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Resource curse hits Mokhotlong



MASERU – WHEN a diamond mine was set up in Letšeng-la-terai, an estimated 20km away from Maloraneng in Mokhotlong, the villagers had hoped that this would result in a significant transformation of their lives.

Instead, the resource has literally turned into a curse. Now there is an outcry from the community in the village that is nestled at the confluence of Maloraneng River and Khubelu River in Mokhotlong district.

The village has about 70 homes located deep in the valley close to Letšeng mine operated by Gem Diamonds in partnership with the government of Lesotho.

Instead of enjoying benefits accruing from the construction of a mine in their area, the community is wallowing in poverty and poor infrastructure.

Travelling along the main route to Mokhotlong leading to Maloraneng village, the tarmac road is partly washed away by rains.

Local leaders say the presence of the mine in the area has resulted in an avalanche of socio- economic problems in an area where agriculture is the predominant source of livelihood for the people.

“Now all that is threatened by the mine,” said Chief Lentsoete Moahi, 50, who is a local traditional leader. He said people in the area are experiencing a litany of environmental problems such as contamination of water sources as well as noise and air pollution.

“There has been a degradation and loss of agricultural resources, land and vegetation since the mine was established. There is a constant menace since the mine was established in this area,” he said, adding that their food security is now under threat.

Villagers in the area survive on crops such as wheat, peas and sometimes maize.

Others used to plant vegetables on their small plots and irrigate them with water from nearby rivers, while some kept sheep and goats for wool and mohair, a big investment for farmers in the highlands.

“This used to be a lucrative project in this area,” Chief Moahi said, lamenting that the mine has deprived them of their land where their animals used to graze.

When blasting occurs at the mine, a yellow dust is usually seen bellowing into the sky and later settles on the grass.

This poses a double problem for animals that feed on the grass on which the dust gathers and also drink water from contaminated sources.

Chief Moahi said the quality of their wool and mohair has dropped because animals no longer drink clean water like they used to.

“The water is now salty,” said Chief Moahi.

Faced with the mounting problems, community leaders approached the mine for talks but nothing meaningful came out of it.

Chief Moahi said fish used to be in abundance at the confluence of Maloraneng and Khubelu Rivers but that is now a thing of the past.

“Tourists used to visit this area to fish but they are no longer coming,” he said, adding that tourists used to support the local economy by buying small handicrafts from villagers.

“We believe the fish died because of the chemicals found in the water,” he said.

Moahi fears that the dam built by the mine to keep its waste could burst and wreak havoc in their village.

“So the mine gave us roja-rojas (small radios) and sirens to mount in the area. The sirens can be used to alert people if there is any danger such as when the dam bursts,” said Chief Moahi.

He said he was among those who were employed to alert the community in case the dam burst.
The deal was struck in 2012.

“After almost nine years, we have not received even a cent from the mines. That’s why we quit the job. The mine came to repossess their equipment,” Chief Moahi said.

Letšeng Diamond Mine CEO, Kelebone Leisanyane, however said the company enjoys good relations with the community.

He said they have experts in various fields at the mine who are “always” out to meet the people and address their grievances through the mine’s Social Management Plan.

Leisanyane said the mine has a minimum of M5 million that it uses to finance the community projects in Mokhotlong district.

The councillor for Seate J01 in the area, ‘Matokelo Moahi, described the community’s plight as “dreadful”.

“This is above us as the community leaders,” she said.

“What frustrates us is that we can’t take on the mine legally because it has a bigger pocket than us,” she said, adding that only two people from Maloraneng village have landed jobs at the mine.

The chairman of Maluti Community Development Forum (MCDF), Advocate Thabo Lerotholi, said they roped in experts from the National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s department of Geography to conduct some tests.

He said the findings from the tests confirmed that the water is contaminated, although the mine disputed the results. Experts from the University of Free State also confirmed that the water is contaminated, said Advocate Lerotholi.

In response to the allegations, Letšeng Mine said it has established an official nitrate task team, which works in collaboration with the relevant departments within the Lesotho government.

The mine said since the commissioning of the nitrate management study, the operation has implemented the following solutions to conserve water quality:

l Commissioned a wetland construction and rehabilitation programme.

l Refined and amended blasting practices and procedures to limit the volume of nitrates from explosives released into the environment.

l Partnered with water conservation experts to trial the feasibility of fertigation and bioremediation as treatment methods and conducted leach testing to better understand the management options.

Further, the mine said it was able to successfully complete a bioremediation pilot project at Letšeng to treat water leaching from the waste rock dumps with potentially higher volumes of nitrates in 2021, and a full-scale bioremediation plant is now being designed for commissioning at the end of 2022.

This bioremediation plant will treat water seeping from the mine waste rock dumps, and the treated water will be discharged from the plant into a newly constructed wetland before leaving the mine lease area.

Majara Molupe

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