By Andreas Thomas
Windhoek – The controversy over the issue seabed phosphate in the Namibian water has taken another turn this past week, when Environment and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta canceled the environmental clearance certificate issued to a company that wants to mine the mineral in the Atlantic Ocean.
Namibian Marine Phosphate (NMP) has been embroiled in a bitter tug-of-war with the government and environmentalists since its granted environmental clearance license in September 2015.
Minister Shifeta announced on Thursday, 21 June his decision to cancel the certificate on the grounds of environmental protection with immediate effect.
He has since instructed that the consultation process for awarding the certificate to NMP be restarted, and that all concerned stakeholders submit their inputs within three months. The process is expected to take up to six months.
“Article 95 (1) of the Namibian Constitution evidently underlines the importance of environmental protection. Our founders of the constitution intended for Namibian citizens and residents to have the regard to the issues of environmental protection,” the minister said in his judgment.
The decision came after Windhoek High Court Judge Shafimana Ueitele last month set aside earlier decision by Minister Shifeta to annul the decision by the environment commissioner to grant environment certificate to NMP.
Judge Ueitele argued in his judgment that the mining company was not given fair hearing.
The exploitation of seabed phosphate in the Atlantic Ocean has been a contentious for many years.
In 2012, NMP was granted a mining permit by the Ministry of Mines and Energy for its Sandpiper Project that lies 120km southwest of the port of Walvis Bay.
The Mining License 170 covers an area of about 2223km at the depth level of 190 to 300 meters.
But the company needed to get an environmental clearance certificate to start mining. Teofilus Nghitila, the environmental commissioner granted the license to NPM in September 2015.
But after a concerted public ruckus by the fishing sector and environmentalists, Minister Shifeta was forced to withdraw the environmental clearance certificate in November 2016.
Shifeta argued at the time that the environmental commissioner erred, and did not follow proper procedure in accordance with the framework of the Environment Management Act, 2007 (Act No. 7 of 2007).
The Act seek to prevent the impact on environment that may result from wide ranging activities including the mining, which requires environmental clearance certificates
This enraged the Namibia Phosphate Mining, which took the government to court. The court ruled on May 11, 2018 in its favor – a victory that is short-lived.
It’s now back to the drawing board for companies campaigning to exploit seabed phosphate in the southern African country.
NMP plans to remove up to five metres of seabed silt to extract phosphate deposits. Environmentalists and the fishing industry have expressed great concern that dredging the sea floor and hazardous substances including radioactive materials will cause irreparable damage to the marine life.
The Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources Bernard Esau has been vocal against marine phosphate mining, having called for scientific studies to determine its impact on marine resources.
He was particularly disturbed that the environment clearance certificate was issued to NMP, without inputs from his ministry.
Minister Esau also expressed fear that it might open flood gate for other companies that also campaign to exploit the mineral near Luderitz and Walvis Bay.
Apart from NMP, other mining outfits like Lev Leviev Namibia Phosphate, New Zealand’s Chatham Rock Phosphates and Gecko Phosphate (Pty) Ltd are also campaigning to be given green lights to exploit the mineral essential in manufacturing of fertilizers, and pesticides.
Namibia has the seventh largest phosphate deposit in the world and proven to be top third deposits suitable for use in the application of fertilizer by the International Fertilizer Development Centre.
NMP is majority owned by Mohammed Al Barwami, billionaire from Oman through his company Mawarid Mining LLC and his Namibian partner Knowledge Katti.
The duo has been threatening to sue the government is they did not get their way. Katti is on record claiming that they have so far spent over N$780 million on exploration and environmental studies for their Sandpiper Project.
NMP promised a capital investment of N$5.2 billion and promised N$14 billion (N$728 million per/annum) in revenue to government over the 20 year period of the mining’s lifespan.
Several stakeholders that are concerned by the adverse impact of phosphate mining on marine habitat have commended Minister Shifeta for his decision to cancel the NMP environmental clearance certificate.
Seabed phosphate mining would be the first of its kind in the world, and there is no scientific evidence about its impact, they claimed.
Labour expert Herbert Jauch has expressed his opposition that benefits that NMP could bring in the country including employment pales in comparison to the thousands of jobs that could be lost as a result of destruction of marine environment.
“For Namibia, the issue was that phosphate mining can create a few hundreds of jobs, but thousands of jobs could be at risk in the fishing industry. We need to weigh that up and consider if the risk if worth,” Jauch said.
“We are very happy the minister did not base his decision on technicalities, but took into account the impact that phosphate mining can have on the environment”.