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Injured cattle and dead rhinos: The Chinese company and the small Namibian village

By John Grobler.

China’s seemingly insatiable demand for iron ore has seen its geologists venture into areas where their mining plans are not always welcome – and where those plans appear to be more driven by easy Chinese credit than actual financial feasibility. Namibian journalist John Grobler investigated one such planned mine in remote northwestern Kunene Region in Namibia. This feature was originally produced with a reporting grant in the Project’s FOCAC Themed Grants series of 2015. 

The Orumana iron ore deposit, seen here from across the valley where it is situated between the two cut-roads running up the hills.

Chief David Kavare of Orumana Village in the Kunene region had a message he wanted conveyed to the Namibian government: Tell the Chinese not to come back here, and send someone to fill in the huge holes they left behind that was injuring the cattle.

“Every day, we have to go look for cattle that fell into the holes they just left there,” said Kavare, pointing up the rugged, mopani-clad hills behind their village, some 40 kilometres south of regional capital Opuwo. “Sometimes we have to kill the cattle because they break their legs when they fall [in],” he said.

For people who depend on their cattle for survival in an incredibly harsh environment, this was a disaster – but no compensation was ever offered, in spite of many complaints to the regional councillors in Opuwo, Kavare’s assembled advisors added.

The stones that caused all the trouble. A local community game guard at one of the dozens of trenches left behind by the Chinese that in some places are so deep, it poses a danger to their cattle.

Trying to complain to the Chinese was also futile, as they never introduced themselves or explained what they were doing in the area, said Mojojo Mberurua, an advisor to Chief Kavare. It was only through the state-owned newspaper that they learned a new iron ore mine was to be built in their back yard, he said.

But of the US$3,5 billion investment and the 10,000 jobs that the Namibia East China Non-Ferrous Investment (“NECNFI”) company had promised in 2012 that the new iron ore mine would bring, there were no sign three years later.

In middle August 2012, NECNFI’s general manager Ming Li announced via a rare press release sent to state media only that the team of Chinese state geologists had discovered a new iron ore deposit of 2,37 billion tonnes of iron ore in the Orumana area.

Li had invited the state-owned media and then deputy Minister of Trade and Industry (now Communications Minister) Tjeriko Tweya to come view the site where NECNFI parent company, the sprawling East China Geological & Mining Organisation for Non-Ferrous Metals (ECE) was planing to construct a regional iron-processing centre.

“Our company has reported to the Chinese Government about the discovery, and a three-phase plan has already been proposed to lead to the eventual mining and processing of the iron ore in the Kunene Region,” Ming said in an interview with NAMPA, the state news service.

“According to our estimates, to put up the industrial town and start mining activities would cost us about US$3 billion (N$25,2 billion) to US$5 billion (N$42 billion), and it would take up to four years to complete the construction and start being operational,” NAMPA quoted him as saying.

The deposit was expected to have a mining lifespan of about 100 years – even if the resources were to be mined at a fast rate of 20 million tonnes per year, NAMPA reported breathlessly.

Li was however being economic with the truth: the Orumana deposit has been known since 1953, when South African company Bethlehem Steel first reported it in their comprehensive overview of all known Namibian iron ore deposits, according to a copy of their report filed with the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) in Windhoek, 900 kilometres away to the south.

Chief David Kavare of Orumana, “please tell the government we do not want the Chinese here”.

Around April 2012, the Chinese first arrived unannounced in the area, spent a few days poking around in the hills behind Orumana and then disappeared, villagers said. They then returned about a month later with bulldozers and drilling equipment, and proceeded to rip new roads everywhere they wanted to go.

Under Namibia’s mining legislation regime, local communities have to be extensively consulted and compensation for loss of livelihood addressed first, but the Chinese appeared to rely solely on a document issued to by the then Mines Minister Isak Katali. “We think they just paid someone in Windhoek some money,” said Lothar Mburura, a local farmer.

ECE however had made powerful friends in Namibia: In January 2012, it announced that founding President Sam Nujoma, now retired to his farm just north of Etosha, was to be their honorary consultant. Nujoma, the company stressed in a press release, was not a shareholder.

Chief Kavare, who in the early 1950s had worked for Bethlehem Steel’s team of geologists, recalled the local community being treated with respect. Before independence in 1990, there was law that was respected by everyone – but now, there was a law but it was not respected by anyone, he said.

“The problem is they came with people from Oshakati [where the politically dominant Aawambu people come from], two or three of them. And those people do not want people from the village to work at the Chinese mine,” Kavare said.

NECNFI claimed to have employed 150 people during the exploration phase, but the locals scoffed at that figure. “They offered just little, little bit of work for the local community,” said Kavare. “Do I trust them? I do not like them in my heart,” he said, banging his traditional egundja (a walking stick, used for counting cattle) into the dust at his feet for emphasis.

Kavare recalled a visit from a delegation of six Chinese people a few weeks prior to Li Ming’s announcement to inform him that the entire village would have to be moved several kilometres away. The area was needed for the construction of the Chinese iron-ore processing plant – a place where he and his people had lived for several generations, Kavare said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“When I was a child, we worked with the white people who also wanted to make a mine here but never did they insist that we have to move our houses for their mine,” he said.

