TRUCKLOADS of lithium ore are still being smuggled out of the country’s largest lithium producer, Bikita Minerals, despite several measures put in place by the police and mine management to contain the activities which are depriving the country of millions of dollars in potential revenue.
With support from Information for Development Trust under a project meant to support investigative reporting focusing on the accountability and governance of foreign interests and investment in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, an investigation by The NewsHawks in September this year established that smuggling increased after the takeover of the mine by China Sinomine Resources Group for US$200 million early last year.
The acquisition and subsequent investment also resulted in a five-fold increase in production in the 15-square-kilometre mining area.
A follow-up investigation has established that the looting of lithium from the mine is still ongoing although the mine management, workers and dealers say there has been a reduction.
The NewsHawks established that lithium dealers are still operating. The dealers told this reporter that they are operating with the aid of senior Zanu PF officials, police officers and some senior officials at the mine, hence they are able to circumvert various anti-smuggling measures put in place after our story.
The mine management has deployed police officers around the mine. Surveillance cameras have also been installed while patrols, which include a number of stakeholders among them private security companies and members of surrounding communities, have also been introduced.
Several dealers, who are stationed at Chinhamo Business Centre a few metres away from the mine, told The NewsHawks that they are still in business despite the measures.
They have since raised the price of a 30-tonne load from US$3 000 they used to charge in September to US$4 500. The dealers attributed the price hike to increased demand of the mineral globally and tight security measures being employed by mine authorities around the mine.
They said police officers deployed at the mine are also charging a fee to allow safe passage of trucks with the smuggled loot.
“We are still in business; you can come anytime with trucks which are similar to the ones used by the mine. This is easy since we are now dealing with police officers guarding the mine to evade detection. We normally use the mine entrance but at times we use other routes to transport the lithium. We used to charge US$3 000 for a truck but police officers are now demanding US$900, meaning that a truckload is now costing US$4 500. You can come at any time, there are loads waiting for buyers as we speak,” said one of the dealers.
“This is how we are feeding our families and we will not leave this business even if they employ methods to stop us. This mineral is still on demand and there are markets in South Africa or Mozambique waiting for it. We process legal papers so that our customers can transport their loads to any place without any hassle.”
A village head under Chief Marozva who requested not to be named said the engagement of more security details including patrols by the community members is a sign that the looting of lithium by syndicates is still ongoing.
He said lithium smuggling is difficult to stop because it involves people who are politically connected.
“The dealers are connected to people in Zanu PF and we know their names but it is difficult for us to give you names. It is a disease which is difficult to cure due to the involvement of people with big names. Trucks with illegal loads are coming out of the mine on daily basis despite implementation of several measures to stop it by the mine. We are also worried about the locals who are not benefitting from the mining activities being undertaken in our area. The company is not doing what we were expecting remember we used to receive support from previous owners,” said the village head.
Bikita Institute of Land director Mountain Mujakachi told The NewsHawks that locals are reporting to his organisation that syndicates looting lithium from Bikita are still active and this has been going on since the takeover of the company by the Chinese last year.
He complained about the lack of “tangible” corporate social responsibility projects, adding that most developmental projects in Bikita were being done through devolution funds.
“Early this year there was a case of lithium intercepted by police in Masvingo which was believed to have been stolen in Bikita and the people who were in possession of the loot were using fake papers. We are still receiving reports that the stealing of lithium ore by syndicates is still ongoing. We are also worried by poor working conditions which workers are being exposed to with recent cases of work-related deaths, as well as poor renumeration. In terms of corporate social responsibility, the mine is yet to do projects which benefit the communities where they are operating from. If you come to the district, you will not see anything tangible which was done by the company,” said Mujakachi.
A workers’ committee leader told The NewsHawks that lithium dealers were working with police officers deployed to provide security at the mine.
Masvingo provincial police spokesperson Inspector Kudakwashe Dhewa said police would investigate the claims since reports of police collusion were yet to reach his office.
“I think those allegations should be verified, but from regular checks on our men no such reports were received. Is there anyone who saw police ignoring trucks leaving the mine with smuggled lithium? l think those are just allegations, but as police we will look at the matter,” said Dhewa.
In a statement to The NewsHawks responding to questions by this reporter, Bikita Minerals said cases of theft of raw lithium have been reduced drastically due to a raft of measures employed by the mine in collaboration with Zimbabwe Republic police and joint community stakeholder patrols.
Bikita Minerals said it had closed a public road which used to pass through the mine and constructed another one which is now being used by the community, increasing the chances for mine security to monitor and do surveillance.
“Cases of thefts for raw lithium have been reduced drastically due to a raft of measures employed by the mine in collaboration with ZRP, private security firms and joint community stakeholder patrols. We also closed the Bikita-Gutu public road that passed through our mining lease and built a new council road for the community. As a result, our security can monitor and do surveillance diligently. In addition we have installed closed-circuit television to track and monitor any suspicious movements,” the mine said.
“For the year 2023 we spent over US$30 million towards corporate social responsibility and the focus areas were power generation, construction of the Birchenough Bridge, water and sanitation, health and education. A total of US$22 million was spent towards the construction of the Tokwe-Bikita Powerline. Overall project status is 55% and the powerline is set to be completed by February 2024.
“We have begun construction work for the new Birchenough Bridge and drilling is in progress and US$10 million will be spent towards this project. Thirty-three boreholes were drilled in Masvingo Province and over US$100 000 was spent on the project. Bikita West received 16 boreholes, Masvingo North 12 boreholes and Masvingo West five boreholes.
“A total of US$600 000 was spent towards road maintenance and construction of Nyika-Kamungoma, Bikita to Gutu and surrounding roads linking the community to clinics, schools and administrative centres.”
Bikita Minerals said it had constructed two classroom blocks and staff quarters at Mara Primary School and sourced building materials for Makwivindi Clinic in Gutu South.
Masvingo Centre for Research Advocacy and Development (MACRAD) coordinator Ephraim Mtombeni however said there is a need to ensure that benefits derived from Sino Chinese in Bikita whose operations are causing massive environmental damages are distributed properly through the whole community.
He said Parliament should bring a corporate social responsibility framework where mining companies should be accountable.
“The environmental damages happening in Bikita are severe and long lasting as it negatively impacts on sustainable development. Bikita Minerals should now accept that local people in Bikita are heavily affected by their operations and they need to have basic services like water, road infrastructure, healthcare and education centres,” Mtombeni said.
“For government to rely on ‘moral suasion’ where mining companies invest and plough back into the communities that they operate in of their own volition should not be condoned, taking into mind the destruction taking place in mining areas. It’s high time for the legislators to bring a CSR [corporate social responsibility] framework where mining companies should account. More so, local communities should be involved and actively participate in issues to do with them. Communities are tired and sick of companies deciding on their own things which are not their priorities.”