Police have intercepted trucks with lithium ore in Mutoko even though all exports of lithium ore and inadequately processed lithium are now banned, and lithium mining is regulated.
The intercepted loads are stored at Mutoko Central Police Station.
As the country is pushing for local value addition and beneficiation of lithium, potential revenue was being lost with illegal lithium mining and smuggling. The artisanal miners are selling pure ores. Lithium is processed in several steps with most global trade in lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide since the actual metal is highly reactive and bursts into flame on contact with water or in moist environments and corrodes very quickly in air.
Investigations in Mutoko area revealed that villagers were selling lithium ore for between US$15 to US$20 per wheelbarrow load, or US$100 per tonne, to middlemen who would resell it for US$350 to US$450 a tonne.
Mines and Mining Development Deputy Minister Polite Kambamura who toured some of the sites of illegal lithium mining in Mutoko said Government never issued a lithium licence, but surprisingly the number of local and foreign buyers are mushrooming.
“To curb or to minimise mineral smuggling, we will have to come back to the roots where mining is taking place. We need to have security measures that protect the pegging, development and marketing of lithium starting with those that have registered mining claims for lithium,” he said.
Deputy Minister Kambamura said registering a lithium claim was no guarantee to being allowed to mine and sell it, since partial processing of a minimum level is now required.
“For one to mine, we need to know your beneficiation plant in line with NDS1 where Government is encouraging local value addition and beneficiation. So, as Government we need to stamp our authority at the roots so that we deal with the main problem of illegal export or smuggling of lithium,” he said.
The deputy minister said he has been going around checking what is happening on the ground and discovered that there is a lot of disorder going on.
“Currently there is a lot of illegal lithium mining especially in this region because of near surface lithium ore. Despite Government banning export of lithium ore, there is still plenty of lithium mining happening with buyers all over.
“We do not know where they are taking that lithium after the ban. If they are buying lithium illegally which means they are also exporting that lithium illegally which is smuggling,” he said.
Deputy Minister Kambamura said a responsible miner should be registered, have siting of works plan approved by the ministry, and commitment to set up a beneficiation plant following the ban of exporting the lithium ore.
“Export permits will be given to those that would have put concentrated lithium to some level. Each export permit is attached to a mining location, so these people don’t have any mining location or export permit,” he said.
“Currently in the country we do not have many lithium processing plants except for large scale miners like the former Arcadia Lithium which is now Cobalt, Sabi Star, Bikita Minerals and other upcoming large scale projects.
“Those are the ones that come forward to the ministry and committed to build beneficiation plants. So we are wondering where those buyers are taking that lithium ore to since they do not have export permits.”
Deputy Minister Kambamura said a mining license does not allow substandard mining practices which leads to environmental degradation, loss of lives and livestock.
“Some excavators were actually mining on the road. We were questioning what kind of mining is happening here. We are going to stamp down our authority in all those circumstances where illegal and substandard mining of lithium is happening,” he said.
The Herald observed a woman buyer with a 10 tonne truck who was offering US$16 per wheelbarrow load on lithium ore at Mataki mountain near Kamusori village in Mutoko.
It was a hive of activity for lithium hunters including children in search of quick riches. A woman who pleaded for anonymity said selling lithium was now a lucrative business for villagers.
“Buyers stampede to buy our lithium here. As you can see there is a truck waiting with the buyer offering us US$16 per wheelbarrow. “The price can fetch up to US$20 depending on the quality of the ore,” she said.
Another villager from Chief Nyamukoho area said they had the blessings of their traditional leader to mine lithium.
“We were told that there are companies set to come and mine here hoping they will employ us. At the moment we are mining on our own selling to middle men,” he said.