Some 100 kilometres further south, where the ancient overflow of the Etosha pans drained to the west into southern Kunene region, Li Ming and the ECE had also followed a similar pattern of simply commencing operations without local consultation – or even legitimate mining permits, it emerged.

There was however a major problem: The area fell within a so-called conservancy, a communally-organised conservation area that was created in the early 1990s to protect the world’s last 250-odd southwestern black rhinos that range here.

Unusually, these animals live outside the protective boundaries of a national park (like the rhinos in the neighbouring Etosha National Park) under an arrangement known as a communal conservancy. By giving up commercial farming – at best a risky prospect in a perennially drought-stricken area – the local community is granted custodianship over all natural tourism resources as a means of giving them ownership.

The problem with this arrangement was it worked well, until the Chinese arrived, said Titus Rugondo, chairman of the Abanab Conservancy. “They simply ignored us and just told us they have papers from Windhoek,” he said. “People here are afraid of that sort of thing, because we do not have friends like they do.”

Local building methods. How the Orumana people have been constructing their homes for ages. The modern buildings promised by the Chinese failed to impress anyone.

The ECE’s arrival here heralded the return of another unwelcome problem: After two decades of no poaching, rhino carcasses started turning up with sickening regularity. Records maintained by the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism showed the poachers were targeting those rhinos with the biggest horns that have not been fitted with transmitters, a previous investigation had brought to light.

Fingers quickly began pointing at a local shebeen owner and cattle farmer, Efraim Mwanyangapo, who was fingered by a poacher caught red-handed on 24 December 2012 after he shot a rhino cow near a communal settlement known as Mbakondja.

What made Mwanyangapo stand out was that he and ECE had entered a joint venture to re-open two old mining prospects in the area, one for titanium and copper and another for iron ore. The problem was that the two areas they held under license also was home to a large concentration of black rhino, but the problem was discovered too late, as subsequent events illustrated.

ECE then proceeded to drill several boreholes within the conservation area to allow Mwanyangapo to increase his number of cattle, and constructed new roads into the otherwise inaccessible area including one through a field of ancient Welwitschia plants, living fossils estimated to be up to 7,000 years old.

The biggest impact was on the rhino population, which had recovered from around 40 animals in the early 1980s to where they were considered a stable, viable population by the late 1990s.

It was however not until three Chinese were arrested in late March 2014 at the Windhoek international airport, en route to Jiangsu Province with 14 rhino horns in two suitcases, that the authorities realised what was going on.

The first sign was the poaching of a rhino cow on 24 December 2012 at the Kommagorras fountain by an itinerant cattle herder employed by the shebeen owner Efraim Mwanyangapo. Although he was quickly arrested (and eventually sentenced to seven years in August 2014), the true extent of the silent slaughter of the rhino only became apparent over the following 18 months as more and more carcasses started turning up, very often in the areas held under exploration licenses by ECE.

By September 2014 the toll stood at 18 animals poached, and as many dead from natural conditions caused by a worsening drought that started in 2012. That people would resort to rhino poaching was a huge shock to both local communities and the wider conservation community in Namibia. The conservancy model was widely considered to be a rare African success story and promoted as a model to other countries by donors like the World Wildlife Fund, which also had funded conservancy development to the tune of ZAR500 million since 1995 in Kunene.

At various community meetings held in Wêreldsend, Khowarib and Anabeb to discuss the alarming trend, a common refrain went up: The outsiders, the newcomers, were to blame, and they would have to leave. At a meeting in Wêreldsend (World’s End), deputy chairman of the Save the Rhino Trust, Dudu Murorua, stated it explicitly: “Our problem is coming from China. Our problem is China.”

The three biggest conservancies – Anabeb, Sesfontein and Palmwag – requested the Legal Assistance Centre, a human rights NGO in Windhoek, to bring a High Court injunction to halt the mining when they discovered no drilling permits had been issued by the Department of Home Affairs. ECE also had not carried out any environmental assessment beforehand, as the Namibian mining law required, the LAC’s Wilem Prinsloo said.

But when the LAC tried to serve legal notice on ECE, they simply withdrew their teams from the area and the three conservancies were put under political pressure to withdraw the legal action, Prinsloo said.

Like at Orumana, no effort was made to mitigate the environmental damage that ECE’s illicit prospecting activities had left behind, an inspection of the area showed.

ECE’s Ming Li, who in late 2013 was elected to the local Chamber of Mines management committee, quietly disappeared about a year later with his cellphone number and official email address seemingly suspended. ECE’s official telephone number in Windhoek also stopped working, and no-one would respond to the bell at the luxurious house in Windhoek’s Charmonix Street where all the ECE managers were said to reside.

Efforts to establish why an exploration license would be granted in the first place in an area known to contain an iconic, critically endangered species such as the southwestern black rhino equally drew a blank.

The Mining Commissioner Erastus Shivolo pointed out that granting such exploration licenses was routine, but that a mining license would have to pass regulatory muster in terms of an environmental assessment and the submission of an environmental management plan, to be approved by the Environmental Commissioner office in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Environmental Commissioner Teofilus Nghitala however said the environmental management plans submitted by ECE for the two most affected areas were withdrawn, pending amendments.

And until such amendments were lodged, ECE’s plans were withdrawn from public circulation and are therefore not accessible, Nghitala said via email. ECE’s environmental consultant RBS CC also did not respond to several emails.

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