The dispute between two Namibian ministries over marine phosphate mining in a 700-km stretch of sea shows little sign of ending.
The environment ministry has issued the Namibia Marine Phosphate Ltd a clearance certificate to commence operations, which will make Namibia the first country in the world to have such operations.
After the certificate was made available on Tuesday, the fisheries ministry expressed shock that the operation was cleared without consultations.
The decision to issue the clearance was made by a Cabinet Committee on Trade and Economic Development made up of national planning minister Tom Alweendo, energy minister Obeth Kandjoze and industrialization minister Immanuel Ngatjizeko.
The company intends to operate the Sandpiper Mine that is 120 kilometers off the coast of the port town of Walvis Bay, about 395 kilometers from Windhoek.
Reacting to the news of that Namibia Marine Phosphate has been granted clearance, fisheries minister Bernard Esau on Wednesday said he was shocked.
“The ministry is, however, not at liberty to comment on the issue as the management is still yet to meet and discuss the way forward,” Esau said in a statement, adding that the two ministries would meet on Thursday and discuss the issue.
But in what could be signs of a widening rift, the two ministries held separate meetings where environment minister Pohamba Shifeta said people are afraid of the unknown.
He said since marine phosphate mining has not been done elsewhere, the effects of such an operation can only be known afterwards.
Namibia, according to Shifeta, is the only country where deep sea diamond mining is done and that nobody is complaining.
“We don’t take decisions based on faith, but take decisions based on science,” Shifeta said.
It is not yet clear what the fisheries ministry decided Thursday.
Lev Leviev Namibia Phosphates (LLNP) was also vying for marine phosphate mining in Namibia.
Israeli businessman Lev Leviev of the Leviev Group of Companies (LGC), regarded as the largest private diamond manufacturer in the world, has a major hand in LLNP.
LLNP holds permits and exploration rights to mine phosphate about 170 kilometers northwest Luderitz, about 680 kilometers south of Windhoek. It is estimated that there are about a billion tonnes of phosphate deposits.
At the time, the Group said it wanted to invest some 13.6 billion Namibia dollars (970 million U.S. dollars) and eventually set up a 8-billion-Namibian-dollar facility at Luderitz.
Although the Group was granted the clearance by the environment ministry in 2013, it could not start work without getting another clearance from the mines ministry.
But just before the company could start work, the fisheries minister declared an 18-month moratorium on marine phosphate mining.
Meanwhile, the Namibia Marine Phosphate received its license in June 2016 from the the mines ministry.
The International Fertilizer Development Corporation confirmed through studies that Sandpiper contains at least 27.5 percent phosphate concentrate P2O5, and is suitable for use as a direct application fertilizer.
According to the Corporation, the quality of the phosphate at Sandpiper can rank it as one of the top global producers and would last for 20 years.
The project is estimated to yield 1.8 billion tonnes of phosphoric sand and carries an estimated 5.2 billion Namibian dollars (370 million U.S. dollars) in investment capital.
The plans for setting up marine phosphate mines in Namibia, however, have been heavily criticized and resisted by the Confederation of the Namibian Fishing Association and environmental groups.
Currently, the fishing sector in Namibia employs more than 13,000 people permanently, while more than 8,000 others are employed indirectly.
In May 2016, Esau said the Namibian fishing sector generated 10 billion Namibian dollars in export revenue during the 2015/2016 season.
This was a massive 43-percent increase from the 2014/2015 season, when the sector generated 7 billion Namibian dollars.
In July 2016, the chairperson of the confederation, Matti Amukwa, said they are opposed to marine phosphate mining if it will be done at the expense of the fishing industry.
Amukwa also said while the fishing industry is tightly controlled, there are no regulations in place for any form of deep-sea mining.
“The need is obvious that marine phosphate mining regulations and monitoring control must be in place before mining is considered,” he said, adding that the process should address the need for monitoring deep-sea mining.
According to Amukwa, although trawling disturbs the seabed, technology is in place to minimize this and limit by-catches of other bottom-dwelling species.
He, however, said the same cannot be said about the impact of marine phosphate mining will have, especially when they use dredgers.
The concern, he added, is that the mining sediment plume could drift over fish breeding grounds and have a suffocating impact.
“If we lightly agree to see mining without thorough research and appropriate legislation in place, Namibia will become the experimental ground for the international sea mining companies, closely watched by the world. It cannot be, that a country so dependent on the fishing industry becomes the trial laboratory for marine phosphate mining,” Amukwa said.
Despite granting exploration rights to the two companies, the government through the fisheries ministry placed a moratorium on marine phosphate mining on Sept. 19, 2013.
“They are planning to mine on fish breeding grounds; this may affect the recovery of fish stocks,” Esau told the media then.
Esau said the moratorium would hold until environmental impact studies show that marine phosphate mining does not destroy the fishing industry.
He also said although the companies were granted mining licenses, they cannot start operations because they do not have environmental clearance certificates.
The moratorium expired in March 2015, after which there was no word from the fisheries ministry as to whether marine phosphate mining could start.
In January, the fisheries permanent secretary, Moses Maurihungirire, said the moratorium was never lifted.
Esau also told the National Assembly at the time that his ministry has not changed its position regarding the moratorium.
He said the situation would remain unchanged until proper scientific investigations are carried out to allow the government to make an informed decision about the future of the mining.
The marine phosphate companies countered Esau, arguing that his ministry alone, without the support of the environment and mines ministries, can not declare a moratorium.
Until today, nothing has been said about the moratorium although Esau has threatened the companies with fierce resistance if they drag the issue to the courts. Enditem