Massive lithium ore smuggling via Zim-Mozambique porous borders
LITHIUM ore continues to be smuggled out of Zimbabwe, particularly through Mozambique’s Beira port en route to offshore destinations despite a ban imposed by government on the exportation of the mineral.
The smuggling is occurring mostly through the porous Nyamapanda Border Post, which has lax security. There are no scanners at the border post, as established by a recent visit to the border by The NewsHawks.
An investigation by The NewsHawks, with support from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) Investigative Journalism Fund on transnational crimes, which included interviews with officials and Civil Society players in Mudzi and Mutoko, where some of the lithium is being plundered revealed that trucks carrying loads of the banned mineral are crossing into Mozambique despite the ban.
The lithium smugglers, who drop names of senior government officials at events, are taking advantage of lax enforcement, corruption by police officers manning roadblocks, weak security systems at the border, weak enforcement of laws by customs and immigration officials at the border to smuggle the lithium.
In some cases, the gangs are also taking advantage of the lack of knowledge of enforcement officials who cannot differentiate between lithium and other minerals. Zimbabwe is the world’s fifth largest producer of lithium, with a production of 1 200 metric tonnes recorded in 2021. Zimbabwe has abundant deposits of the mineral whose demand is rising globally. Lithium, a soft and silvery mineral, is at the centre of the energy transition.
As countries around the world make efforts to shift towards greener economies, they need rechargeable batteries which lithium can also produce. The batteries can be used to power electrical vehicles and to store energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Lithium, an essential component of these batteries as well as those in mobile portable devices, acts as a medium for energy storage.
In a circular issued on 20 December 2022 under the Base Minerals Export Control Act, Mines minister Winston Chitando said: “No lithium bearing ores, or unbeneficiated lithium whatsoever, shall be exported from Zimbabwe to another country.” The ban was effected through Statutory Instrument (SI) 213 of 2022 titled Base Mineral Export Control (Unbeneficiated Lithium Bearing Ores) Order, 2022.
Part of the SI reads: “Under the powers conferred upon me by section 3(1)(a) of the Base Minerals Export Control Act [Chapter 21:05], I, Winston Chitando, MP, Minister of Mines and Mining Development, by this my order direct that with immediate effect as follows:— 1. This order may be cited as the Base Minerals Export Control (Unbeneficiated Lithium Bearing Ores) Order, 2022.
“In this order— “lithium bearing ore” means any mineral ore containing lithium; “unbeneficiated lithium” means any lithium in whatever form that has not undergone processing to an extent that would exempt it from the payment of export tax under section 12B (“Collection of tax on exportation of unbeneficiated lithium; determination of value thereof”) of the Value Added Tax Act [Chapter 23:12]; 3. (1) No lithium bearing ores, or unbeneficiated lithium whatsoever, shall be exported from Zimbabwe to another country . . .”
Investigations established that some of the lithium being smuggled into Mozambique is being mined in Mutoko and Mudzi Rural District’s Ward 5 in the Bangauya community. There has been massive plunder of lithium, particularly in Marozva and Tawapangana villages by name dropping gangs, who have mobilised illegal miners to extract the mineral. The ore is transported via Mutoko to Nyamapanda Border Post, a distance of about 226 kilometres.
Confirmation of looting
Zanu PF’s Mudzi ward 5 councillor Albert Saineti confirmed there has been plunder of the lithium by unlicensed local villagers who would then sell it to smugglers.
“The villagers who do not have licences to mine lithium have been illegally doing so in our area and after gathering the ore, they then sell it to visiting buyers who come with heavy trucks, collect the ore and take it to their preferred destinations for sale,” Saineti said.
“These trucks have become a big problem as they have also damaged roads due to overloading. As we speak some villagers are having to walk for over 10 kilometres to get transport because the area is now inaccessible to public transporters. Some truck companies have been fined by the RDC (Rural District Council) for destruction of the roads,” he said.
Mudzi RDC chief executive officer Tivirai Chitemamuswa confirmed that lithium is being smuggled in the area. “The smugglers are dealing directly with the illegal miners from the community where they are digging up lithium. They do not come through the council. We have been fining some of the culprits, but very few. From what we heard, they come with trucks and give false impressions to the illegal miners that they are coming from higher offices in Harare and have authority to buy the lithium mined illegally anyway,” Chitemamuswa said.
“So what it means is that the country is not benefiting from the lithium because it is being smuggled with no money paid to council or government coffers. The network of smugglers also has sources which leak out information to them each time we try to go and raid them so that when we arrive in those areas we don’t find anyone on the ground. That is our challenge in curbing the unlawful operations,” he said.
