Empowering mine-affected communities – Silveira House, Harare

Twanda Chamba SJ (left)

Situated in Chishawasha, a rural district outside the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, travelling to Silveira House feels more like going on retreat rather than visiting a Jesuit advocacy office. In my experience, Jesuit social centres are usually found in nondescript blocks somewhere in the middle of a city.

But as my guide Tawanda Chamba SJ explained, the tranquil location of Silveira House is no accident. It is a poignant reminder of an aspect of its history. Tawanda is a Zimbabwean Jesuit currently doing his regency with this social justice and development centre. Silveira House enjoys a special place in the history of the nation since an initial role when it was set up by the visionary Fr John Dove SJ in 1964 was to mediate between rival nationalist groups during the country’s struggle for independence. Because holding meetings in the city centre or in townships was impossible, the neutral “hideout” location at Highfields was an ideal place to conduct political negotiations and peace-building.

Today the centre continues to provide a safe-space for deep reflection and formation in a post-liberation Zimbabwe, which faces new issues and challenges.

One major challenge is injustices associated with the mining sector. Silveira House director Fr Gibson Munyoro SJ together with members of the advocacy and peace-building team explained how they are working with communities who are affected by mines.

The peaceful setting of SH

Since 2013 they have been especially involved with two cases. The first is a community next to a black granite mine in Mutoko lying in the Mashonland East province, about 143km from Harare. The people close to the quarry have suffered greatly, including from the dumping of waste on their agricultural lands. The second is a community close to a coal mine in Hwange in the western province of Matabeleland North.

Silveira House has accompanied the communities by training local village leaders in advocacy and in how to assert their legal rights. The trust and reputation built up through the years has meant the centre has privileged access to different actors within Zimbabwean society.

Recently, Silveira House has focused its energies on the way in which Community Share Ownership Trusts (CSOTs) are negotiated and managed. CSOTs are the means by which mining developers attempt to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. Typically funds are promised to local communities to offset social and environmental harms. But often the promises are not delivered, and the trusts are poorly managed. Silveira House therefore trains local leaders in how to operate the CSOTs. In addition to this grassroots assistance, Silveira House has been at the forefront of lobbying for legislative change to improve the CSOT system.

Through its work on mining issues, Silveira House attempts to integrate a promotion of corporate transparency and community development with that of peace-building and justice.