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Africa’s Lithium Rush: A Blessing or a Curse?

How the continent’s “white gold” boom impacts the environment and the society

by Motoni Olodun

Lithium is a key ingredient for the batteries that power electric vehicles, smartphones and renewable energy sources. As the demand for this “white gold” surges, Africa is becoming a hotspot for lithium mining. But what are the costs and benefits of this green energy boom for the continent?

According to a report by Global Witness, a UK-based nonprofit, lithium mining in Africa reveals a dark side of corruption, human rights abuses, environmental damage and social conflicts. The report investigates the practices of Chinese mining companies in Namibia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and exposes how they exploit loopholes, bribe officials, evade taxes and disregard local communities.

In Namibia, for example, the report claims that Xinfeng Investments, a Chinese firm, acquired the Uis mine through bribery and developed it using permits intended for artisanal miners. This allowed the company to pay a very low amount for access to the lithium deposit and avoid some environmental regulations. The report also documents the poor living and working conditions of the local workers at the mine, who are discriminated against and exposed to health and safety risks.

In Zimbabwe, which has the largest lithium reserves in Africa and is ranked sixth globally for lithium exports, the report reveals that large amounts of lithium ore are still being smuggled out of the country, despite a ban on raw exports. The report also alleges that 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.

In the DRC, where lithium mining is still in its infancy, the report warns of the potential for violence, displacement and environmental degradation. The report cites the example of the Manono project, which is partly owned by a Chinese company and is expected to become one of the world’s largest lithium mines. The project has already sparked conflicts between local communities and armed groups and has raised concerns about the impact on the biodiversity and water resources of the area.

The report calls on the European Union and the United States, which are competing with China for access to lithium, to ensure increased transparency and oversight of lithium mining and to support the efforts of local activists and civil society groups to improve governance and accountability in the sector.

“It can’t just be about [the EU and the US] trying to increase their own supply of minerals,” said Colin Robertson, a senior investigator at Global Witness and one of the report’s authors.

Farai Maguwu, the director of the Harare-based Centre for Natural Resource Governance, echoed this sentiment and stressed that the proceeds from lithium mining must be invested in the development of the host communities, who bear the brunt of the costs.

“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 told DW.

Despite the challenges and risks, lithium mining also offers opportunities for Africa to diversify its economy, create jobs and foster innovation. Some African countries, such as Namibia and Tanzania, have banned the export of raw lithium and are seeking to add value to the mineral by processing it locally. Others, such as Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Ethiopia, are exploring or developing their lithium potential and attracting foreign investment.

Lithium is the mineral of the present and the future, as Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa said recently. But it is also a mineral that requires responsible and sustainable management if it is to benefit the people and the planet.

Source: MSN

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