There are many challenges with the current hype about energy transition. It is not about us,” said Farai Maguwu, the founding director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), an organization working on improved management of Zimbabwe’s natural wealth. While the mine produces lithium for green technologies abroad, locals have little electricity.

The Southern African country has the continent’s largest lithium reserves and sees potential for an economic boost from the critical mineral. Lithium mining and processing is the country’s fastest-growing industry, with companies from China as the largest share of investors. And the Bikita mine, at the center of it all, is the largest lithium mine in the country, generating $500 million in exports in 2023.

A series of displacements, spills, labor abuses, a death, and little action by the authorities have left workers, locals and experts accusing the government of failing to enforce its own laws and letting bad mining practices run loose.

Rebecca Ray, a senior academic researcher with Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, who has studied similar Chinese investments in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, said there needs to be improvement in how environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards are applied in practice.

“The Sinomine situation is a large, critical example of a phenomenon that we have studied across the world. China’s Green Belt and Road Initiative and Green Finance Guidelines [warn] investors and contractors to meet host country standards or international environmental and social standards, whichever is more stringent,” she told Mongabay.

“However, in practice, Chinese actors — and the host country governments who regulate their behavior — have much room to improve in this regard.”

Rindai Makumbe says she regrets the day in 2022 when Sinomine bought the mine.

“They opened roads and cleared space for a road and power lines through our fields. They never consulted us over the issue and we were surprised to see bulldozers clearing our fields, and sometimes passing near our homes,” said Makumbe, from Makumbe village in Bikita. She’s not alone in her disdain for the company’s actions and the government’s lack of attention.

Collins Nikisi, a spokesperson for Bikita Minerals, Sinomine’s local subsidiary, said some villagers reside within the mine’s leased land, but the company has agreed to co-exist with them, “a clear testimony of the good relationships we enjoy.”

He confirmed there were “a few farmers” whose farmland was affected during the construction of the Bikita-Gutu public road. However, the mine reportedly consulted with the villagers, reached and signed a settlement with them, and compensated displaced villagers with money to build new homes last year.

Villagers whose homesteads or land were affected by the construction of an extra high-voltage power transmission line are being compensated by ZETDC, the state-owned utility, Nikisi told Mongabay. The company didn’t share a copy of the agreement for Mongabay to see.

But another villager, Assah Hwenyani, said community members themselves weren’t consulted, as required by law, and have yet to be compensated. It was only community chiefs who were consulted and compensated. These discussions weren’t shared with villagers, Hwenyani said.

“We were in the dark only to be told to leave our ancestral land to pave way for the mine. We were neither settled on the mine’s land,” he said. “They constructed a road and several families were affected as it passed on our premises. We are yet to receive compensation for our displacement.”

Despite the complaints, the government has still not resolved this land conflict. Officials didn’t or couldn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for an interview.

Across the meandering Mungezi River, which dissects the arid region of Gutu and Bikita — impoverished districts prone to perennial droughts — Evelyn Mareke said the mine almost killed their source of livelihood. Mareke, who benefits from the nearby Matezva dam, accuses the mine of polluting the water in October with unknown toxic chemicals.

“We survive on selling farming produce watered from the dam, as well as fishing and doing our laundry. However, the mine polluted the dam and our crops were affected. It also led to death of fish and aquatic life,” Mareke, from Marinda village, told Mongabay. “Some of the villagers’ cattle who drink from the dam were also affected.”

Nikisi confirmed the discharge into the dam, but denied that it contained toxic chemicals.

“We had a spillage from the water reservoir and our team immediately attended to the problem. The spillage lasted for a few hours … No chemicals spilled into the dam as you allege, and the spillage was not in any way harmful as our tests backed,” Nikisi said. The company didn’t share its test results for Mongabay to see.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency said the spillage contained potentially toxic chemicals dumped into the dam, but also refused to disclose the type of chemicals from its test results.

“We fined Sinomine $5,000, which is level 14, the highest penalty for polluters. We also gave the mine one month to clear their mess in the dam,” said Patience Matema, the EMA’s provincial officer overseeing environmental impact assessments and ecosystem protection. She said the mine eventually cleared the effluent.

Nikisi said the mine’s activities inevitably impact the environment through land disturbance, resource consumption and pollution. But the company’s strategic focus is to prevent, mitigate or minimize impacts on natural resources and communities nearby, he said.

At the mining site, some local workers also resent the mine over poor working conditions and lack of protective clothing.

A local workers’ committee representative, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job, accused Sinomine of unfair labor practices.

“Our cost-of-living allowances were scrapped by [Sinomine] when they took over from our previous investors. They introduced target bonus allowances so that we work to meet their targets. But when we met targets, we did not get the bonuses,” the representative said. “If you go on regular, compassionate or sick leave, you are disqualified from the bonus.”

The representative said the company removed the complaint process and workers now fear being dismissed if they step out of line. Workers are also prone to being overworked, and therefore at risk of workplace accidents due to fatigue, they told Mongabay.