Villagers revealed the trucks normally load ore in the dead of night. This reporter tracked one of the trucks which was carrying lithium ore from Mutoko on Sunday 2 April 2023. This was after some Mutoko residents made a tip off to this reporter.
The lithium cargo was contained in several white bales covered by a blue tent tied with ropes. The truck’s registration number was KVB 915 MP. The truck tracked was branded Heymans Kole on its back. Online checks on the web site of the company showed that it is based in Sandton, South Africa. On the website, the company says it offers bulk transportation services to a diverse range of customers who hire its trucks.
From Mutoko Centre there was no police check point up to Nyamapanda Border Post between 10am and 1pm when the haulage truck was on the road. However, the following day, a police check point was set up at Kotwa, about 30 kilometres from Nyamapanda Border Post.
Trucks with cargo however passed without any searches. When the truck carrying lithium arrived on the Zimbabwean side of the border, there were four private vehicles and three other trucks in front of it. The truck was cleared to pass into Mozambique after a two-hour wait. Investigations at the border, which included physical observations, interviews with border clearing agents and customs officials, revealed that the lithium cargo it was carrying was declared as magnetite.
Officials at the border said it is common for lithium to be declared as magnetite to enable the smuggling. Magnetite, just like lithium, is a rock mineral. It looks similar to lithium ore. Magnetite is an iron ore used to manufacture steel.
It is also used as a catalyst in the haber process for making ammonia, as a pigment for paints and ceramics, and as magnetic micro- and nanoparticles for a variety of processes and materials.
“Obviously there is need for the lithium to be given another name. In the case of that truck, its cargo was recorded as magnetite. It was just for purposes of disguise,” said a clearing agent on the Mozambique side of the border. Sources at the border said similar trucks with lithium do not pay duty to the Mozambican authorities after declaring the mineral as cargo in transit as it would be destined for the port.
A customs official on the Mozambique side of the border explained that money exchanges hands to enable lithium-carrying trucks to pass through the border.
“The trucks pass without the CD1 form from Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe which is given to exporters as a data sheet showing the destination of the mineral being transported, royalties to be paid to government after the sale, the grade of the ore and fulfilment of other requirements from the Minerals Marketing Cooperation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ). Again, there won’t be any tripartite agreement between seller of the ore, MMCZ and the buyer, which is the normal practice when exporting minerals,” said the official.
We are aware of the smuggling: MMCZ
MMCZ general manager Tongai Mathew Muzenda said he was aware of the lithium smuggling and said it was not only happening at Nyamapanda. He said the organisation’s monitors have in the past intercepted trucks intending to smuggle lithium through the border.
“It is not just happening at Nyamapanda Border Post, but generally there are a lot of cases of illegal movement of lithium happening even internally, not talking of at that border alone. The cases are so many,” Muzenda said.
“The illegal exportation of lithium ore is a possibility which we cannot overrule. The MMCZ monitoring and inspectorate divisions continue to perform their duties in curbing this bad behaviour. Our monitors have intercepted so many culprits moving lithium illegally. At times the culprits illegally moving lithium lie that they are transporting other minerals like chrome or manganese as disguise. The cases are so many. I think there must be promulgation of a law to add to the Statutory Instrument on the ban of lithium ore exports.”
Asked to give examples of some of the cases that the MMCZ handled regarding illegal movement of lithium, Muzenda said: “Those will be with the police. And while investigations are ongoing, or cases are with the courts, we cannot interfere.”
The MMCZ’s mandate is to promote minerals produced in Zimbabwe and oversee the process of their exports. The entity conducts checks and provides confirmations on mineral specifications before export through grading, evaluation or sampling and analysis or a combination of any of these.
Police spokesperson Commissioner Paul Nyathi declined to comment.
“I can only be able to comment if I first speak to our officers from CID (Central Investigations Department. If I get the information, I will share with you but at the moment I have detail to give on the issue.”
On 7 September last year, two men from Mutoko were arrested after they tried to smuggle 40 tonnes of lithium ore out of the country using a South African-registered truck. The duo, Livingstone Barnet (32) and Raison Murima (30), were arrested at a police roadblock.
One of the suspects identified as Tapiwa Nyauchi escaped arrest at the roadblock. They were charged of contravening Section 368 of the Mines and Minerals Act relating to prospecting for any mineral, mineral ore or natural gas without a licence or permit. In December last year, Beitbridge Border Post officials intercepted a consignment of lithium ore on three haulage trucks belonging to one Bernard Tafadzwa Mnangagwa.
