This week the Namibian fishing industry goes to court to argue its case against plans to mine phosphate offshore.
The Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations, the Namibian Hake Association and the Midwater Trawling Association of Namibia are opposing NMP’s plan to mine phosphate offshore.
NMP is owned by Omani billionaire, Al Barwani, through his company Mawarid Mining LLC which has an 85% shareholding.. A 15% stake is owned by middleman Knowledge Katti.
The organisation has been at pains recently to promote the Sandpiper project. It insists it will be of massive value to the economy and even be the start of a new fertiliser export industry.
Its’ plan is to mine phosphates from the seabed, off Walvis Bay, where it proposes to dump tonnes of waste on land.
Another applicant, Namibia Phosphates, is hoping to apply to set up a marine phosphate mining operation and a phosphoric acid at Luderitz.
On this surface this type of industrial activity might appear to be attractive to the Namibian government. Afterall, it has been feeling the pain of an economic slowdown and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the one hand the phosphate resource is estimated at two billion tonnes in naturally occurring seafloor sediments. Namibia is also ranked seventh in the world for phosphate resources. Phosphate is also necessary for food security as it helps with crop growth.
It’s an opportunity, according to NMP, for the creation of hundreds of jobs in the construction phase and also indirectly in support industries.
On the other hand, Namibia will likely face international condemnation should the project go ahead. Most countries have banned phosphate mining.
Proposals for seabed mining, within the jurisdictions of nations have concentrated on six nations or areas. These are New Zealand, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, Mexico and the Pacific Islands.
There has been considerable resistance to these project proposals.
In all these cases and in most cases, governments have opted for a cautious approach in the form of a moratorium, permanent bans or refusal of project proposals.
Resistance to the Sandpiper project took the form of renewed protest action in Windhoek and Walvis Bay in September 2019.
At the time it looked likely that the Environment Minister, Pohamba Shifeta, would reinstate an environmental clearance certificate for the Sandpiper Project. This would have allowed it preliminary access to parts of Namibia’s offshore seabed.
The three fishing organisations with the backing of the National Union of Namibian Workers and Trade Union Congress of Namibia, asked the High Court to nullify the mining permit granted to NMP in 2011.
They argued that no proper environmental impact assessment had been carried out before it was issued in 2015. Although the certificate was set aside in November 2016, in 2018 NMP successfully appealed the environment minister’s decision.
As far as NMP is concerned, it has done enough to prove that mining and fishing can co-exist in peace. This has included pulling in a host of independent scientists and specialists to produce 26 independent specialist environmental studies.
These same specialists have reportedly worked in some capacity on the Benguela Coastal System and therefore have local knowledge.
This, the company claims, is more than enough evidence to prove there will be no significant impact on the marine environment.
What the fishing industry says
The commercial fishing industry for its part is not against sharing sea space. But it has consistently said that there must be proper research to ensure mining does not have a negative impact on the marine environment. Relevant laws and regulation also need to change to ensure stable and controlled mining.
Furthermore, that the fishing industry is a large contributor to GDP, and that significant capital investment has been made in property, vessels, and employment. The country is also working towards marine stewardship certification of hake.
The industry has previously questioned why the proponents of phosphate mining are pushing so hard to get immediate access to the Namibian resource. Some other questions around this have included amongst others:
- how this massive project will be financed
- the relevance of skills transfer to deep sea dredging (150 – 300 metres depth). Presently this is carried out by international companies, is specialised and expensive.
- the type of equipment that will be used ashore and what manual labour would be required.
- local job creation prospects for the phosphate plant as this is a sophisticated plant requiring the services of suitably qualified and experienced chemical engineers.
- what Namibians stand to benefit in the way of shareholding in phosphate mining and related companies. This is pertinent to the fishing industry which is obligated by law to ensure that companies are 51% Namibian controlled to benefit from quotas granted.
As Matti T Amukwa said back in 2016 (ref Wikileaks):
”If we lightly agree to sea mining without thorough research and appropriate legislation in place, Namibia will become the experimental ground for the international sea mining companies, closely watched by the world.
“It cannot be, that a country so, dependant on the fishing industry, becomes the trial laboratory for marine phosphate mining!”
Transparency and regulation
NMP is on record for blaming individuals behind the ‘Fishrot’ scandal for stalling progress on the Sandpiper mining project.
While this was denied by the Minister of Environment and Tourism, the Fishrot scandal has understandably caused the Namibian government to be wary of deceitful activities.
The Tax Justice Network Africa says governments should enact legislation for the mandatory disclosure of beneficial ownership information. Countries such as Namibia will then know publicly where illicit funds are moving and who is moving them.
Although, in general, the enhancement of financial transparency is increasingly gaining space in government agendas, the legal framework is inadequate.
“Regulation must consider all legal vehicles, including companies, trusts, partnerships and foundations. In general, public registries containing this information are considered to be the most efficient way to ensure an effective disclosure,” says a Tax Justice Network Africa spokesperson.
Fisheries Minister Albert Kawana knows there is a need to overhaul the fishing industry. He has already agreed that the Fisheries and Marine Resources Act must be amended to bring about more transparency and accountability.
“I am working on that amendment,” Kawana says.
At an international level, marine phosphate mining goes against the UN goals for Sustainable Development, International Maritime Law and Namibia’s renowned Constitution and laws.
It also goes against Namibia’s vision 2030 which guides the nation’s future development.
Article 95 of the Namibian constitution requires government to actively promote welfare of the people, stating that Government of Namibia is obligated to: “..maintain ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilisation of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and in future.”
The last word
When the prospect of seabed mining was first mooted, the Namibian government stated it was concerned that the removal of soft sediment from the seabed along with living organisms and the suspension of fine sediment in the seawater may affect the functioning of the marine ecosystem negatively.
The ministry says it was also concerned that any contamination or suspended particles from mining activities may have adverse effects on the fish larvae and their development.
Fast forward to 2020 and veteran politician and Swapo leader, Jerry Ekandjo, who has held several ministerial positions in the Namibian Cabinet, is vigorously opposed to the Sandpiper Project.
Ekandjo’s strong stance against phosphate mining goes against president Hage Geingob’s pressure on the environment ministry to decide on the application for marine phosphate mining.
Geingob has never criticised or questioned the proposed phosphate mining project although former president, Sam Nujoma, was not in favour of it.
Last year the Swapo party youth league also condemned the project saying the ocean should not be sacrificed for profit by certain individuals.
NMP’s chief executive officer Chris Jordinson has steered clear of statements he says could be “potentially politically motivated”.
The Ministry of Environment and Tourism says the (new) government does not have a stated position on phosphate mining and that the question is before the courts to make a final ruling.