In late October last year, a Bikita Minerals employee, Nelson Musendekwa, 44, of Mafuka village, died after the 30-ton crusher he was operating collapsed on him.

Seven co-workers escaped unhurt. He had been employed as a plant operator at the mine’s gravel-packing unit.

One of Musendekwa’s relatives refused to talk to the press, amid indications that the family had reached a settlement with Bikita Minerals.

Nikisi said the mine aims to achieve zero harm in its operations, a feat that saw the company win a national award for occupational safety and health in October 2023 — days before Musendekwa’s death.

Pfungwa Kunaka, the permanent secretary at the mining ministry, said authorities are investigating the accident. The ministry does periodic inspections of mining companies and also conducted a mining audit in May and June last year, Kunaka told Mongabay.

“We did an exercise focusing on Bikita minerals specifically and they had several shortcomings which resulted in government shutting down operations for a week [in May]. As government, we keep a watch on mining companies,” he said, adding he couldn’t disclose the findings to the press.

The closure happened amid myriad other violations that included labor malpractice, employment of illegal Chinese immigrants, and poor administrative procedures leading to lithium smuggling.

While the mine says it has since increased security and regularized its Chinese workforce, some unfair labor practices and smuggling are still prevalent, according to employees. They also criticize the government for not closing down the mine for its investigation into Musendekwa’s death in October.

Justice Chinhema, general secretary of the Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union (ZDAMWU), said his organization is still handling several cases of unfair labor practices involving Bikita Minerals.

“The mine has more than 10 subcontracted Chinese companies,” Chinhema said. “These companies are not operating in terms of the law in the areas of health, safety, minimum wages, respecting workers’ rights and so on. Some are paying below minimum wages.”

Chinhema said the union is still awaiting the mining ministry’s official findings into the October fatality. “Reports that we received are that it is an act of negligence. If it is true, we are going to do litigation through private prosecution. We do not expect to lose a life at the workplace.”

Mountain Mujakachi, a project coordinator with the Bikita Institute of Land and Development (BILAD), a local pressure group advocating for the rights of the local community, accused the mine of subcontracting Chinese companies to do some of the work that could be done by local contractors.

But the company says it’s just following the rules and regulations set by the government on fair labor practices. It also says it tries to incorporate diversity in its hiring to include underrepresented groups.

Ray from the Global Development Policy Center said Chinese investors tend to comply, without evasion or complaint, in countries where the host government sets and enforces high standards of conduct. But many governments have simply “shied away” from making such demands of these new partners, with the predictable problems of labor, contamination, and social conflict arising.

The CNRG has called on the Zimbabwean government to stop treating Chinese investors “with kid gloves” and to establish a master plan that will act as a template for all lithium miners in Zimbabwe.

This plan should determine their output, tax obligations, and how much they put into their corporate social responsibility toward local communities, the watchdog says.

So far, the Bikita mine has helped provide access to water by drilling boreholes and investing $30 million in local infrastructure, education and health care projects. Marozva, a local traditional leader in the area, welcomed these developments, but said communities are hoping to see more benefits and less impacts from having such a productive mine in their vicinity.

Communities around the mine still don’t have electricity, and a new coal-fired power plant being built in the middle of the village will power the mine, not homes.

“This thermal power station is not going to produce electricity for the community, it’s all for the mine. The community must just inhale the carbon. We know that air pollution is killing at least 7 million people globally and the community will add to the statistic,” said the CNRG’s Maguwu.

A 2023 report by the Global Development Policy Center on five Chinese-financed development projects in three African countries noted that the investments didn’t meet the standards of China’s own recommended ESG guidance


In a recent report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Chinese companies have been associated with 102 violations over the past two years, including environmental harms, workers’ rights violations, and other allegations as the country seeks out transition minerals abroad for green-energy technology. The main affected countries, according to the report, are Indonesia (where nickel is main target mineral), Peru (copper), the Democratic Republic of Congo (cobalt), Myanmar (rare earth elements) and Zimbabwe (lithium).

However, the center also notes that miners and investors from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Europe operating in these countries also face similar allegations of human rights violations, environmental harms and labor abuses.

To shield its overseas infrastructure portfolio from the types of problems that have previously plagued the Belt and Road Initiative, China is stepping up its ESG risk mitigation efforts, according to a policy report by AidData.

Beijing is trying to manage its reputational risk after its public approval rating in industrially developing countries plunged from 56% in 2019 to 40% in 2021.

In May, the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemical Importers & Exporters developed a new grievance mechanism to allow people impacted by the mining industry to raise environmental and social concerns to find solutions. The mechanism is currently accessible only in English or Chinese and is still in its pilot phase.

China has also recently unveiled new ESG rules for more than 400 listed firms in order to keep up with European listing disclosures for companies.

“What mining companies should be doing in Zimbabwe is to follow the laws of the country,” said Chinhema, the labor union leader. “We do not expect investors who come and impose their way of doing things to workers. We expect them to follow the laws.”