Namibia U-turn on phosphate mining

By Timo Shihepo

WINDHOEK–NAMIBIA’S environment minister, Pohamba Shifeta, this week succumbed to public pressure and temporarily suspended the decision to issue an Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate for marine phosphate mining off the Namibian coast.

The controversial decision to grant Namibia Marine Phosphate (NMP) permission to start mining was also subject to a legal suit by the country’s fishing industry before Shifeta’s U-turn on Wednesday.

Shifeta has denied any wrong-doing on his part and that of his ministry. He attributed his change of heart to “public interest”.

The Minister of Environment  and Tourism maintained that all the procedures were followed when awarding a clearance certificate, which sparked a highly-charged public debate.

Shifeta has now set aside the certificate granted to NMP on September 5, 2016, on the basis of “public good” and his constitutional obligations.

The minister has also ordered the Environmental Commissioner, Teofilus Nghitila, to notify the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, the fishing industry and all other interested parties to finalise their inputs and objections regarding marine phosphate mining in Namibia within three months. Shifeta also announced that he would extend the public consultation process regarding marine phosphate mining in Namibia for another six months.

“This does not mean that there were procedural defects about the decision of the Commissioner, we are doing this for the good of the public,” Shifeta told The Southern Times.

NMP could not be reached for comment.

Reacting to the environment minister’s new stance, LL Namibia Phosphate, the first company to receive a phosphate mining licence in the country, said government is playing tricks with the whole phosphate mining discussion.

LL Namibia Phosphate, which received its licence in 2010, says it is not in any way put off by the current phosphate mining saga and says it is planning to have its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted as early as February next year. The company has thus far spent over R200 million in researching the impact of marine phosphate mining in Namibia.

LL Namibia Phosphate director, Kombandayendu Kapwanga, told The Southern Times that the government had many years to study this whole process but people are still objecting to it without empirical proof.

Kapwanga also defended the environmental commissioner’s decision to award the EIA clearance certificate to NMP, saying marine phosphate mining antagonists are opposed to it based on assumptions, including those in government.

Public Outcry

When news of government awarding an EIA clearance certificate to NMP broke, the government was publicly attacked. The backlash came from social media, scientists, civil society and several associations within the fishing sector.

Marine Biologist and Fisheries Scientist, Dr Martha Uumati, said phosphate mining is a suicide mission because the real impact of phosphate mining would only be assessed five years after mining has commenced.

She said phosphate mining is very dangerous, as it is the only mining activity that requires removing the sea bed when mining. Much like constructing a road, the process first requires clearing the area, but unlike the road construction process, which returns the landfill back to its original location, phosphate mining does not put back what was cleared.

In their environmental management report, NMP did not mention where they will put their waste from the finished products.

Research reveals that if dredged material is returned into the ocean, it will contaminate the sea resulting in oxygen depletion. If such material is dumped on land, it will result in radioactive phosphorus, which is harmful to people living within the vicinity.

Dr Uumati has challenged the company to state publicly what they are going to do with the waste. She said the reason why scientists are opposed to marine phosphate mining is because the marine ecosystem is still unchartered territory and scientists only know 5 percent of the marine ecology.

“Scientists know more about space than the marine ecosystem,” she said.

“Phosphate is not like diamond mining, phosphate fertilisers are a low commodity and it requires the company to mine a lot so that more quantity is produced if they are to make profit. This is, however, at a cost to our sea bed.”

The Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations Chairman, Matti Amukwa, said the fishing industry is worth R10 billion and if the current generation allows marine phosphate mining to continue “we must be able to explain to our children’s kids why we allowed the destruction of one of our biggest economic activities”.

He said he still needed to understand why NMP is so obsessed with mining phosphate in the ocean if there is more than enough phosphate fertilisers on land – enough to last until more research is done to possibly start mining phosphate in the ocean, safely. Amukwa’s confederation has already started its legal challenge against the government’s decision to award the EIA clearance for marine phosphate mining to commence.

Phosphate mining: Parties weigh in

> Timo Shihepo

WINDHOEK-POLITICAL parties in Namibia, including the ruling Swapo, have aired their opposition to marine phosphate mining.

The Southern Times spoke to representatives of four political parties and they all opposed it. The politicians accused environment minister Pohamba Shifeta of secretly allowing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) clearance to be issued before publicly discussing the issue.

Congress of Democrats’ Tsudao Gurirab said the possibility of phosphate mining got them worried. They believe that the country is sacrificing the fishing industry at the expense of another economic activity whose impact is still not known.

He said CoD is worried by the manner in which the issue is being handled. It appears that clearance certificate was issued without public knowledge, he said.

Minister Shifeta this week announced that he was suspending the environmental impact assessment report that had cleared Namibia Marine Phosphate (NMP) to begin mining activities off the coast.

“The matter was only made public after the certificate was given, making it difficult to object. Someone somewhere is hiding information,” said Gurirab.

DTA of Namibia Chief Whip, Jennifer Van den Heever, for the last few months, acting as a “deeply concerned member of the public”, has persistently asked both the Minister of Environment and Tourism and the Minister of Mines and Energy questions in the National Assembly relating to the status of marine phosphate mining in Namibia.

She said aside from constantly being referred from one ministry to the next and being told that the questions were “misdirected” and should be directed to another ministry, it also emerged in the responses that a Cabinet committee had been tasked with conducting research on the viability of marine phosphate mining.

It was stated that a decision on whether to permit marine phosphate mining in Namibia would only be taken after the findings and recommendations of the proposed research.

“It was thus extremely surprising to find that, despite the mooted research not being finalised, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism saw it fit to issue a clearance certificate to Namibia Marine Phosphate (Pty) Ltd,” she said.

Van den Heever said in a twist that merely serves to prove that the two ministries – the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, on one hand, and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism on the other – are not working together, as the former expressed “shock” at the decision to issue the clearance certificate.

“It is evident that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is indeed extremely distressing when those who the public have entrusted with jointly safeguarding our environment and sea life are dysfunctional and disjointed,” she said.

Many countries, including Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, have investigated the possibility of venturing into marine phosphate mining, but on each occasion research has found that the risks to sea life are simply too great.

Van den Heever said the risks become even greater when you consider that in Namibia 15,000 fishermen and their families are directly dependent on marine and sea life for their daily bread.

Swanu of Namibia’s Unaani Kawami said phosphate  mining must not even be contemplated.

“It’s questionable how the clearance certificated was awarded. I think there was some sort of manipulation there. The right process was not followed. The government must not in any way let this thing carry on.”