By Globe and Mail
A thunderous explosion echoes through the Nora Valley, and a thick cloud of white and grey dust rises from the blast site at a lithium plant. At a nearby school, two students scream with shock and bolt for cover. At a teacher’s house, dust wafts from a widening crack above the entrance door.
Welcome to the Zimbabwean lithium boom. Lithium, a key component in batteries for electric vehicles, has become the fastest-growing industry in Zimbabwe, with Chinese companies investing billions of dollars in the mining and processing of what is sometimes called “white gold.” But along with the surging investment, there is growing controversy over the impact of the Chinese projects on communities and the environment.
Global demand for lithium has been soaring in recent years, and Zimbabwe has some of the biggest reserves in Africa. Chinese investors, eager to boost China’s dominance in the global sector, have been pouring into the country. Mainly because of Chinese demand, Zimbabwe earned US$209-million from lithium exports in the first nine months of this year, nearly three times more than last year’s earnings, according to government data.
The fast-rising production in Zimbabwe is part of a global trend. One multinational bank, UBS, has projected that Chinese-controlled mines will account for 32 per cent of global lithium supply by 2025, up from 24 per cent last year.
Zimbabwe’s authoritarian government, which has forged close relations with Beijing, has welcomed the Chinese investment. Seeking to maximize jobs in processing, it banned the export of raw lithium last year, encouraging Chinese companies into the processing sector. But in places like the Nora Valley, the jobs created by Chinese investors are counterbalanced by deep concerns over the impact on ordinary residents.
“There is lots of blasting of the hills by the Chinese here and it terrifies us because it happens without any prior notice,” said 38-year-old Chenai Kanokora, who lives just outside the Chinese-owned lithium processing plant in the Nora Valley, east of the capital, Harare.
She often hears the explosions as construction workers clear land for a plant expansion. “My heart beats every time the blasting takes place,” she told The Globe and Mail, sitting on a wooden bench under a tree by her two-room house.
Ms. Kanokora collects tree stumps and sells firewood to make a living to support her two children, while her husband fixes vehicle tires. She says a security guard at the lithium processing plant has warned her that her family could be forced to leave the home where they have lived for the past 11 years. But she says she won’t leave unless she gets compensation – even just US$700 to buy bricks and roofing sheets for a new house.
Some residents say that the jobs at the processing plant have been good for the community, helping to reduce crime. The plant’s owners have invested about US$40-million in the project and promise to create up to 300 jobs when it is fully operational. But other residents say that the jobs are poorly paid, with wages of just US$5 a day for most workers. (Plant officials declined to comment on its wages.)
David Gweshe, a 49-year-old farmer, says he was so disturbed by the blasting at the processing plant that he sold his home to the Chinese and moved away. “I felt very sad leaving behind the only home I have known all my life,” he said.
“I left my fruit trees – mango and banana trees, plenty of them – and they used to generate money for me. This year I don’t have anywhere to plant crops.”
The processing plant has generated a steady flow of truck traffic in the area, provoking fears of pollution and damage to the roads. “The noise is unbearable,” said Shelton Hwande, an elderly resident whose family has lived in the Nora Valley for generations. “Already there is extreme air pollution from the dust raised by the trucks.”
In a report this week, the British-based environmental group Global Witness examined several lithium projects in African countries, including Zimbabwe, and found evidence of corruption and political connections.
“The mineral supply chains for the batteries that will power the green energy revolution should benefit producer nations,” the report said. “Instead, they could embed corruption, fail to develop local economies, and harm citizens and the environment.”
In a letter to the Zimbabwe government last May, a group of farmers represented by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the lithium processing plant has caused pollution in a nearby river, significant degradation to land, and noise pollution from frequent unscheduled blasting.
The Chinese owner of the plant, Shengxiang Investments, has denied the accusations. In a letter from its lawyers in May, in response to the complaint from the farmers, it denied that it had commenced any mining operations or blasting.
The company’s director of operations, Terrence Ncube, acknowledged this month that the company had recently been blasting to clear land for its expansion. He told The Globe that the blasting is “far from everyone” in the area and is not conducted every day.
Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper, a government propaganda outlet, said the Shengxiang processing plant is “a boon for everyone” and will bring a “huge boost” to the value of the country’s exports. “There will be minimal environmental damage,” it said. “The community is happy.”
But the plant’s environmental history has been less than stellar. In January this year, Zimbabwe’s regulators ordered its shutdown for failing to obtain an environmental impact assessment certificate. They required the plant to pay a fine of 100,000 Zimbabwean dollars – equivalent to just US$150 at the official exchange rate.
A few weeks later, the plant resumed its construction activity, still without an environmental certificate, and it was fined again, this time for US$1,000.
Amkela Sidange, a spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency, confirmed that the agency had imposed two fines and two protection orders on the processing plant for conducting activities “harmful to the environment.”
The plant was eventually issued an environmental certificate in June, but with conditions imposed on it, she said. It will be audited every quarter, she added.
Many local residents are unconvinced by the environmental clearance. Isaiah Gowe, a farmer who has lived in the Nora Valley for 16 years, says he is worried that the lithium plant is depleting the water table in the area, causing water wells to dry up. He worries that the Chinese owners have too much influence over the government to be stopped.
“We are in trouble,” he said. “There is nobody who can stop the Chinese from what they are doing.”