Behind Namibia’s phosphate debate

By Tileni Mongudhi

POLITICS, as opposed to scientific evidence, appears to be at the heart of the marine phosphate mining debate currently causing consternation in Namibia.

News that Namibia’s Environmental Commissioner, Theo Nghitila, had issued an Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate to Namibia Marine Phosphate was greeted with anger as Nghitila basically gave the go-ahead for the company to start mining phosphate off the country’s coast near the Walvis Bay harbour.

Phosphate is a significant ingredient in the production of NPK fertiliser.

The reactions came from everywhere – social media, fishing organisations and the fisheries minister Bernard Esau expressed shock and claimed he was blind-sighted and had no idea the environment ministry would grant permission for the company to start mining.

Phosphate mining is outlawed pretty much everywhere in the world.

Esau’s reaction comes from the fact that the fishing industry is currently the only other economic sector generating export revenue for the country, apart from mining – which has been taking a knock due to falling commodity prices and the world economic slowdown. The Namibian fishing sector boasts of having created 15,000 direct jobs, which does not include downstream jobs.

The problem, however, is that the debate is being spear-headed by politicians, businesspeople and the ordinary citizens and not scientists or mining experts, who would be able to provide irrefutable facts around the issue. A significant contributor to the outrage is perhaps the way the government or the environment ministry conducted itself prior to awarding the EIA clearance.

The news of the EIA clearance only broke last week, despite Nghitila having issued the clearance last month. Under normal circumstances, the public has 14 days to present objections for the award. Environmental Commissioner Nghitila was accused of having secretly issued the EIA clearance to deny the nation an opportunity to object. Nghitila defended his actions and said the process was conducted above board.

Secondly, the decision to award the EIA clearance appears to have gone against government’s stance on marine phosphate mining in the country’s waters. The government has for more than 15 years been dragging its feet on the issue and has declined proposals from other companies that wanted to venture into marine phosphate mining in Namibia. One of those is Israeli-based Leviev Group, with its company Lev Leviev Namibia Phosphate, which invested more than R200 million in researching the viability of extracting the resource in Namibian waters for over 12 years.

In September 2012, the Namibian government then enforced an 18-month moratorium on any marine phosphate mining activities until it had conducted a feasibility study proving that such mining activity will not destroy the fishing sector, which is a significant contributor to the country’s GDP.  Last year’s figures indicate that fishing contributed 2.9 percent to the GDP, which translates to R4.3 billion last year alone. The decision to impose a moratorium flowed from the ruling party Swapo’s opposition to phosphate mining in the country. Swapo secretary general Nangolo Mbumba confirmed, to The Southern Times, that phosphate mining was one of the items discussed at the party’s 2012 congress. The congress is the party’s highest decision making body.

“We didn’t pass a specific resolution on phosphate mining but it was discussed and the general attitude and feeling was that it should not be allowed because it is not practised anywhere else in the world and that there was fear that it will interfere with the fishing sector,” he said.

The third reason for the public outcry is the fact that the government made a U-turn on its stance against marine phosphate mining as soon as controversial businessman Knowledge Katti surfaced on the phosphate scene. Katti is a close friend of President Hage Geingob.

Before Katti got entangled in the phosphate battle, the public face for Namibia Marine Phosphate was geologist Barnabas Uugwanga. With his qualifications and experience working for international mining companies such as DeBeers, Uugwanga could not convince the Namibia government to change its mind nor could Kombadayedu Kapwanga from Lev Leviev Namibia Phosphate. Kapwanga is also a geologist, who once served as the Director of Mines at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. He also fought in the liberation struggle for independence.

Katti’s involvement then gave rise to speculation and insinuations that something was untoward about the Environmental Commissioner’s decision to give the go-ahead. Katti’s detractors also cried ‘state capture’.

The controversial businessman has also been involved in public spats with environmental groups and the fishing sector for their opposition to his project. He went as far as making personal attacks, on social media, on individuals like Matti Amukwa, chairman of the Confederation of Namibia Fishing Associations. The confederation has already started a legal process and is taking Nghitila and the government to court in a bid to have the decision to grant Namibia Marine Phosphate an EIA clearance nullified.

The public is also concerned that the government wants to expose the country’s marine resources to a mining activity practised nowhere else in the world, as countries like New Zealand, who tried it, outlawed it.

Expert Opinions

As the debate between politicians, businesspeople and now lawyers drags on, opinions from scientists and mining experts remain muted.

The Southern Times spoke to experts on both sides of the divide. Those who come from the mining background have been supportive of the idea, while marine scientists have flatly opposed the idea. What both sides agree on is the fact that any mining activity will have an impact on the ecology but what they do not agree on is the magnitude of the impact.

The mining experts argue that in theory, marine phosphate mining is less harmful to the marine ecosystem than marine diamond mining. They argue that with phosphate mining, the miners scoop-up only a portion of the seabed and do not deposit anything into the sea, while diamond mining requires the dredging of the seabed until one reaches the bedrock where diamonds are found. This means the rubble found on top of the bedrock is dumped back into the ocean creating dust and harming the fish, while also disrupting the marine ecosystem.

The mining experts also argued that every environment is different and Namibia, for example, has phosphate going as deep as six metres into the seabed, unlike other countries. They called for government to at least run a pilot project to study the viability of the project.

But a marine scientist, who did not wish to be named because he advises ministers, said: “Phosphate mining requires scrapping the earth surface on the sea bed. This means any form of life in that particular area will be at risk.

“The research into the viability of phosphate mining narrowly looked at the fish and whether the area to be mined is spawning ground for fish and failed to look at the wider marine ecology and how it could be affected.

“Unlike land, marine ecology is very sensitive and an interruption to one component could destroy the entire system, including the water.”

To counter the marine diamond mining arguments, one of the scientists pointed out that Namibia’s sea ecosystem has been disrupted and that one of the signs is the fact that there has been a decline in the population and size of rock lobster found in the Lüderitz area.

Another also pointed out that phosphate is a product of a bio-geochemical process and that no biological and chemical process analysis has been done to determine the possible chemical reactions the mining could cause to marine life. The scientists added that unlike land-based operations, marine mining will affect the ocean’s entire flora and fauna and not only the area in which the mining is occurring.

The Southern Times was unable to get a neutral scientist or a mining expert to go on record and express their views. Eight scientists and mining experts refused to publicly comment on the issue mainly because it has now become a hot political issue and the focus was moved away from discussing its scientific merits.

The fact that most of the scientists either work for government or institutions linked to the state made it hard for them to air their views. Some even required written permission from the heads of their institutions before they could comment.