Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett, was bunkered in a meeting with the Vice-President of Zambia last Friday inside the plush Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka.

Outside on the streets of the African capital, protesters were on the march. Six were arrested, according to press reports.

They were protesting the decision by the Zambian government to let an Australian company mine for copper in the Lower Zambezi National Park.

Executives of the company, Zambezi Resources, were also at the Pamodzi that day. Although the local press reported they were in a meeting with Barnett, the Premier’s office told Fairfax Media there was no meeting.

The Premier has been on a mission; exhorting African leaders to adhere to the high standards of mining regulation in Australia.

His objectives are laudable, although the Premier might well extend the mission to his own backyard, Perth.

As protests mounted against the Perth-based Zambezi Resources, activists lodged a request for an injunction of sorts with the High Court last Friday.

A hundred NGOs (non-government organisations), moreover, have mobilised in opposition to the open pit copper mine.

Until Wednesday, there was no hint of all this in the company’s releases to the Australian Securities Exchange.

After a media inquiry, however, the explorer sallied forth with this: ”Zambezi Resources promises world’s greenest copper mine”. With majestic breeziness, the press release spoke of the ”cleanest, greenest and safest copper mine ever built”.

Despite this belated attention to the ASX’s disclosure requirements, there are far bigger issues at stake.

One main element in Barnett’s mission to Africa, which culminated with an address to 6000 delegates at the Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town, is convincing emerging African nations they ought to follow Australia’s mining codes.

Indeed, Australia stands at the vanguard of good practice in the international mining community. Yet the Zambezi Resources imbroglio will hardly refine its reputation and leadership in the region.

The Lower Zambezi is a haven for tourism and one of the world’s most sensitive ecosystems.

Critics of the copper project say the mining is certain to contaminate the river and destroy wildlife. And they are not all greenies.

An independent report on Zambezi’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by US mining engineer Jim Kuipers is extraordinarily scathing.

”The Kangaluwi Copper Mine grossly fails to meet US or international standards for environmental assessments,” Kuipers wrote. ”It is our strongest recommendation that this EIS be rejected by the government of Zambia.”

And there are disputes even as to the physical location of the mine.

The company says the project is located on an escarpment 35 kilometres away from the Zambezi River.

But Dr Kellie Leigh, a conservation scientist who worked in the area for seven years, says the mine site is not ”in a remote, inaccessible and sparse part of the park, on the upper escarpment, more than 35 kilometres away from the Zambezi River, with no surface water and consequently very few animals”, as claimed by the developers.

Leigh says the open-pit site is within 19 kilometres of the Zambezi River, and inside the river’s water catchment area.

”More importantly, that 19-kilometre distance is meaningless since the identified General Mining Activity Area, in their EIS, is less than one kilometre from the Chakwenga River and Kangaluwi stream, both of which they identify in their EIS as draining the project site and both of which flow into the Zambezi.

”According to the laws of gravity and water catchments, any contamination would flow into these immediately nearby tributaries and thus into the Zambezi.

”Contaminants won’t bother doing the 19-kilometre cross-country hike across the mountains to the Zambezi,” she says. The main open-pit area of the mine is only 7 kilometres from the valley floor ”where the wildlife becomes concentrated”.

The path to approval for Zambezi Resources has not been plain sailing. In September 2012, following a detailed scientific environmental impact assessment, the application to mine was knocked back by the Zambian Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA).

The EIS breached basic international regulatory standards for environmental impact assessments.

The company appealed the ZEMA decision. On January 17 this year, Zambia Minister of Mines Harry Kabalo (also a newspaper proprietor), overturned the ZEMA decision and allowed the project to go ahead.

Leigh says not only does the project fail to comply with the Equator Principles (risk management principles accepted worldwide) and Zambian EIS regulations, but it also failed to adhere to the international standards against mining in national parks and around World Heritage Areas (set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Council on Mining and Metals).

Australian companies have dozens of projects on the boil in Africa. It is the world’s hot spot for minerals exploration.

It would be a pity if Barnett’s lofty aspirations were compromised by poor project decisions. It would be even more of a pity for the people and the wildlife of Zambia if the Zambezi River were to be polluted by Australian miners. The river flows into neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The famous Mana Pools sanctuary lies on the other side of the river.

This story is not just about greenies versus miners. It is about common sense. The protesters in Zambia include tribal leaders and eco-tourist resorts. The tourism industry in Zambia is flourishing. It is sustainable sector, far more sustainable than an open pit copper mine whose toxins are almost certain to contaminate one of the world’s most pristine wildlife sanctuaries.

Barnett’s office declined to confirm whether it supported the Zambezi project, or not.