ZIMBABWE is losing unprocessed lithium, mainly extracted by artisanal miners, through smuggling by a well-knit syndicate of foreign nationals who take advantage of porous borders, bleeding the country of potential revenue, a new report by the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela) has revealed.
According to the report titled: “Implications of the lithium rush in Zimbabwe”, the country has been losing raw lithium through illicit trade, through key players who include the Chinese, Indians, South Africans and Mozambicans, who have been draining the country’s fiscal potential from lithium.
An investigation by The NewsHawks published last week also exposed lithium smuggling from the Mudzi and Mutoko areas via Nyamapnda Border Post.
The location of lithium reserves close to the border has also made the mineral, also known as the “white gold”, prone to smuggling.
This is despite Zimbabwe imposing a ban on the exportation of unprocessed lithium. While cabinet also approved the beneficiation policy, the country has not yet fully operationalised value addition and beneficiation programmes.
Local participation and capacity in beneficiation have not been developed.
Zela’s February investigation revealed that foreign buyers are smuggling lithium ore, which is bought in bulk from artisanal miners. For instance, during one of Zela’s visits to mining sites in Mberengwa, there were various buyers of lithium who were operating haulage trucks at night.
In one incident, the investigative team observed a fleet of seven haulage trucks headed for Mberengwa around 7pm. However, the following day, it was noted that only two trucks had been fully loaded overnight and left.
It also emerged that the lithium miners sell their lithium to buyers, mostly Chinese nationals who also drive at night to these remote areas for collection, according to the report. The Chinese nationals are said to be the best buyers, forking out between US$120 and US$150 on average for a tonne of lithium.
However, local buyers have been short-changing miners as they buy ore based on the percentage value of the ore after estimating the tonnage.
The buyers are reportedly bribing police officers to be allowed to leave with truckloads of lithium.
The artisanal miners are largely exposed to unsafe and inhuman working conditions, and have in several instances been losing ore to foreign buyers.
“The artisanal miners were not using safe methods of mining and there may be risk of fatal mine accidents. At Sandawana the miners were only targeting outcrops which are easy to mine. Therefore, most of them were employing shallow opencast mining methods to extract the near-surface outcrops.
“A few were employing shallow unsupported underground mining methods. The miners revealed that three weeks before the visit, there was a pit which collapsed with nine people inside. One person died from the incident and the miners were able to assist the other eight miners. This event clearly demonstrates the hazards of unregulated artisanal mining.
“Lithium was being sold at between US$100 and US$150 per tonne. Chinese and Indian buyers did not weigh the mineral but used estimates that are given by the miner. There was a possibility of miners being short-changed because they lack knowledge of the value of the lithium, and buyers have bargaining power,” read part of the report.
Findings from the report also revealed opaqueness in regards to the licensing of lithium mining, with contracts signed between the government of Zimbabwe and different investors not accessible. There is also public concern over the ownership structure of Kuvimba Mining House, a company that owns Sandawana Mine, raising fears of corruption.
Mineral leakages have now become rampant, which has prompted the government to institute an audit into all mining companies operating in the country.
Experts say Zimbabwe has over 40 base minerals and several precious stones such as diamonds, yet it still remains a cause for concern that a nation with one of the largest known diamond and platinum deposits in the world has nearly half of its population living in extreme poverty.
Leakages have also been massive in the gold sector, with the country losing an estimated 200 kilogrammes every month due to gold leakages by well-connected elites, as has been revealed by a four-episode investigative series that has been aired by the news agency in recent weeks.
All the people implicated in the smuggling web are closely linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Kenyan gold smuggler Kamlesh Pattni in the final episode shows multiple photos of him with President Emmerson Mnangagwa, while offering to set up a meeting between the Chinese mafia (undercover Al Jazeera reporters) and the President.
Pattni, who almost bankrupted Kenya in the 1990s through a gold scandal which cost that country’s treasury US$600 million, reveals he makes payments to Mnangagwa as “appreciation” every two weeks through his young brother to enable him to smoothly carry out his gold and money laundering operations in Zimbabwe.
The racket has seen gold smugglers transport at least US$5 million every week, with the money being laundered in United Arab Emirates banks, as shown by the documentary.
The scheme includes self-styled prophet Uebert Angel, President Mnangagwa’s controversial envoy, who in the documentary brags about being able to sign binding treaties, even without the President’s knowledge, and controversial miner Henrietta Rushwaya, who was arrested in 2021 for attempting to smuggle 6.7kg of gold worth US$366 000 at Robert Mugabe International Airport in 2020.
Phone calls in the documentary nail her as a notorious gold smuggler.