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Namibia is stuck in a dilemma over seabed phosphate mining. It had issued a moratorium in 2013 pending an environmental study, but that expired in March without any tangible results or a clear way forward. However, Fisheries permanent secretary Moses Maurihungirire said on Monday that the cross-ministerial technical committee met last week and agreed on several recommendations, without specifying what they were.

Seabed phosphate mining hasn’t been done anywhere in the world. An attempt to do so off of New Zealand was banned in February because it would cause “significant and permanent adverse effects” on the seabed environment. So there is tremendous uncertainty about its pros and cons for Namibia. Full-fledged phosphate mining would contribute an estimated $235 million per year. But besides environmental harm, the country’s important fishing sector could take a hit from mining-caused disruption. The $390 million per year fishing industry directly employs over 13,000 people, and around 200,000 with support industries included.

The technical committee failed to meet two months ago as scheduled, and the delay has placed the government in a legal limbo regarding seabed phosphate mining. The cabinet is split. The Namibian reported that Environment minister Pohamba Shifeta, who appears to be neutral in this matter, said “We cannot just deny a certificate without reasons for the potential consequences of the planned mining.” Now that the moratorium has expired, he added, the mines ministry has to give the go-ahead. Earlier in the year, mines minister Obeth Kandjoze said he was in favor of allowing licensed mining companies to start work after the moratorium — which he said would have no legal standing if it was challenged in court by those firms.

Meanwhile fisheries minister Bernard Esau has hinted that another ban on phosphate mining will be needed, so that a proper environmental impact study on its effects can be carried out. In May, Esau warned the government against “blindly” approving marine phosphate mining, arguing that the country’s long-term future matters more. It is unclear where President Hage Geingob stands on the matter, and the usually outspoken attorney general Sacky Shanghala declined to comment on Sunday.

Another moratorium might be in the cards, but phosphate mining companies with wealthy backers are lobbying hard for mining permits to be given out now. Omani billionaire Mohammed Al Barwani has a 85% stake in Namibia Marine Phosphate, and Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev owns LL Namibia Phosphates. Leviev’s firm claims it will invest some $940 million off Lüderitz to develop phosphate mining, if Namibia’s government gives its permission.

In late 2013, LL Namibia Phosphates was granted a license to build a $20 million demonstration plant, in a singular exception to the government’s moratorium, and the firm did so. Although the project is not yielding any financial gain, it gives substance to claims like those of managing director Kombandayedu Kapwanga, who said that the “moratorium was not needed.” He noted that research conducted by his company has so far indicated that phosphate mining will have no negative environmental impact. “We have done testing and we are going to do a bigger environmental impact assessment on the project,” he added.

But studies done by firms with vested interests in opening up mining should not be the basis of the government’s decisions. Until sufficient independent research can be obtained, Namibia’s moratorium on seabed phosphate mining should be renewed, however controversial that may be.

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