Chinese lithium miner back, unsettles Mutoko villagers

Map showing Labenmon claims in Mutoko

SCORES of villagers in Mutoko, a mineral-rich district about 140 kilometres east of Harare, said they were being haunted by prospects of displacement by Chinese investors searching for lithium in their ancestral lands.

They said they were also worried that should the Chinese go ahead to establish operations, swathes of virgin lands would be turned upside down, with serious ramifications on the environment, previously protected by generations.

Villagers disclosed how the Chinese, who had earlier been ordered by the courts to stop prospecting, were striking fear in them by saying they had been granted exclusive rights by the Office of the President and Cabinet to proceed with their activities.

The miners do not have requisite paperwork to carry out mining in the area, according to information obtained by the Zimbabwe Independent.

In an effort to protect their land, villagers have approached the courts and the local leadership for assistance.

Villagers said Labenmon Investments and Undertreasure Mining Consultancy have ‘muscled their way’ back, scouting for granite, in addition to their interest in lithium.

Official documents show that Labenmon started local operations in 2006, focussing on gold and nickel mining, after being granted an investment licence giving it rights to claims in Mazowe and Guruve districts.

Labenmon shareholders include Yan Huo, Xu Yongxu, Huo, Wencai and Jin Xiaoling, according to its investment licence from the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (Zida).

Both firms do not have websites or social media accounts. But a quick search on the internet shows that in 2018, Undertreasure Mining was listed among companies then accused of ignoring and neglecting an amnesty on the declaration and repatriation of funds.

The externalisation list by the government includes companies and individuals who externalised funds through non-repatriation of export proceeds, funds externalised through payment of goods not received in Zimbabwe, and funds externalised to foreign banks in cash or under spurious transactions.

In 2016, Makaha Mining Co-operative Society demanded US$1,2 million from Underteasure Mining for breach of contract.

According to articles from 2016, the two companies entered into a joint venture in 2010. Under the deal, Makaha was expected to transfer 70 blocks of chrome — on 1 750 hectares — to Undertreasure in exchange for funding, mining equipment and marketing services.

 Investigations carried out by the Independent, in collaboration with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation supporting investigative reporting focusing on communities, exposed that the companies don’t have documentation but abuse the Office of the President and Cabinet to instil fear among the villagers.

It is the latest of a series of confrontations between Chinese investors and villagers in Mutoko, as the Sino lithium and granite rush in the district continues.

In May this year, villagers approached Mutoko Magistrates Court seeking an interdict to stop Labenmon from carrying out any prospecting, exploration and mining activities in Moyosvii, Chibanda, Gumbeze and Kadore without following due processes.

According to court documents, Labenmon pegged about 150 hectares, covering grazing pastures, cultivation land and traditional and cultural sites in these villages.

Community vulnerability

In July, the court ordered Labenmon to stop operations.However, villagers say a sense of uncertainty had returned after people claiming to be officials from the President’s office directed them to allow the firm to carry out its activities.

“We have a legal way to stop the mining activities but it seems like it is in vain. We feel like the community’s feelings and views are not taken into consideration when we are the most affected,” George Makanjera, a villager from Moyosvii village, said.

Makanjera is one of the villagers who took Labenmon to court, saying he was not consulted about the miner’s intentions to deprive him of his land in order to carry out mining activities.   

“The miners say they are acting on instruction from the Office of the President and will go ahead with their mining operations. We are back to square one. We are between a rock and a hard place. The community is left vulnerable and defeated by the current developments. We fear we might lose our land,” he said.

Daniel Mlalazi, human resources and operations manager at Labenmon, said the company was operating legally.

“What we are doing in Mutoko is within the confines of the law. The villagers have the rights to seek audience with courts if they feel that there is an order which is being violated,” Mlalazi said.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights which represented villagers in court, said if the firm presses ahead, it was ready to continue with the legal battle.

Pfungwa Kunaka, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, said the ministry’s officer in Mashonaland East indicated that everything was in order.

“I have checked with our provincial office, and we do not have the facts about the issues you raise,” Kunaka said.

Presidential spokesperson George Charamba referred questions to the Ministry of Mines and government authorities in Mutoko.

Environmental Management Agency Mashonaland East education and publicity officer Astus Mabwe said Lebanmon submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) document to EMA.

“The document is still under consideration. They are yet to be issued with an EIA licence, meaning legally they shouldn't be operating. We are reviewing the document that was submitted to us to see if we can proceed to give an EIA certificate,” Mabwe said.

 Violation of mining procedure

Labenmon did not consult villagers when it pegged in their agricultural and grazing land to conduct mining activities, which is a requirement under Section 31 (1) of the Mines and Minerals Act.

The Independent’s investigation revealed that Labenmon’s licence only limits it to gold mining in Mazowe and Guruve, not Mutoko.

The licence says Labenmon should work in these areas and seek written consent to expand to other areas.

 Mining activities to impact villagers

If mining activities proceed, villagers will lose their grazing pastures, farms, traditional and cultural shrines.

Documentation presented by Undertreasure Mining to villagers.

Women will suffer the most since they remain a critical part of every community playing crucial roles.

These include ensuring the health, nutrition, education and security of their families.

The women interviewed were afraid to speak, with all stated they feared for their lives, now that the Office of the President and Cabinet was reportedly in support of the mining project.

 Laws on mining

Under the Mines and Minerals Act, a prospecting company is supposed to consult the local authority, the rural district council in this case, and affected people.

Section 31 (h) of the Act states that no prospecting can take place “upon any communal land occupied as a village without written consent of the rural district council established for the area concerned”.

The current legislative framework for mining under the Act, which dates back to 1983, has become antiquated and out of touch with latest national and international mining law developments.

The disputes between investors and villagers in Mutoko demonstrate how existing laws have been violated by investors.

They also expose policy and legislative gaps, according to experts.

A community-based organisation in Mutoko, Youth Initiative for Community Development (YICD), has been educating villagers on the amended Mines and Minerals Bill — that has been in the pipeline since 2012.

The amendments seek to effect several changes to old mining laws and bring them up to speed with current dynamics.

Kudakwashe Makanda, the programmes officer for YICD, said going forward, a collaborative effort between the community and civil society organisations, bringing in legal officers, could help communities affected by such mining activities.

Mutoko, which is located 150km north-east of Harare in the sprawling Mashonaland East province, is currently a hotspot of granite and lithium mining projects.

China has strong historical ties with the southern African nation, with the Zida saying it licenced 160 investments from China during the first half of this year, an increase from 53 last year.

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