Govt blocks small-scale miners from lithium fields

Polite Kambamura

GOVERNMENT has barred artisanal miners and lithium buyers who had thronged the Sandawana Mine in Mberengwa ultimately giving exclusive rights to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) through Kuvimba Mining House, who will buy the mineral while assisting the miners with equipment and other accessories.

More than 5 000 artisanal miners and fortune seekers, including foreigners, mainly of Chinese origin, had for the past month descended on the former emerald and tantalite mine in the Midlands province, in search of lithium which they reportedly exported to foreign markets across the world.

Government, through the Zimbabwe Mining and Development Corporation (ZMDC), owns 65% of Kuvimba, which owns Sandawana Mine, while several other investors share 35% of the miner which has interests in gold, copper, nickel and other minerals.

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 with its output rising steadily in recent years; it produced 1 200 tonnes of the metal in 2021.

The government believes 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.

Investigations by the Independent last week unearthed shenanigans by foreign buyers and their Zimbabwean cohort who were buying the mineral from the artisanal miners at a paltry US$150 per tonne.

The foreigners were reportedly using their counterpart's licences to export the mineral outside Zimbabwe and selling the precious ore at US$800 per tonne cashing in on the illicit and unregulated mining activities in the area.

However, following reports of illicit and unregulated mining activities, the government moved to control the mining and selling of the mineral while giving the ZMF exclusive rights to manage the mining processes at the site.

The ZMF, whose president, Henrietta Rushwaya, visited the site with Mines and Mining Development deputy minister Polite Kambamura, and officials from Kuvimba last Friday was given the rights to register the artisanal miners while regularising mining activities in the area.

The government also ordered the artisanal miners off the mountains in the Varichem and Gwamakudo mining sites, with only a few members allowed to go up to protect the ore against possible theft.

In an interview at the site, Kambamura said the government had been forced to intervene to bring sanity on the ground while ensuring accountability to the mining activities.

“We noticed there is illegal mining going on. Illegal buyers were buying minerals under the umbrella name of lithium yet the ore here contains a lot of minerals. It is a multi-element mineral and it’s not only lithium found on these mountains.

“So buyers were coming in to buy lithium and smuggle it out of the country. When they smuggle it out of the country, they will go and further process it to extract other minerals unknown to the miners so we had to bring sanity to this area,” Kambamura said.

He added that the government had agreed with Kuvimba officials, who are the holders of titles in the mines, to let registered artisanal miners continue their activities while selling the mineral to the company.

“The miners need to be formalised through the process of registration so that they benefit from the provision of technical expertise, provision of equipment and other benefits. Kuvimba Mining House is going to be the sole buyer of lithium ore being mined here because they own the claims.

“We have agreed not to chase people away but we need to formalise their activities so that they mine and get paid to earn a living,” Kambamura added.

In the long run, Kambamura said, Kuvimba would move in to explore and exploit all the deposits while opening up and developing full operations.

He said the government will also push for full operations and restoration of mining activities at Sandawana Mine.

Addressing artisanal miners and traditional leaders who gathered at the meeting, Kambamura said the government did not know the buyers who were paying for the lithium.

“We expect, as the government, to know the people who are buying our minerals and where they are going but in this current situation, we didn’t know.

“We are now aware that the ore was being smuggled out of Zimbabwe so we are searching for the individuals involved in the illegal activities so that they are brought to book,” he said.

Kambamura also revealed that the agreement between Kuvimba and the ZMF to register all artisanal miners in the mountains was to control the mining activities.

“We, as a government, are calling all those involved in mining activities to do so according to Zimbabwean law. “Kuvimba will help the miners with technical assistance and mining equipment. We are also calling on the miners to shun other buyers because Kuvimba will be buying the lithium and will provide transport for all the ore mined from this mine,” Kambamura said.

“Government is also aware that there are many lithium deposits and mining claims and Kuvimba will also use their technology to identify these.”

Kuvimba operations manager Toindepi Muganyi confirmed that Kuvimba’s claims at Sandawana Mine straddled over a huge area of land.

“Members of the ZMF would also benefit as they will be engaged as tributaries with all the ore mined from the claims being sold to Kuvimba.

“Kuvimba would also provide trucks to carry the ore and other equipment including loaders that will also assist ZMF members engaged by the company,” Muganyi said.

Rushwaya weighed in saying mining will resume once infrastructure such as toilets and market stalls is in place.

“We are stopping all sponsors engaging the miners and all those providing other services including dynamite and blasting services are not allowed any more,” Rushwaya said.

She also assured miners that the ZMF would assist all registered artisanal miners to get all their needs from Kuvimba.

Environmentalists last week said lithium required government intervention to protect the villagers who have been bearing the brunt of the latest developments.

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

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