Misguided conceptions of Mineral Exploration and Mining

By Ignatius Kamwanje

Mineral exploration and mining are often times associated with certain beliefs or misconceptions depending on cultural orientation and also the background of mining activitiwes in a particular country or region. In Malawi, there has been a very negative belief or misconception about mining possibly may be due to its history where the first Head of State, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda advocated that Malawi does not have mineral deposits. Ironically where he encouraged farmers to use the land for agriculture, it is the same land where minerals were prospected by the colonial masters such that they could be exploited at a profit if mined and utilized. Due to such a background, Malawi as a country has lagged behind for all these years and still is in its infancy stage.

 1.   Notable Misguided Conceptions

Some of the notable misguided misconceptions about mineral exploration and mining in Malawi are as follows and these are based on the frequency that often times the communities discuss thereby having a negative attitude that in the long time has derailed the mineral sector to prosper:

  • Mineral exploration and mining bring about war
  • Possession of Minerals is like contraband because it is illegal and one is sent to jail
  • Whenever mineral exploration starts, the community should ask for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) outright
  • Mineral exploration companies export minerals in the form of samples

(a) Mineral exploration and mining bring about war

Many conflict incidents with mining worldwide are associated with the relationship between the mining company and the communities at interface. But it should be noted that it needs digging deeper to find out what lies behind these interfaces. Sometimes conflicts arise from land and environmental issues, the general rise in large scale protest globally. These are some of the conflict triggers. However, when mining companies exercise political stability/risk assessment, due diligence, collaborative approach with communities and governments, the will for environmental containment among others, conflicts can easily be avoided. This has been manifested in mining countries in Africa like South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania where conflicts in the mining sector are rare. It is therefore important that the Malawi government learns and emulates how these countries have avoided conflicts/wars in their mining regions.In some countries where wars/conflict arise in Africa, they are mostly due to failed governance or influence from some rich regions that are an interested party to the mineral hence create chaos to loot.

  (b) Possession of Minerals is like contraband because it is illegal and one is sent to jail

The legality of mineral exploitation lies in the Mines and Minerals Act (Malawi scenario). It is legally stipulated that if a company or an individual is to venture into mineral exploration and mining, the best way is to follow the steps that allow one to be given an operating licence by the Mining Ministry through the Department of Mines. If all the processes and procedures are followed, it is easy to be legally accepted. However most illegal miners are a precursor to the discovery of some mineral deposits in the form of Artisanal Small Scale Mining. It is along this line that the Mining Ministry has encouraged illegal miners to form partnerships in the form of cooperatives so that they register and are given a mining licence for them to operate, hence the legality. Similarly, the Ministry also gives room for individuals to apply for a Reserved Mineral Licence (RML) where one can buy and sell minerals whether to sale on domestic market or export.

(c) Whenever mineral exploration starts, the community should ask for CSR outright

This is one of the misguided conceptions. Whenever an exploration company arrives within the community, it is perceived that they should start CSR immediately. It must be emphasized that during an exploration stage, the company is still in the dark because nothing yet has materialized and there is a very long way to go inorder to find a quantifiable deposit. At this stage, the company is operating at a loss because there are no profit gains since they are still targeting. At an advanced stage where mining commences, it is also not automatic that a mining company exercises CSR to the communities. It is optional and in a Malawian scenario, a community Development Agreement (CDA) has been enacted to avoid this.

(d) Mineral exploration companies export minerals in the form of samples

The issue of samples being collected for assaying outside the country is always an issue within the communities. First and foremost sampling forms the backbone to the discovery of a mineral deposit and without it, there could be no quantifiable deposit. It must be well understood that sampling involves a lot including geostatistical tools that are complex and these provide a potential guide to the discovery of a mineral deposit. In terms of sampling, it is very interesting to note that in a rock sample of 1000 grams, one can only recover 1 gram of ore and it is important to visualize how many tonnes of a rock are needed to be transported, only to get a handful of an ore as a recovery. That is why people perceive that samples are being stolen and sent out as a mineral. In addition there is need to establish a trial plant by the end of the day from the sampling results to ascertain whether the deposit is viable. All these processes are done outside Malawi because those countries have sophisticated equipment and state of the art laboratories that are world class which are not locally available in Malawi.

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