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Lithium mining in Africa reveals dark side of green energy

, November 16, 2023, 0 Comments

The new rush for lithium in Africa risks fueling corruption and harming local communities and the environment, investigations have shown.

lithium-africa-marketexpress-inAt a Chinese-run lithium mine in Namibia, local workers have complained for months about squalid living conditions and unsafe work practices.

An August fact-finding mission by the Mineworkers Union of Namibia into the Uis mine — which is operated by Chinese mining company Xinfeng Investments — found that the mine’s local employees live in tiny, hot shacks made of corrugated zinc and without proper ventilation.

The union also faulted a lack of privacy in the sanitation blocks, where toilets and showers are lined up without partitions between them. By contrast, the mine’s Chinese workers have comfortable air-conditioned rooms and decent bathrooms.

The union also criticized Xinfeng for failing to provide protective clothing and ensure adequate safety measures were in place for local workers.

This is not the only controversy surrounding Xinfeng Investments. A new investigation into lithium mining in Africa by UK-based nonprofit Global Witness outlines accusations against the firm, ranging from acquiring the industrial mine in Uis through bribery to developing it using permits intended for artisanal miners.

Developing the mine with small-scale licenses meant the company paid “a staggering low amount for access” to the lithium deposit and allowed it to skirt some environmental regulations, the investigation says.

‘Concerning’ trend of corruption

As well as in Namibia, the report also documents human rights abuses, corruption, displacement and unsafe working practices in lithium mines the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe.

“Going back decades, the mining sector in Africa has often involved corruption and communities not really getting a share of the profits,” said Global Witness senior investigator Colin Robertson, one of the report’s authors. “What we found in the lithium sector is that this trend is set to continue. … This is very concerning.”

Race for lithium

Called the “white gold” of the renewable energy revolution, lithium is a key component of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power everything from cellphones to electric cars. Such batteries are also vital for storing energy produced by clean energy like solar or wind if the world is to make the break from fossil fuels.

Globally, the lithium supply is currently dominated by Australia, Chile and China, who together produced 90% of the light metal in 2022. But with about 5% of the world’s lithium ore reserves, Africa still holds enormous potential, most of which is untapped. Currently only Zimbabwe and Namibia export lithium ore, while projects in nations such as Congo, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Ethiopia are under exploration or development.

With demand for the critical mineral expected to boom — it could grow fortyfold by 2040, according to projections from the International Energy Agency — major economies and international companies are racing to secure access to lithium on the continent.

And many African nations are embracing the lithium rush.

‘Mineral of the future’

“Lithium is the mineral of the present and the future,” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said recently.

Zimbabwe, which has Africa’s largest lithium reserves and is ranked sixth globally for lithium exports, earned $209 million (€193 million) from the mineral in the first nine months of 2023. That’s nearly treble last year’s earnings.

The southern African country, along with Namibia and Tanzania, has banned the export of raw, or unprocessed lithium, as it seeks to get added value from the lightweight metal.

Zimbabwe’s ban is far from watertight. Global Witness’ research discovered that large amounts of lithium ore are still being trucked out of the country.

In addition, Zimbabwe Defence Industries, a military-linked company subject to US and EU sanctions, has been granted a special exemption to export lithium ore to China. The director of the Harare-based Centre for Natural Resource Governance, Farai Maguwu, is appalled by this development.

“Even though they don’t own a single lithium mine,” he told DW, “they were given an export permit.”

Lithium is a ‘curse’

Maguwu is pessimistic when asked if lithium mining brings any benefit to Zimbabwe.

“Not at all,” he answered. “If anything, this abundance of lithium deposits in the current system of governance is actually a curse to the country.”

“If anything, it will bring the country down because there are no systems in place to ensure that the country can generate revenue for the benefits, first and foremost, of the host communities which must pay the cost of mine, loss of land, loss of biodiversity and the social intrusion into their space.”

Maguwu gave the example of the Sandawana mine where a lithium rush saw thousands of locals digging out the metal. But in early 2023, the mine was reportedly taken over by companies with links to Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and military.

“Even where the local people are able to mine and sell legally, the government sent troops armed to the teeth to stop people from accessing the lithium,” Maguwu said.

There is “no silver bullet” to the problem of corruption in Africa’s mining sector, he said, but he would like to see more Western mining companies invest in extracting Africa’s lithium, as they are often bound by stricter environmental, social and governance standards and practices.

Fear of Chinese monopoly

China has a virtual monopoly on lithium extraction in Africa. More than four-fifths, or 83%, of Africa’s forecast lithium supply this decade will come from projects at least partly owned by Chinese firms, estimates Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a consultancy.

Three Chinese mining giants have acquired lithium mines and projects worth $678 million in Zimbabwe in the past year.

“Domination [of lithium mining] by one country may led to undesirable results such as undervaluation of mineral resources, tax avoidance and human rights abuses in the sector,” said a recent report by the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association.

Global Witness researcher Robertson called on the European Union and the United States to ensure increased transparency of lithium mining and more oversight by local activists in order to improve governance and combat corruption.

“It can’t just be about [the EU and US] trying to increase their own supply of minerals,” he said.

As for Farai Maguwu, he stressed that the proceeds from extractive projects must be plowed back into the community in terms of public goods, such as roads, health clinics and schools.

“We consider our unmined assets as our natural capital and the local people, even children, should enjoy the benefits of the extraction of their natural capital,” he said.