The lithium was confiscated by the state and Mnangagwa’s case is currently being handled at the Beitbridge magistrates’ court. The ore was being smuggled to South Africa, and was declared as manganese.
On 13 December 2022, Nyamupfukudza village head John Nyamupfukudza (48) residing under Chief Chitsungo of Pfungwe area, appeared before Murehwa magistrate Edwin Marecha charged with causing illegal movement of 30 tonnes of lithium after three truck drivers he had sold the mineral to were arrested along the road leading to Nyamapanda Border Post.
The registration vehicle numbers of the trucks were AEZ 0203; AFQ 3664 and ADZ 2227.
CSOs speak out
Mutoko-based Youth Initiatives for Community Development (YICD) programmes manager Kuda Makanda said villagers were bearing the brunt of severely damaged roads caused by overloaded trucks transporting the mineral.
“The trucks coming to carry lithium ore in that area in Mudzi are causing havoc. They have damaged roads extensively and we have people there now having to walk for over 20 kilometres to get transport because some areas are now inaccessible. People from outside the area are just going there claiming to be having permits to mine lithium even on homesteads of local villagers. The community is angry about the operations. The roads in Mudzi are now in a deplorable state because of the trucks ferrying lithium ores there,” he said.
The NewsHawks understands lithium is also being extracted from other parts of the country outside Mutoko such as Mberengwa and again smuggled through the Mozambican border. Mberengwa Lithium Community Group secretary-general Takavafira Zhou confirmed the development.
“It is unfortunate that cartels are involved in mining lithium in Mberengwa and are plundering, looting, wrecking and siphoning the mineral resources from Mberengwa and unlawfully selling it in Mozambique and South Africa. What worries the people of Mberengwa is how mining of lithium is happening in a reserved area without special permit from government, environmental impact assessment and consultation of the local populace,” Zhou said.
“It would seem the cartels mining do not only have government immunity but are also above the law, a sad scenario that has not only led to a resource curse in Mberengwa but also to environmental terrorism. What the people of Mberengwa want is not only dividends sharing of the wealth from natural resources but also reservation of one fifth of the 100 000 hectares of the lithium area for mining by the local populace.”
Obert Chinhamo, the Anti- Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-SA) director, said lithium smuggling was a nationwide problem.
“From what we gathered, the smuggling used to be happening mostly through the South Africa border at Beitbridge. However, we have received reports that it is now happening through the Mozambique border, where trucks load the lithium ore in Mutoko and go directly to Mozambique via the nearby Nyamapanda border instead of first going to Harare then South Africa,” Chinhamo said.
“We also gather that in other areas such as Zvishavane, there are huge stockpiles of lithium ore which we fear may be in the process of being smuggled. We encourage authorities to take note and investigate these reports.”
Government should invest in beneficiation
Zimbabwe Institute of Foundries (ZIF) chief operations officer Dosman Mangisi told The NewsHawks that if leakages of lithium are plugged and the government invests heavily in the beneficiation of the mineral, it can help reduce energy problems in the country since it is a key source in the production of solar systems.
“It is important for Zimbabwe to invest in the beneficiation of lithium. Zimbabwe has very big deposits of iron ores and lithium works as a hardener in steel manufacturing. So beneficiating lithium locally vis-a-vis the deposits that are in Zimbabwe, of iron and lithium, it will put Zimbabwe on a very positive trajectory, in mineral beneficiation and it will result in big strides on the economic value chain,” he said.
“Lithium, through ceramic engineering, manufactures solar panels which are a big source of energy. Zimbabwe has a higher deficit of energy due to high cost of electricity but lithium can cover that gap if the country puts it to good use”.
The chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on Mines, Edmund Mukaratigwa, said there is a need for collaboration between different stakeholders to curb lithium smuggling, which he said was rampant. He said this should include collaboration between parliament and civil society organisations in order to curb the crime.
“That is where Parliament and CSOs complement each other. We have heard about it and we are following up on that particularly with the police that must be primarily active to curb such leakages,” he said.
We will act: government
Mines deputy minister Polite Kambamura said the ministry will launch investigations on the lithium ores smuggling at the Nyamapanda border. “Our position on lithium is that its exports are banned. However, we do not enforce the law. That is the job of the police. However, if there is any information on the violation of the ban of lithium ores export, we are going to be investigating such,” he said.