Zimbabwe’s conflict lithium and the marginalization of locals

Clayton Shereni

The plunder of diamonds in Chiadzwa by government officials and security officials who work in collaboration with Chinese firms, the gold rush at Hwendedzo and the lithium rushes in Bikita, Goromonzi and Mberengwa may all amount to the resource curse that has come to characterize mining operations in Zimbabwe.

With 80 percent of export receipts reportedly coming from the mining sector, according to authorities, the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is banking on the mining sector to change fortunes of citizens and revive its bedridden economy which has been on life support system since turn of the millennium.

The prevailing lithium rush has without doubt contributed immensely towards the economy, with the country recording a sharp rise in lithium exports.

This comes at a time the world is accelerating efforts towards an energy transition from use of fossil fuels like coal to clean and renewable energy sources that include lithium.

Among several other uses, lithium is now mainly used in the production of durable motor vehicle batteries

Demand for lithium has increased worldwide, and Zimbabwe is Africa’s biggest exporter while China is the world’s leading investor and importer of the precious mineral.

Zimbabwe has a soft spot for Chinese investments and its ‘Look East’ policy which was pushed extensively by the late former President Robert Mugabe underlines this approach.

Chinese firms have flooded the country’s mining sector, and these include Sino Mine that took over at Bikita Minerals in January 2022 at a cost of US$180 million. 

Another leading Chinese company operating in the country is the Williams Minerals lithium mine by China Natural Resources.

China, being the leading investor, has poured US$220 billion towards lithium production globally and this has seen a sharp increase in lithium production by 283 percent in the period of 2010-2021.

Since takeover of operations at Bikita Minerals by Sino Mine, production of petalite has increased from 50 000 tonnes to 480 000 tonnes per year while spodumene concentrate will increase to 300 000 metric tonnes per year.

Zimbabwe boasts of Bikita Minerals which has known lithium deposits standing at approximately 11 million tonnes.

However, as has been the case with other mining activities of periodic booms at different intervals, locals feel shortchanged in all these developments.

An ‘unholy alliance’ is said to be existing between foreign investors and those that sit at the upper echelons of power.

According to locals, it has been a case of politically-invested individuals and investors enjoying a disproportionate chunk of the proceeds, while communities get either crumbs or nothing at all from what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Vitalis Engineer, a farmer in Bikita whose farm borders the mining area, told Centre News that Sino Mine needed to do more to improve livelihoods and living conditions in the community.

“We are seeing a few efforts being made by the mine that are benefitting the Chief, local authority through rates, and some school children who get stationery and maheu. The company should extend a hand to the local community as a whole by repairing houses that are cracking as a result of serious blasting that happens at the mine,” he said.

These sentiments come at a time the mine is said to be targeting at-least US$1 billion in the year 2023 from an investment of close to US$300 million.

The company has been accused of partnering politicians to implement corrupt recruitment of mine workers, evade corporate social responsibility, and to perpetrate gross human rights violations.

Pamela Chipunza from Bikita Ward 11 under Chief Marozva told this publication that corruption was rampant at the mining company.

“People pay bribes through traditional leaders for them to get jobs at the mine but some fail to land jobs even after paying. Our hope is that young people here get an equal opportunity and first preference ahead of those that come from elsewhere. What we want is development in the health sector and also schools nearby so that even Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) get assistance on their doorsteps because they are special in our communities,” said Chipunza.   

In many communities across the country, traditional leaders face allegations of colluding with unethical mining companies but, as to be expected, they deny this.

Elastus Muputa, who is Mucheuki village head in Bikita, said the recruitment processes by Sino Mine were opaque and benefitting only those that were well-connected.

“We just see them mining and we don’t even know how they recruit people. The majority of employees are not from Bikita district but as for the few that got a chance. We are not aware as of how they were recruited. There is nothing meaningful that we are benefitting as village heads or as locals because many of our youths are in need of jobs but they are not getting employment opportunities,” he said.

Youth Initiatives for Community Development Trust (YICD) programs manager, Kudakwashe Makanda said the youth lacked capacity to take control of the mainstream economic opportunities and were largely getting into the artisanal mining sector which tends to be more abusive.

“Many young people participate as illegal artisanal miners and this doesn’t really benefit them. Lithium mining was established to benefit largely well-heeled foreigners at the expense of poor locals who lack the capital and equipment to meaningfully exploit the resource,” said Makanda.

He implored authorities to equip the youth with skills that are relevant in the mining sector to curb unfair labour cases being reported at foreign owned mines. 

