Lithium rush in Mberengwa

Henrietta Rushwaya

Zimbabwe’s policies are once again in the spotlight after more than 5 000 artisanal miners and fortune seekers, including foreigners, have descended on the former Sandawana Mine in Mberengwa, Midlands province, in search of lithium which is reportedly exported to foreign markets across the world.

Sandawana Mine is in the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) portfolio and has been famed for producing emeralds and other precious stones.

Lithium is a rare mineral whose production is currently taking place in only eight countries, with 85% of the global supply coming from Australia, Chile and China.

Zimbabwe is the world’s fifth-largest lithium producer. Its lithium output has risen steadily in recent years, producing 1 200 metric tonnes of the metal in 2021.

Government is bullish on the quantum of the metal within its borders with Mines minister Winston Chitando recently telling the media that Zimbabwe has the potential to account for 20% of global lithium demand when all known lithium resources are exploited. However, unscrupulous dealers have been siphoning the mineral through Zimbabwe’s porous borders amid reports that most of the lithium from Mberengwa is being shipped into South Africa with dealers manipulating the laxity at the Beitbridge border post.

Unscrupulous dealers have, according to an investigation carried out by the Zimbabwe Independent this week, been on the ground in Mberengwa, shipping out the precious mineral much to the prejudice of the state.

The mineral is reportedly being exported to countries like South Africa with authorities reportedly also cashing in on the illicit and unregulated mining activities in the area.

The US dollar-seeking artisanal miners are earning at most US$150 per tonne while investigations done in Mberengwa and South Africa revealed that the “buyers” are earning as much as US$800 when they resale the mineral.

The Independent this week visited the mountains in Mberengwa where more than 5 000 artisanal miners have been camped in the last month, mining lithium ore while trucks from South Africa are based at the mining sites.

Mines and Mining Development Deputy Minister Polite Kambamura confirmed that the government was aware of the developments.

“We have just heard of what is happening in Mberengwa, but I am visiting the place tomorrow (today). We will make a statement after the visit tomorrow,” Kambamura said in an interview yesterday.

On Wednesday police details visited the place and issued a four-day ultimatum for the miners to vacate the place.

The latest development has however attracted the attention of environmentalists and pressure groups who are worried about the involvement of corrupt government officials and foreigners in the pillaging of the country’s resources.

Speaking to the Independent, a villager revealed that the pillaging, which has been going on for just about a month, has shocked even government officials.

“The former miners used to get emerald and tantalite but we have just discovered that we could get these minerals for export,” the villagers noted.

The Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) president Henrietta Rushwaya who visited the area advised miners to respect the laws of the land.

“We want our people to benefit from Zimbabwe’s natural resources, so we expect villagers to own claims, but that has to be done in a proper manner. We need to respect the laws of the land and we understand there are economic hardships, but mining has procedures which must be followed. Lawlessness in the mining sector is a thing of the past,” Rushwaya said.

In various interviews, environmentalists said lithium required government intervention to protect the villagers who have been bearing the brunt of the latest developments.

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Environmentalist and Reyna Trust executive director Sydney Chisi said lithium was becoming a critical mineral that could help Zimbabwe in adding value to its minerals.

“However, as long as we don’t have the technology and technology transfer and value addition to our minerals, then foreign nationals will come and extract our minerals as raw. Zimbabwe as a country susceptible to climate change will always buy these products at a high price as we continue to struggle to add value to our minerals,” Chisi said.

However, Centre for Natural Resources Governance director Farai Maguwu said the situation in Mberengwa was prone to abuse by government and Zanu-PF officials taking advantage of the laxity of controls in the mining sector.

“I think mining has become a major distraction and the government is using mining as a way of diverting people’s attention from important issues. But this is coming with a big cost considering the haphazard manner in which Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth is being accessed,” Maguwu said.

He said foreign syndicates are taking advantage of this confusion and have been milking the country’s wealth for nothing.

“The whole world is moving towards lithium. It is a transition mineral used for the movement to renewable energy. So it’s sad that we don’t have policy documents on lithium. There is a predatory approach by the government. And when you look at the informal manner in which people are extracting the mineral, it means there is going to be an environmental catastrophe. An environmental Armageddon will unfold and the government will come later when they realise that the deposits are large like they did in Marange. Maybe they are going to use the army, which is a drastic measure.

“Overally, Zimbabwe needs dialogue on mineral governance. The country needs a natural resource charter where we have the government and the citizens agreeing on how best to govern our minerals. Future generations will also need to account for these resources that we are giving away for nothing,” Maguwu said.

Over the course of this year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa officially opened a number of lithium mining companies but there hasn’t been much talk on the beneficiation of the mineral.

Sources: Zimbabwe Independent

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