Anxiety over artisanal mining law

0
415

By ‘Majirata Latela

Small scale diamond miners are keeping their fingers crossed that a piece of legislation that legalizes artisanal mining will be passed before parliament is dissolved in preparation for the general elections chalked for October 2022.

This after the Upper House of Lesotho’s Parliament recently rejected the Mines and Minerals (Amendment) Bill of 2021 with the recommendation that it be worded in a manner that explicitly reserves artisanal mining for indigenous Basotho only. Artisanal miners are not officially employed by a mining company, but work independently, mining minerals using their own resources, usually by hand.

The Bill is meant to amend the Mines and Minerals Act, 2005 to make provision for the inclusion of diamonds in the granting of minerals permits, among others.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lesotho has for many years been struggling to stamp out illicit diamond trading, and the formulation and adoption of the new mining policy in 2015 brought hope that the country would be free of both corruption and illicit trading in minerals.

Principal Chief Peete Lesaoana Peete of Koeneng and Mapoteng, the Senator, on February 2 2022 requested the ministry of mining to give them a brief on the Mines and Minerals (Amendment) Bill, 2021, and learned that the ministry had resolved to issue licences to smallholder miners to mine and sell diamonds to make a living.

Peete said Senators also learned that the rationale behind this move was to boost the economy of Lesotho, as smallholder mining would result in job creation.

“I would like to also mention that the minister did mention that the aim is also to improve the lives of Basotho. Indigenous Basotho to be precise. I want to make it clear that we are only talking about indigenous Basotho.

“I therefore would like to make the House aware that when debating the Bill, we noticed that the Bill did not explicitly draw the line between the intended beneficiaries of artisanal mining; there is a difference between indigenous Basotho or Lesotho citizens. I am saying this because we should remember that there are naturalised Basotho who are not necessarily native. 

“We should bear in mind that we have people of Ethiopian and Chinese origin who are Basotho through naturalisation. We should also remember that there are many ways of acquiring citizenship in Lesotho. Therefore, it should be clear which Basotho the Bill is intended for,” he pointed out.

He added that the Bill has not been tightly crafted and some people may abuse it. He suggested that there should be a provision in the Bill that states that the small-scale mining should strictly be reserved for indigenous Basotho. It was on these grounds that the Senate threw out the Bill.

“We further consulted the Law Society of Lesotho for expert legal advice; it concurred that if the law is meant for indigenous Basotho, then it must state as such. We also approached the drafting section which is entrusted with writing laws, and they also advised us to amend the Bill and include the words ‘indigenous Basotho’.

These sentiments were echoed by the Principal Chief of Quthing, Seeiso Nkuebe, who reiterated that the Bill needed to go back to the ministry where it will be rewritten properly.

However, this delay in passing the Bill is making smallholder miners jittery.

One of the founding members of a committee campaigning for the legalisation of artisanal mining General Sentle, who is also a member of one of the local diamond clubs, told this publication that they are worried that parliament will be dissolved in preparation for the 2022 general elections without the Bill having been passed. He said if that happens, it would mean that the Bill will have fallen off.

He said Basotho have been waiting patiently and eagerly for the Bill to be passed since July 2020 when the minister of mining read it for the first time in Parliament.

Sentle said as small scale miners, they understand and appreciate the Senate’s position, that the Bill should clearly state that it is meant for indigenous Basotho. Ha lauded the Senate for picking up on that minor detail before the Bill was passed.  

“In the meantime, while parliament is still working on the Mines and Minerals (Amendment) Bill of 2001, we are hoping for an extension of the deadline for amnesty for illegal diamond holders to willingly surrender their gems to the mining department.

“Amnesty should be in place until such time that the Bill has been passed, so as to allow us to continue handing in diamonds that we keep picking on river banks, especially at this time when it has been raining a lot. While the government is busy clearing the streets of illicit diamonds, many families will be getting money from the sale of those diamonds.

“We therefore plead with government to demonstrate political will in all these issues. Passing the Bill before the dissolution of parliament, and extension of the amnesty could be government’s way of showing it can deliver on its promises,” Sentle said.

In April 2021 licensed dealers argued that the amnesty period was not sufficient to allow many illegal stone holders to come to the fore to surrender the rocks to the department of mining.

The legal sellers believed that the ministry should have offered a five-year amnesty period in order to ensure that as many stone holders as possible surrender their precious stones.

The artisanal and small scale diamond miners who were in possession of the stones illegally, were given a grace period of up to March last year to hand in their stones to the department.

The surrendered diamonds were later auctioned in June and in July; some people who did not surrender their stones showed that they had realised that the diamonds were sold at very good prices and therefore asked the ministry to extend the time for them to surrender theirs.

The ministry of mining’s principal secretary, Advocate Tšokolo Maina indicated at the time that the purpose of the auction was to pave way for artisanal small scale mining. The ministry also looked at the possibility of extending the amnesty policy by another three months to allow people to surrender more diamonds; however, this never saw the light of day.