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Hostile Kao villagers muddle through

  • as peace talks between Storm Mountain Diamonds and Kao mine neighbouring communities await
  • Mine and community speak of raging challenges and solutions in the pipeline

BILLY NTAOTE

MATIISETSO MOSALA

Long protracted conflict between the Storm Mountain Diamonds operated mine and neighbouring communities in Kao villages seem to have its end drawing nearer amid pending peace talks.

Disputes between the mine and communities in Kao have in the past simmered until a fatal shooting of some of the residents by police, loss of jobs for community members at the mine and arrests of some community leaders.

Among key grievances by community that fueled unrest in Kao seen in 2018 and 2019, resulting at times with mine operations closure is failure to provide jobs to unskilled locals, failure to repair a 27-kilometer road preferred by community from Kao to Ha Lejone.

Other grievances include compensation issues, relocation of villages and or households adversely affected by the blasting, earth tremors and mudslides that left their homes inhabitable and fearing for their lives.

Furthermore, the communities demand the mine should connect them to an independent water supply system, electricity and also give more to the destitute in its corporate social responsibility programs.

The 19.8 hectare kimberlite pipe mine is situated in the northern district of Botha Bothe and is jointly owned by Namakwa Diamonds Limited with a 75 percent stake while Lesotho government owns the 25 percent remainder.

Initially, before being operated by Storm Mountain diamonds the Mine was owned by Kao Diamond Mine (Pty) Ltd from 2004 to 2008 when it closed.

Storm Mountain diamonds came in 2009; started off with bulk sampling in 2010 and only entered commercial production stage in March 2012. The mine operations are conventional open-pit mining, with drilling and blasting, loading and hauling and recovered diamonds are sold in Antwerp on tender basis to a variety of rough diamond buyers including investors, traders and manufacturers.

But many of the challenges remain unresolved due to breakdown in communication between mine and its neighbouring communities in Kao.

Dialogue remains in limbo as the mine allegedly continues to disregard and refuse to work hand in glove with a community liaison committee elected in August 2019 led by Manalane Molefi.

Molefi in an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (the Centre) said amid pending talks with the mine over incessant conflicts, a key stumbling block is Tseko Ratia and her re-election into the committee.

She argues the mine continues to see her and Ratia as rabble-rousers and not champions of the kao community’s interests as they mounted pressure on the mine in the past to increase compensation rates to the community.

The mine’s Chief Executive Officer Mohale Ralikariki says—while the mine continues not to work with the committee and await mediation talks to be led by mining minister Temeki Tsolo—he is in the process of addressing grievances of the community and will continue to give to the less fortunate.

Mine extends a helping hand to community’s most vulnerable amid hostility

The mine, in December 2019, organized a corporate social responsibility activity where Ralikariki said they decided to solicit the help of government’s Disaster Management Authority (DMA) to assess households among the Kao community are in dire need of food and basic necessities.

Ralikariki says “…we realized there are those hard-hit by poverty, the elderly and the orphaned”

“…some can fend for themselves but given the unemployment rate in this country they are unable to do so.

“With assistance of the DMA which had accessed in earlier months the state and vulnerability of the community, our mine gave food parcels to 140 people, over 150 children from neighbouring schools who received a year’s supply of sanitary towels”.

He acknowledges “most of the community’s arable lands used for subsistence farming have been taken for mining and affecting livelihoods of many”.

“We have worked compensation for those affected as per the provisions for a big establishment such as a mine in a community.

“But we feel that is not enough because money will eventually run out in a few years’ time. It is for that reason our mine decided to contribute to the community, especially during a special time as the Christmas holiday.

On why the community liaison committee was sidelined from organizing the activity meant for the community, Ralikariki said the DMA was a well-placed office for making a needs assessment within the community while the mine awaits the mining minister to lead a mediation process between the community and his mine.

He said when beneficiaries of food parcels in the community are identified by the committee, those who do not benefit end up causing more conflicts and claim the mine is sidelining them, hence the need for a neutral player like DMA.

However, Molefi says “they do not want our committee. Mine representatives say the mine is against Ratiea and my election in the new committee. Yet we continue to be elected into the community liaison committee because our people believe we will best represent their interests.”

