Malawi Government dragged to court over Mulanje Mountain Rare Earths Exploration Project

Community engagement: Akatswiri CEO Hilton Banda planting a tree during a tree planting event the company organised in the Chambe Basin area

By Bester KAYAYE

Local mining firm Akatswiri Mineral Resources (AMR) is seeking a judicial review from the High Court on the decision by the Forestry Department in the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources that the Company gets endorsement from Mulanje District Council and other stakeholders in order for the Department to decide to grant it a permit to proceed with its exploration work for rare earths in Mulanje Mountain.

The Forestry Department inserted a condition in AMR’s renewed Exclusive Prospecting Licence (EPL) requiring the Company to get endorsement from the District Council, Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), Environmental Affairs Department and Blantyre Water Board in order to be permitted to continue with exploration work.

But through their lawyer Timothy John Chirwa, AMR says the delays to get the permit from the Forestry Department due to this cumbersome process has cost them a foreign investment partner who pulled out from the project due to the bottlenecks.

In a letter addressed to the Department of Forestry and Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda, AMR through the lawyer is seeking the Department to provide the specific provision in the Forestry Act or in any Act or piece of legislation which it has used to impose this condition on its renewed EPL and reasons why it did not insert a similar condition in the original license which was granted to AMR.

The letter states: “Your office has granted Akatswiri Mineral Resources Company Limited (AMR) a licence, dated 18th February 2022, to explore/prospect/extract minerals in the Mulanje Biosphere. In this licence, you have inserted a condition, in Clause 1013 thereof, requiring AMR to first obtain an endorsement from Mulanje District Council following a debrief on results of consultations AMR has to have with some stakeholders before it can commence its exploration works.”

“Your office has also written the office of the District Commissioner for Mulanje District stating that the said licence is subject to an outcome of these consultations.”

“AMR is our client. They have given us instructions to ask your office, which we hereby do, to provide the legal basis of this condition. May you provide specific provisions why, by inserting this condition, you have departed from the usual conditions in the gazetted template of a license of this kind and the specific legal provision which requires an endorsement from the District Commissioner or District Council before a licence to explore/prospect/extract minerals in a forestry reserve can be issued.”

He explained that the investor AMR partnered in the Mulanje Mountain mineral exploration project pulled out due to the delay to get the permit from Forestry Department after a lot of resources had already been spent in anticipation of the commencement of the exploration works.

Reads the letter: “The investor is aware that the previous holder of an exploration license covering Mulanje Mountain was forced to abandon the project because of a hostile political environment which some actors had created for him. The investor has seen a repeat of the same situation, and wants to avoid further loses. It is a self-evident fact, from your letter to District Commissioner for Mulanje, that your office, in league with some stakeholders, does not want this project to take place. In the circumstances, we hold your office responsible for the pulling out of the investor from the project.”

Meanwhile, the Area Development Committee (ADC) for Chambe Basin in Mulanje mountain biosphere reserve has penned the District Commissioner and MMCT seeking clarification from the two offices over delays to clear AMR to commence exploration works at the site.

The ADC describes the delays by the Council to give a go-ahead to AMR to proceed with exploration work as retrogressive in a country whose vision is to attain industrialization through mining operations.

In the letter made available to Mining and Trade Review signed by Committee Secretary Lexso Suwedi, the ADC says it is surprised that AMR is being denied a permit to conduct exploration at the site while previous tenement holders such as Springs Stone were exploring the area without any conditions attached.

Suwedi says AMR has established good relations with the community following its community sensitisation meetings and urges government to grant unconditional license to the firm so that it continues with plans to implement corporate social responsibility projects.

He says: “Akatswiri Mineral Resources started already engaging communities through different activities from which we have benefited as members of the community. We would like to demand that the Forestry Department issues a permit to the Company without any other additional conditions.”

“We, concerned citizens and youth, fully support this project since we already started getting involved in different activities Akatswiri launched.”

But in a directive to Mulanje District Commissioner made on February 22, 2022, Director of Forestry Dr Clement Chilima claims that AMR did not comply with recommendations by the District Council on consultations whereby the firm was supposed to engage various environmental stakeholders working in Mulanje Biosphere before commencing exploration works.

Chilima says: “We have inserted a condition in the renewed License that Akatswiri shall obtain an endorsement from Mulanje District Council, based on a report submitted to the Council, of the results of consultations, as recommended by the District Executive Committee meeting of 23rd July 2020, the District Development Committee Meeting of 4th November 2021 and the Extra-Ordinary Full Council meeting of 5th November 2021.”

“The License stipulates that the following key stakeholders must be consulted; MMCT, Department of Forestry, Environmental Affairs Department and Blantyre Water Board. A condition of the License is that it shall be automatically terminated, if the above and any other License Conditions are violated/not fulfilled.”

Chambe is a large, weathered ionic adsorption clay-hosted (Ionic Clay) Rare Earth Elements (REE) project which contains kaolinitic soils which could lend itself to carrying bulk REE deposits. Historic exploration work was carried out on the site between 2009 and 2014, confirming the presence of mineralised Rare Earth Oxide clays, similar to many of the larger, high-value Heavy REE mines in China.

Analysis of samples from 2010 shows that the soils contain from 475 to 739 ppm total REE, including the key Neodymium and Praseodymium (NdPr) metals. The benefits of extracting REE from shallower ionic clay deposits involve lower operating and capital costs, as well as shorter times for development.

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