Lethal Lithium: New curse for Zimbabwe

Tawanda Majoni

Lithium is fast becoming the new resource curse in Zimbabwe.

Government has already made it a strategic mineral considering its high-end socio-economic and national defense value.

On the African scale, Zimbabwe is considered to hold the largest lithium deposits. The Arcadia lithium project just outside Harare is actually one of the world’s biggest.

Prices of the mineral are so mouthwatering, easily making lithium a mineral of the future. As a statement of the exportation importance of the mineral, government has already banned the exportation of raw lithium.

This, on paper, is meant to encourage local beneficiation of the mineral and, in the process, grow the local economy through, among other things, the manufacture of high value export products and job creation. Well, one hopes that government will walk its talk here, because it habitually breaks its own rules.

At the time of going to print, so to speak, more and more discoveries of lithium were being made as potential investors stampeded for prospecting and mining licences. In fact, as they have said, one of the reasons for making lithium a strategic mineral is that there is overwhelming appetite to mine it.

Ordinarily, this would give you a good reason to smile and squeeze the odd hope out in the doom and gloom of the so-called Second Republic. But then, it’s extremely difficult to be an optimist in this cursed land., not even in your dreams.

Dusk has this mysterious habit of showing up at dawn here. Largely because of the corruption and very huge appetite to eat among those occupying the “right” offices and their accomplices.

Zimbabwe is literally crouching on lithium. The mineral is in such abundance and you would expect the communities that are sitting on the precious mineral to be turning the tide as investors come. But that’s not so.

One big problem is the displacement, actual and potential, of hundreds of families from the land. Granted, displacements are inevitable in some cases. The issue here is how they are happening.

Where lithium is concerned, you will get scared to know what has happened to a good number of families that were cheated out of their land by a Chinese miner, Max Mind. They were literally handheld to sign consent forms that allowed the miner in and booted them out.

The families were given the rosiest promises of relocation and compensation, but they are now worse off than black Rhodesians who made way for colonial settlers. The company involved, at whose groundbreaking ceremony President Emmerson Mnangagwa officiated last year, has made all sorts of shiny claims about how it has met its side of the bargain. It’s all lies and flies. Very soon, the real story will be out.

Fling to the other side of the country, to Mudzi in Mashonaland East. Other Chinese companies are trying to do exactly the same thing. For instance, in Ward 6 in the district, one of the companies, Zim Win Mining is trying very hard to cheat the people so that it can start mining in some of the areas.

So far, it has approached the community a whopping four times, seeking to get the villagers to sign consent forms to allow the company to grab their land so as to “prospect” for lithium.

Just about everything is wrong with the manner in which Zim Win is doing things. To start with, the consent form regarding its intended prospecting for lithium is written in pretty technical English. If you accept the falsehood that Zimbabwe is highly literate, you may not see anything wrong with this.

But then, it’s Mudzi that we are talking about. A rural district where it’s not rare to find a 25-year old woman who cannot do a signature or read out her national identity number, let alone write one single sensible sentence.

Mudzi is a predominantly Zanu PF stronghold. You know why? Because the ruling party, over the decades, has made it a point that the district, just like most parts of Mashonaland East province, remains underdeveloped. By the way, one of the main reasons why Zanu PF has repeatedly lost to the opposition in towns and cities from the turn of the millennium is that urbanites are not as disempowered as their rural counterparts.

The hungrier and more illiterate the people are, the more they are dependent on the ruling party, and the longer they vote the party. It’s called strategic disempowerment, a useful tool for manipulation and repression of the electorate.

Secondly, the consent form is vague. Very vague. It talks about “fully” compensating affected villagers in terms that are just too broad. It just says it will compensate the villagers for the losses that they will suffer. It doesn’t say how nor how much. It doesn’t specify the likely losses or the model that will be used to evaluate the losses. Nor does it set timelines for the compensation.

Thirdly—and very importantly—the consent forms and the manner in which Zim Win is trying to get them signed are illegal. Have a look, Zim Win, as it appears, already has a prospecting licence that would empower it to peg off the lithium claims and do the exploratory mining. In this case, the line between prospecting and the actual mining becomes just too thin and literally academic.

Yet, in order for you to start your project in this manner, there are certain key things that the law says you must do. You need to have maximally consulted with the community. You need to have an exploration licence if you are a foreigner.

But Zim Win is not bringing any of these documents for the people to see. Since it’s not doing so, the knee jerk assumption is that it doesn’t have them. But then, what you hear from credible corners is that Zim Win already has a mining licence.

If that is the case, it means it is proceeding fraudulently. It also means that it is working in cahoots with corrupt officials at the Mines ministry, the provincial mining director included. How could it be given a mining licence if it hasn’t fulfilled the basic requirements like an environmental impact assessment certificate that is issued only by EMA?

Has Zim Win consulted with the Mudzi Rural District Council as is expected? Not from what you hear when people talk to you.

We have talked about Max Mind and Zim Win only. With the steep rate at which Chinese and other investors are coming in, we are bound to witness a popcorn crisis throughout the country.

Tawanda Majoni writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on majonitt@gmail.com

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