Molefi castigated the mine’s Christmas gifts and food parcels handover activity held without their knowledge and involvement as “a disrespectful act by the mine”.

Molefi said the Kao people’s relations with the mine are going sour every day over various reasons.

On the contrary, Ralikariki says the community liaison committee they have suspended working with currently, is under normal circumstances very helpful “… we are surrounded by seven villages as a mine and we cannot easily communicate with all of them at once without the committee”.

Ralikariki acknowledged that “due to unresolved conflicts the ministry of mining intervened and the working relations remain in suspense until the committee is appointed in a different manner to lessen conflict”.

“We are waiting for the committee to be constituted in a manner that would be representative of all stakeholders and a mediation talks’ process to be led by the mining ministry so as to resume working closely together,” Ralikariki said.

Kao residents’ grievances

Ha Shishila resident Tšitso Tsemane said his home adjacent to the mine fence is adversely affected by the mine during blasting as flying rocks in various sizes threaten their livelihood.

He says when the blasting takes place the flying rocks hit their homes and make it hard for them to go about their normal daily routines.

“We fear that we will suffer bodily harm or the worst be killed by the flying rocks.

“I suspect that if one was to be hit by the flying rocks, they would definitely not survive as they are thrown out of the mine pit with a force and at high speed due to the nature of blasting done by the mine.

“We live just within a 100 meters range from where the blasting is being done currently and we are faced with immediate danger.

Tsemane claimed his layman assessment is that his village of Ha Shishila is rightly situated above the kimberlite with the deposits of diamonds that the mine wants.

Tsemane said among those in highest danger are children, women and their livestock from these flying rocks from the mine.

“The occurrences of rocks flying towards our homes used to be rare, but lately it seems like it is done purposely by the mine in a way designed to either kill us or force us to flee the area,” said Tsemane.

He also said his speaking out is at the risk of being victimized and being blacklisted from ever working for the mine.

“We cannot be suppressed from fighting for the rights of our people, we will continue to do our campaigns against things that affect our people negatively,” vowed Tsemane.

Taking his turn, Nthane Makintane  said access to water remains a huge challenge that bothers him despite living in a village near the mine. Makintane hails from Ha lephats’oana and claims the mine does not prioritize the community needs.

He also attested to the claims of earth tremors that result in their houses being affected by the mining activities, especially blasting.

He said their houses often feel like they are about to collapse on them during the blasting in the mine.

Malefetsane Ntoampe said the mine is discriminating his Ha Lephats’oana community over award of jobs in the mine. He said on many occasions when the mine is consulted over their houses that collapse, there are never any meaningful developments.

Talking about the gifts the mine handed over to their families for Christmas, Ntoampe said it was not the first time, but emphasized their biggest concerns are access to basic services that they are denied by lack of roads and bridges infrastructure.

Molefi, corroborates Tsemane’s sentiments saying new disagreements and conflicts with the mine are now sparked by the blasting that happens in backyards resulting in rocks being thrown out of the mine in the direction of their homes, threatening people, animals and properties.

“It is only in December when we saw for the first time a letter to the area chief notifying her of the blasting activities that are never notified to the people. This time around a letter was send to the chief and not the committee and the chief gave us a copy of her letter,” said Molefi.

Ralikariki acknowledges reports of stones thrown to villages by explosives during blasting in the mine pit.

“Diamonds mining is done through constant blasting as diamonds are found deep within the rocks and there is a need for constant blasting to be done on the kimberlite to get the diamonds.

“During the blasting one can feel the ground shake beneath the villagers houses despite our blasting being done quite a distance from their houses, but their houses are affected by the blasting due to their poor construction methods.

“We acknowledge that the blasting affects houses whose foundations are very weak and cannot withstand the blasting. It is for that reason that the mine has since engaged the services of a structural engineer to make assessment of the nature of the cracks in the houses of the affected villagers.

“We also want to know how these cracks occur and how we can change our blasting so that we lessen impact on houses as it is doing currently.

“The structural engineer’s assessment will be completed in December 2019 and we will repair the houses. But we also want to know how we can avoid the negative effect of the blasting on their houses so that we avoid affecting the houses negatively,” said Ralikariki.