“There should be a clear quota system that must be enforced to set aside a certain percentage of claims for young people who must be equipped with skills that make them employable within the lithium mining sector not just as mere general labourers,” Makanda said. 

Following the recent completion of the second processing plant at Bikita Minerals, company authorities claim they have created over 1000 job opportunities with locals getting first preference.

They claim that they are improving access to healthcare, water and sanitation, education, and are working to improve salaries and an to invest more in surrounding communities.

SinoMine Bikita Minerals Corporate Communications Officer, Collen Nikisi said the company was working to improve itself for the benefit of its employees and the host communities.

“Bikita Minerals we are an equal employment opportunity company. However, we place more emphasis on the employment of locals. As things stand, we recruit 80% from the local community. This can be verified from our employment registers. At present we employ 910 and our contactors employ an additional 1400,” said Nikisi.

He also added that the company has invested in borehole drilling, roads rehabilitation and is also targeting to undertake many other big projects that benefit communities.

“In 2022, we drilled seven boreholes in Bikita West, and this year alone, we have drilled 26 boreholes in Masvingo North, Masvingo West and Bikita West. Plans are underway to drill an additional 10 in Bikita South and East.The communities have ventured into green gardening to generating income from the sale of produce.

“We have spent more than US$500 000 towards the road maintenance and rehabilitation programs. We have rehabilitated the Nyika-Kamungoma road, Beardmore-Rusununguko and Bikita-Gutu Road,” added Nikisi.

The mine says it has also invested in the healthcare industry by donating building materials at Makwirivindi clinic and is also running a schools feeding program at seven schools in the Bikita District.

Lithium mining is also being done at a larger-scale in Goromonzi where policy makers at local authority level want locals to get the best out of their natural resource.

Councillor Tapiwa Murima , of Ward 4 in Goromonzi district, said legislators must pass and enforce laws that protect locals.

“I would like to see locals and artisanal miners benefit more. Locals should benefit extensively, companies must uplift livelihoods of locals. I would like parliament to pass laws that are stricter with companies that do not invest in the communities from where they extract resources,” said Cllr Murima.

In Mberengwa there is also a rift between locals and investors of Kuvimba Mining House at Sandawana mine.

Dr Takavafira Zhou, a community rights activist and opposition member, lambasted traditional leaders and government officials for dishing out natural resources to foreigners whilst locals wallow in poverty.

“We must reject in toto the relationship of a horse and rider in which the people of Mberengwa are the horse and Kuvimba is the rider. A foreigner cannot come to Mberengwa and tell us how best to utilize our resources. Let our chiefs and government be reminded that a chief does not give a stranger the whole herd of cattle but an ox. It is oxymoronic for Kuvimba to assume it has a right and monopoly over 100,000 hectares of lithium land in Mberengwa stretching from Sandawana to Buchwa along the Mwezha range, let alone over emeralds, chrome, platinum, antimony, lime, copper, tantalite, iron ore, gold, etc. Kuvimba must never take us for fools,” said Dr Zhou.

Cases of Lithium smuggling have been recorded and in May 2023, a suspected lithium syndicate was busted in Masvingo by the police at a time the government has banned exportation of raw lithium.

Some 3 700 tonnes of raw lithium ore was recovered from warehouses in the Masvingo industrial area while 17 people were arrested.

No single conviction has since been recorded in connection to the matter despite the overwhelming magnitude of evidence which is the lithium.

A leading officer in the case, Assistant Commissioner Florence Marume, who arrested the suspects, faced transfer to Chitungwiza soon after the arrests but this was later reversed.

Details of investigations into the case have remained sketchy and cloudy despite it being a case of public interest.

At a recent workshop organized by Accountability Lab Zimbabwe, Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) director Farai Maguwu said communities needed to unite and confront abusive companies.

“Unless and until communities rise to challenge this pillaging, nothing will change; they will continue looting. We must agree that what’s happening in these lithium producing areas – Bikita, Sabi Star in Buhera, Sandawana Mberengwa and Goromonzi is a continuation of the looting happening in the diamond fields of Marange. It’s the same people or a different group but linked somehow. There is need for resistance,” said Maguwu.

As the demand for lithium increases globally, Zimbabwe as a giant exporter is expected to meet 20 percent of global lithium demands.

The country’s authorities, however, have an uphill task of bringing order to the mining sector, and restoring long lost public confidence in foreign investments being made in the lithium extraction sector.

The generality of Zimbabweans especially those living in mining communities are in dire need of development and empowerment.

Source:Masvingo Media Centre https://www.mediacentremasvingo.com/