Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining says it will investigate alleged illegal mining activities in Phalombe where unknown people have invaded a protected area in search of rare earths.
The ministry’s spokesperson Sangwani Phiri, in a written response on Friday, said the Department of Mining has not issued any mining licence to anyone in the area of group village head (GVH) Khamula near Fort Lister and would send a team to investigate the activities.
He said: “The department is not aware of any small-scale illegal mining activity taking place in Phalombe. There are two valid licences in Phalombe: An exclusive prospecting licence for Mkango Resources Limited [MRL] and a mining licence for Optichem.”
MRL is a Canadian company that was awarded a two-year licence for exclusive prospecting and exploration of rare earths after completing the final 21 drill holes from a completed 10 900-metre diamond drill programme at Songwe while Optichem is a fertiliser manufacturing company.
In January this year ,MRL was reported to have arranged a shipment of 60 tonnes of samples to Australia for laboratory analysis.
Our recent visit to the site found mining works taking place where an area of about 50 square metres has already been dug by a company whose identity is not known.
There were no signs or logos to show who is commissioning the work while about 20 workers we found at the site refused to speak about their employer, saying the owners were the only ones we could talk to.
The mining activity at Fort Lister is being done using hand implements such picks, hoes and pegs within a forest reserve in the area of GVH Khamula at the foot of Mulanje Mountain on the Phalombe side.
All the workers at the site had no protective gear despite some of them working about 25 feet below the ground.
The Phalombe case mirrors the growing problem of illegal mining activities reported in several districts including Mangochi, Lilongwe and Ntcheu.
In August 2019, Nation Online reported that the country had failed to gazette the revised Mines and Minerals Act which was meant to replace the old one gazetted in 1981, generally described by experts in the field as archaic.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Natural Resources Justice Network chairperson Kossam Munthali blamed lack of proper systems within the mining sector that can flush out opportunists.
He said: “The problem is that the mining sector is micro-managed at central government level. That creates an opportunity for some people to creep into some deposit sites in the country almost unnoticed. If only councils were well-equipped in the sense that all deposits were leased to communities, it would be difficult for illegal mining to take place.”
Phalombe district commissioner Rodrick Mateauma in an interview equally expressed surprise at the development, saying his office was yet to be communicated on any mining works in the district apart from those that were licenced.
He said: “Although I’m just three weeks old at this council, but I am not sure if we have been told of any such activities at Fort Lister. We will get in touch with stakeholders to ascertain the problem and appropriate measures will be taken.”
And in a separate interview, village head Kadewere seemed unaware of what was happening in his village when he was asked about the mining company or the type of minerals being sought.
“What I know is that three people came some three months ago and just said they had been allowed by the government to dig the ground close to the mountain. They did not mention the name of their company or their names. Neither did they mention the specific things they were looking for. There is no agreement whatsoever about the benefits to the community or measures to avoid environmental degradation,” he said.
Over the past few years, Mulanje Mountain and its surrounding areas have seen a number of mining initiatives, some of which have been mired in controversy.
In 2013, some local residents in Mulanje protested against the exploration of rare earths by Springstone Limited which culminated into a legal battle as the protesters cited environmental factors as reasons for their resistance towards the project.