In a highly unusual application, a group of villagers have asked the Lesotho High Court to order the Letšeng Diamond Mine to relocate them because they fear being engulfed by flooding from the mine’s slime dams.
Patising village is located downslope of Letšeng, an active mine. The villagers fear they could be swallowed up by flooding if the mine’s dams and impoundments burst.
The 19 villagers of Patising want to be relocated at the mine’s own cost as they cannot afford to move. They want to choose their new village in consultation with the mine.
“If we could, we would have relocated long time ago,” noted the first applicant, ‘Mapontšo Lematla, in her founding affidavit.
“We live in constant fear of what could become of us and our properties should the dams fail.”
Letšeng is set to oppose this application but it is yet to file its papers. “Kindly take notice that the First Respondent [Letšeng] hereby gives notice of its intention to oppose the abovementioned application,” attorney Mateboho Tohlang-Phafane notified the court on behalf of the mine.
The matter was elevated to the High Court after the mine rubbished allegations by the Maluti Community Development Forum (MCDF) that its dams were threatening lives of the community downstream.
MCDF is an interest group that defends the rights of the poor communities in the Lesotho’s mining areas.
In a letter to the MCDF dated June 4 this year responding to MCDF, Letšeng chief executive, Kelebone Leisanyane rejected plea to relocate the villagers, saying, “it is untrue to suggest that there is an ongoing fear of the dams causing any harm to the community”.
“Based on Letšeng’s confidence on the effectiveness of the controls it has put in place to ensure the safety of the both the dams and the community, Letšeng finds no need for the community to relocate and will not entertain any request for payment should any member of the community decide to do so.”
Owned by the British-based Gem Diamonds and the Lesotho government, Letšeng is the highest dollar per carat kimberlite diamond mine in the world.
In one of its exceptional findings, the mine discovered a 910-carat diamond sold for $40 million (M520 million) at an auction in Antwerp, Belgium in March 2018.
In the case in question, the villagers are represented by Advocate Thabo Lerotholi who is also the president of MCDF.
According to Lematla, the mine in 2012 met the Patising community with the purpose identifying effective emergency plans in the event that the dams failed and they were provided with sirens and two-way radios.
Lematla said this equipment was meant for use to warn members of the community to run for safety in the case of emergency associated with dam’s failure.
“This gesture by Letšeng only lent credence to our fear that there was a disaster waiting to happen because if Letšeng was 100% sure that the chance of the dams failing was zero, there would be no need to take those measures,” she argued.
Apart from the risks posed by the dams, Lematla said: “the stream water that we used to enjoy is no longer safe for our consumption and washing…we are now fearful of our water because we develop itching skin whenever we use the water, something that was never the case before.”
To address these issues, she said they have been engaging with Letšeng on numerus occasions through MCDF. “Every time MCDF engages with Letšeng on our behalf on the subject of their slime dams, Letšeng says their dams are safe.
“This they say despite the fact that Letšeng has made it clear in the past that our lives were at risk, hence their provision of the sirens and two-way radios [for emergencies].
“…one wonders how, the sirens and radios can prevent the disaster from happening. We cannot be expected to put our safety and that of our belongings on the sirens and radios.
“By now Letšeng should have realised that their answer does little or nothing to allay our fears and if they cared, [they] would have relocated us a long time ago, but as it is, Letšeng wants us to take their word over our fears and safety.”
Lematla submitted that on May 23, Patising community invited MCDF to hear their grievances against Letšeng, which culminated in the May 28 request asking the mine to help them relocate.
“First, it was our customary issue of slime dams, which we live in constant fear of. Second, was the issue of possible water contamination,” she noted.
“Regarding possible water contamination, on the 4th of June 2020, Letšeng said they were aware of the issue and were investigating [it]. This means prior to June 2020 they were already aware of the issue.
“At least three months have since elapsed and Letšeng is still investigating. It is this very nonchalant manner with which Letšeng addresses our concerns that we feel we should not leave it to Letšeng to decide our fate.
“As for possible water contamination, the manner in which Letšeng is treating this issue should suffice to illustrate that Letšeng does not have our interests,” Lematla further reiterated.
The MNN’s 2018 findings on the matter revealed that the mine was polluting the Pae-la-Itlhatsoa rivulets and filling Letšeng-la-Terae lake with hips of mine waste and gradually blocking sources of Maloraneng and Patisi rivulets as it offloads rocks into the river sources.
These rivulets are source of domestic and animal drinking water for the Mokhotlong community downstream.
MNN had observed how Patisi rivulet is prone to contamination with villagers saying its water often looked muddy as a result of the mine waste. From Patisi, the polluted water gets into Khubelu river that runs down Pae-La-Itlhatsoa.
Letšeng then admitted to a case where a truck tyre belonging to the mine was dumped in the water at the source of Maloraneng river and contaminated the water downstream. Following the villagers meeting with the mine, the tyre was removed.
Communications and Community Relations Officer, Lebohang Chefa told MNN then that the Patising villagers were warned by Letšeng about the pollution that was a result of extension of the slime dam.
“Since the muddy water could be seen in naked eye, the villagers were advised not to use it,” he said