As China scrambles for Zimbabwe’s lithium, small miners are left behind

On a winter’s morning in Shamva, in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Central province, Brenda, a single mother of three, is on the hunt for lithium ore.

The 39-year-old, who asked that only her first name be used, uses a pick to break up hard rocks before shovelling the rock ores into a wheelbarrow which is then pushed by one of her workers and emptied onto a heap.

“Mining is labour intensive, but I soldier on,” said the tall, broad-shouldered woman wearing a blue workers uniform with green reflectors and a yellow safety helmet.

Around her, dozens of other artisanal miners work tirelessly to extract ore in the lithium surface mining area located about 90km (56 miles) northeast of the capital Harare.

“I have no limits. I take every situation as it is,” Brenda told Al Jazeera. “I remember I was the only girl in a chemistry class back in school. I learned to be brave, courageous and independent.”

Zimbabwe has the world’s fifth-largest reserves of lithium – which is an essential component of the rechargeable batteries used in things like mobile phones and electric vehicles.

In 2021, an output of 1,200 tonnes of lithium was recorded in the country and it is set to become Zimbabwe’s third biggest mineral export after the gold and platinum group of metals.

There are several companies engaged in lithium exploration and mining in the country, but small-scale miners have developed an interest in the sector too.

Raw lithium export ban

Across Southern Africa, there are rich reserves of valuable natural resources – though only a small minority has historically profited from this. To increase the benefits for local economies, regional countries have increasingly sought to transform raw minerals into higher-value products locally.

As a part of those efforts, Zimbabwe’s government moved to ban exports of unprocessed raw lithium in 2022, arguing that the country would get more revenue from the mineral if companies were allowed to export only processed lithium.

The ban was also aimed at curbing the smuggling of raw lithium through the country’s porous borders with neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique.

However, it has had adverse consequences for many small-scale miners working in the sector.

When the ban was put in place, the demand for processed lithium – that could be exported internationally – grew, while the demand for raw lithium slowed as few had the means to process it. While some mining companies scrambled to build plants to process raw lithium into concentrates for export, the stockpiles of raw lithium grew, and prices fell.

Artisanal miners like Brenda who are at the bottom of the lithium value chain have been hit hard. She said since the ban was imposed her profits have gone down as unprocessed lithium fell to the current price of $100 per tonne from as high as $1,200 per tonne previously.

“Quite a number of people have chickened out of the business,” said Brenda, who uses her income from mining to feed, pay school fees and buy clothes and other essentials for her children.

“Only a few like me who were consistent have remained in the lithium mining industry. Those who were after profits could not survive at such low prices,” she said.

‘Long value chain’

Brenda first started in the mining and minerals industry by buying and selling semiprecious gemstones after a friend introduced her to the business. Then in 2014, she ventured into lithium mining.

The lithium surface area where Brenda and her team work is noisy and filled with several other artisanal mining teams drilling and blasting rocks.

Brenda started here after she found some lithium deposits in a bushy area, pegged it and registered the place with the mining authorities. To mine it, she pays royalties to the government for a permit.

Bhoroma said “it is the best practice to have processed lithium exports instead of raw stone exports”, but also said the ban has had an impact on pricing and oversupply, as most can no longer export the commodity or easily sell it.

Since December 2022, global prices of lithium have also plummeted because of several factors including oversupply of the battery metal.

Mnangagwa, his family members and other senior top government officials are under United States sanctions over alleged human rights violations and corruption. China, meanwhile, claims its approach to other nations is based on a principle of noninterference.

This has helped it secure mining licences in multiple African countries. One such venture is Zimbabwe’s largest lithium mine, Bikita Minerals, acquired by China’s Sinomine Resource Group in a deal worth $180m to increase capacity in February 2022.

Located in the Bikita hills of Masvingo province in southeast Zimbabwe, Bikita Minerals holds 11 million tonnes of lithium – the world’s largest-known deposit of lithium.

Tapiwa O’Brien Nhachi, an independent climate and natural resources researcher, said the Chinese rush in every sector in Zimbabwe significantly shows the extension of the “look East” policy, a foreign policy strategy to strengthen economic and political ties with China adopted by late President Robert Mugabe in the 2000s when the US and Western countries first imposed sanctions over human rights abuses.

As of 2023, there were seven different lithium exploration and mining projects at various development stages across the country, according to the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), a premier public interest environmental law group.

With new companies starting production, the Southern Africa nation’s lithium exports spiked by 854.7 percent from $70.6m in 2022 to $674m last year.

The government wants mining companies to further process lithium to produce lithium carbonate or hydroxide, which is highly valued, and to make lithium-ion batteries locally, even though experts doubt its feasibility because of low power supply in the country.

The China factor

While the Chinese will help Zimbabwe’s target to generate $20bn from mining by 2030, there is a price to be paid by the locals from the hunt for lithium by miners from the Asian nation.

Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG), an organisation which defends the rights of communities affected by extractive industries, said the Chinese extractive model is detested by patriotic and responsible Zimbabweans.

“They bribe powerful politicians to buy their silence when they violate people’s rights,” Maguwu told Al Jazeera, echoing accusations that have been made against Chinese mining companies that they have evicted villagers from ancestral lands without following due process, and that they are responsible for environmental, air and water pollution in lithium-rich areas across Zimbabwe.

“In the Sabi Star case, displaced families were shocked to see their Chief coming with the Chinese to tell them they do not own the land they occupied, instead it was his land, hence they must obey the instruction to vacate,” Maguwu remarked.

“In Bikita, it was even more violent – trenches were dug around people’s homesteads resulting in some abandoning their homes.”

Researcher Nhachi likened the operations of the Chinese in the sector to what African nations suffered under years of colonialism, when European nations expropriated their resources and shipped them back home.

“China is now doing the same, they are plundering Zimbabwe’s lithium disregarding, proper labour practice, environmental, social, and cultural aspects in areas they are operating in, for instance, Bikita,” he said.

The Chinese embassy in Harare has always maintained that Chinese companies in the mining sector abide by Zimbabwe’s laws during their operations. In 2022, when the embassy was responding to a statement released by civil society groups, it said Chinese companies in the country are law-abiding and have regard for ordinary citizens through their corporate social responsibility.

On the ground, meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s artisanal miners are focused on finding ways to navigate the effects of the raw lithium export ban, including lower prices of the “white gold” and their own dwindling finances.

Brenda, who sees herself as an expert in coloured gemstone identification, is now diversifying her mining business to survive.

“I just switched to other minerals which are currently paying to fend for my family. I am into mostly gemstones and base metals. I focus on beryl and quartz,” she said of her work as a travelling gemstone salesperson who trades throughout the country.

“I enjoy knowing different types of minerals,” she added, positive about the venture. “There are so many in the country. With gemstones, I mine or buy then add value by cutting and polishing for jewellery and supply.”

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