Lithium heist in Mberengwa ... as Kuvimba ‘loots’ villagers ore without paying

Part of the crowd of artisanal miners that was addressed by Mines deputy minister Polite Kambamura, ZMF president Henrietta Rushwaya and Kuvimba operations manager Toindepi Muganyi late last year in Mberengwa.

THE government, which in November last year committed itself to regularising lithium mining activities at Sandawana Mine in Mberengwa, made a dramatic turnaround by duping and abandoning villagers after grabbing their ore without paying for it, a Zimbabwe Independent investigation has revealed.

Late last year, at least 5 000 artisanal miners and fortune-seekers, including foreigners, descended on the former emerald mine after the discovery of lithium in the Midlands province.

Sandawana Mine is part of the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) portfolio through Kuvimba Mining House and is famed for producing emeralds, tantalite and other precious stones.

ZMDC owns 65% of Kuvimba while several other investors share 35% including a miner who has interests in gold, copper, nickel and other minerals.

The government moved to control lithium mining activities at Sandawana after it emerged that some foreigners, paying locals as much as US$200 per tonne, descended on the mine and were exporting the base metal.

Authorities barred artisanal miners, mostly villagers from Mberengwa and surrounding areas, and the lithium buyers, ultimately, giving exclusive rights to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) to supervise mining activities while selling the ore to Kuvimba.

In November, Kuvimba and ZMF officials committed to assisting the artisanal miners with equipment and other accessories while also buying the lithium at improved prices as well as providing transport.

Mines deputy minister Polite Kambamura was deployed to meet artisanal miners while assessing the situation on the ground.

Kambamura, ZMF president Henrietta Rushwaya and Kuvimba operations manager Toindepi Muganyi addressed the villagers outlining the development.

Kambamura revealed that the government had been forced to intervene to bring sanity on the ground while ensuring accountability in the mining activities.

“We noticed there is illegal mining going on. Illegal buyers were buying minerals under the umbrella name of lithium yet the ore here contains a lot of other minerals.

“It is a multi-element mineral and it’s not only lithium found in these mountains. So buyers were coming in to buy lithium and smuggle it out of the country. When they smuggle it out of the country, they will go and further process it to extract other minerals unknown to the miners so we had to bring sanity to this area,” he said in an interview with the Independent in November last year.

He also said the government had agreed with Kuvimba officials, who are the holders of titles to the mines, to let registered artisanal miners continue their activities while selling the mineral to the company.

In the long run, Kambamura said, Kuvimba would move in to explore and exploit all the deposits while opening up and developing full operations.

Kambamura also revealed that the agreement between Kuvimba and the ZMF to register all artisanal miners in the mountains was to control the mining activities.

However, within two months Kuvimba had reportedly reneged on its promise with villagers saying the mine was paying them less than the agreed price.

“We were selling lithium to buyers including Chinese who were paying us as much as US$200 [per tonne] but when Kuvimba moved in they are paying as little as US$50 per tonne,” the villagers told the Independent.

It also emerged that  30 tonnes of lithium fetched at least US$21 000 on the South African market.

“We were expecting Kuvimba, as a government entity, to try and match these prices but we were  fooled when the officials intervened.”

The worst nightmare for villagers and artisanal miners who were mining the ore in Upper and Lower Varichem and Gwamakudo areas was waking up on January 1 this year to find their ore gone.

“Kuvimba sent a huge fleet of tipper trucks onto the mountains and loaded all the lithium ore that we had extracted and disappeared into the night,” sources interviewed said.

The miners did not only lose their ore for nothing, but the officials who grabbed the lithium also grabbed their equipment and dumped it at a police station in Zvishavane.

“We lost compressors and their accessories. They even took our shovels and wheelbarrows. At least they could have paid us the little they owed us and returned our equipment. People are afraid to go to Zvishavane to claim their equipment for fear of arrest and we know it is stored with the police,” the villagers said.

While some daring villagers are collecting the ore using sacks while hiding it in bushes, the major challenge is dealing with police patrols that have been intensified since the area was cordoned off.

“There are some who are brave and they get the ore but some of us find it difficult because you need to have huge amounts to pay bribes along the way,” the villagers added.

According to investigations, police demand as much as US$800 to allow a truck to leave the area while some traditional leaders have been accused of facilitating the movement of lithium from Mberengwa for as much as US$400 per tipper truck.

The villagers also bemoaned paying US$5 each for registering with the ZMF as they felt the federation was not helping them as promised by the leadership.

“We paid that money but a few people got the accreditation cards. They promised us equipment and jobs including working as tributaries to Kuvimba but we were chased away with nothing,” the villagers said.

While people interviewed claimed that at least 5 000 artisanal miners had registered with ZMF at Sandawana, the federation’s provincial chairman Makumba Nyenje told the Independent that 1 200 miners were registered in Mberengwa.

“It is not true that we are not assisting the miners but we are in negotiations with authorities so that some are employed while others get claims to mine lithium.

“It’s a long process but we are trying to have our members come back to extract the ore so they can benefit from the country’s natural resources,” Nyenje said.

He said there was an influx of artisanal miners when lithium was discovered at Sandawana and not all of them were ZMF members.

“We are also in the process of identifying and properly registering our genuine members so that they benefit from our programmes,” Nyenje said.

There were unconfirmed reports that leaders at ZMF were rewarded with lithium claims as a bribe to leave Sandawana.

Kuvimba chief executive officer Simba Chinyemba did not respond to questions sent by the Independent. He had requested questions in writing.

Contacted for comment, Kambamura confirmed that removing the artisanal miners from Sandawana was a deliberate move to bring sanity to the mine.

He, however, said he was not aware of villagers losing their lithium ore without being paid for it by Kuvimba.

“There was a lot of chaos and disorder at Sandawana and this could have led to accidents, a situation we are trying to ensure does not happen.

“We want order and not the situation which prevailed where individuals were digging everywhere. So we agreed that Kuvimba, who owns the claims, would supervise mining activities at the mine,” Kambamura said.

“There were unknown buyers smuggling lithium and that led to the ban in exports of the mineral as the government works towards curtailing illegal activities,” he added.

Lithium is a rare mineral whose production is currently taking place in only eight countries, with 85% of the global supply coming from Australia, Chile and China.

Zimbabwe is the world’s fifth-largest lithium producer. Its lithium output has risen steadily in recent years. The country produced 1 200 metric tonnes of the metal in 2021.

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