On the other hand the community members also shared various grievances over relocation of people to safer locations.

Tsemane also expressed shock that another affected village that has been suffering from mudslides as a result of the mining activities was way ahead in its people being relocated to a safer location while they suffered more danger but were not yet relocated.

On the relocation issues, Molefi said there is construction underway.

But Molefi argues the major problem is that they would be sharing their land with the lihloahloeng community and it is not clear whether they have been paid for their pastures that are to be affected by the erection of the affected village under relocation or not.

Ralikariki however contradicts Molefi and Tsemane saying they have two villages that have been adversely affected that most by our mining activities.

“There are people from Nokeng, about five families that were affected. We had consultations with them and agreed on their compensation through relocation and they have since signed for their relocation compensation amounts.

“There was a property valuer engaged to evaluate the value of their assets. Some opted to be relocated while others opted to take lump-sum amounts to relocate and built their homes on their own in different locations.

“We have another village called Tiping that is affected by the day to activities of the mine and this village is being relocated to another location called Porenki. Porenki is neighbouring to the villages near the mine area. That is where there is progress on the construction of their houses to ensure their relocation is expedited,” said Ralikariki.

Water woes docking Kao community

Other grievances shared by the Kao community members include access to water which the community believes must be provided by the mine as they claim the mine has polluted their old water sources.

But the community argues it needs the mine to build them an independent source from the mine water storage tanks which would be easily accessible without having to go into the mine.

Tsemane also said the mine continues to pollute their environment by opening and spilling into the river, sewage and other waste from the mine which he argued taints their natural water quality.

“The water that the mine is polluting is used for drinking for humans and animals, cooking and washing in households around the mine,” said Tsemane.

He also criticized the mine’s efforts to provide the villagers with safer drinking water sourced from the mine’s water storage tanks which he said makes the community more dependent on the mine.

“If they decide to cut the water supply for any reason we will have problems. We need to have our own independent water supply sources which would not be within the parameters of the mining company area.

“If they have water problems, we would be faced with the same problem, so we need to have our own water away from the tank that feeds the mine,” said Tsemane.

But the mine in its corporate social responsibility document circulated by its community liaison officer Moeketsi Chefa says the mine, from 2010 to 2019 has erected 15 community water taps for both Ha Shishila and Nokeg villagers.

A bold swipe at government by mine over misuse of diamonds royalties

Ralikariki, who prior to joining the mine used to work for the mining ministry as the Commissioner of Mines accused government of having misplaced priorities towards diamonds fields neighbouring communities.

Ralikariki said government collects taxes and royalties of around 400 million maloti from diamond mines, but pockets it all without a portion being allocated for infrastructure and services projects for mining-affected communities to address the challenges even in the coming years.

The Centre learned from the Ralikariki that the mine in a collaborative effort with its neighbouring Liqhobong mine has spent 210 million maloti on projects to improve infrastructure providing electricity from Ha Lejone to  the Kao valley for both the two mines and these can be tapped into by the government to connect homes of communities in near the mines.

“A further 9 million maloti was spent on maintenance road construction leading all the way to Tlaeeng pass, by our mine. A road that did not exists here, that also last longer than the road preferred by the Kao communities that is constantly washed away by torrential rains we experience here.

“The mine has met with the ministry of Public Works and Transport which is supposed to provide scope to determine costs for the construction of the road from in Ha-Lejone to tar as the gravel poses a number of challenges for villagers who use it on a daily basis,” Ralikariki claimed.

The mine insists that government needs to set aside a certain percentage from the royalties’ money to contribute towards improvement of infrastructure in these mining-affected communities.

Ralikariki says government’s coming to the rescue does not relieve the mine of its responsibility as a corporate citizen, but that it gives the mine the opportunity to focus more on development projects as the government effort go to provision of services and infrastructure.

“This way we will be able to provide more jobs for the unemployed through sustainable projects which will live long after the mines shut down.

“We need also to capacitate these people for proper transition because we are now changing their way of life from farming which requires them to acquire new skills to develop projects which requires certain skills,” Ralikariki said.

He said the mine will be sponsoring about 25 youths from the kao villages to go study in vocational training in January 2020.

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