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THE government continues to be divided on whether to accept or block seabed phosphate mining after the expiry of an 18-month moratorium early this year.

Phosphate mining is the process of extracting fertiliser from the seabed, a process described by some as a threat to the sea and the marine ecosystem.

Namibia banned phosphate mining in 2013 pending an environment study but since the moratorium expired in March, there has not been any news about the way forward from government.

A technical team comprising permanent secretaries from several ministries put together about two years ago to look into the matter failed to meet two months ago to make recommendations on the way forward to a committee comprising the fisheries, mining and environment ministers.

The failure to meet meant that the matter could not go to Cabinet earlier since the fisheries minister Bernard Esau is supposed to be briefed before he submits the recommendations to Cabinet.

Fisheries permanent secretary Moses Maurihungirire confirmed to The Namibian yesterday that the technical committee met last week and agreed on several recommendations.

“The ministers will decide on the way forward,” he said, adding that the ministers will call a press conference to explain the issue.

Esau has however hinted that there will be need for another ban on the mining of phosphate to carry out a proper environmental impact study on the effects of mining. The minister also said he is aware of companies that are lobbying for phosphate mining to be authorised.

The Namibian reported in May this year that Esau warned the government against ‘blindly’ approving marine phosphate mining, saying the country’s long term future matters more.

Last week, Esau said his stance on the issue remains the same but declined to comment in detail since he was waiting for the report from the technical team.

The fisheries ministry believes that Namibia is taking a risk because marine phosphate mining has never been done anywhere in the world and Namibia would be the first country to do so.

In February this year, New Zealand rejected plans to mine phosphate off its shores.

The New Zealand Herald reported that the country blocked the plan because the extraction process for phosphate has “destructive effects. This coupled with the potentially significant impact of the deposition of sediment on areas adjacent to the mining blocks and on the wider marine ecosystem, could not be mitigated by any set of conditions or adaptive management regime that might be reasonably imposed”.

Environment minister Pohamba Shifeta said his ministry will be guided by facts to decide whether to issue an environment certificate to interested mining companies.

“We need to discuss and agree on what to take to Cabinet but we need to have grounds to deny a certificate to miners,” he told The Namibian yesterday.

According to Shifeta, the ministry risks being taken to court if it denies a certificate based on non-factual reasons to block the process.

“We cannot just deny a certificate without reasons for the potential consequences of the planned mining,” Shifeta, who appears to be neutral in this matter, said the mines ministry has to give the go-ahead.

Mines minister Obeth Kandjoze early this year said the government should allow mining companies with licences to start work since the moratorium had expired.

Kandjoze also said the moratorium would have no legal standing if it was challenged in court by companies given licences to mine phosphate.

Efforts to get comment from Kandjoze were not successful in the past month. Attorney general Sacky Shanghala, who is usually outspoken on national matters, decided to be mute citing confidentiality. He could not even comment on the legal implication of the lapsed phosphate ban.

“It is not in the public interest that I do so at this stage,” he told The Namibian on Sunday.

It is not clear what President Hage Geingob’s stance regarding the matter is. In 2013, Geingob led a Namibian business delegation to Dubai and Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates and Muscat in Oman.

The tour was to promote trade cooperation with those countries and establish business links.

One of the people dying to mine phosphate is Knowledge Katti, whose company Havana Investments has a 15% stake in the company Namibian Marine Phosphate. Katti’s partner, who owns the other 85% through his company Mawarid Mining, is Mohammed Al Barwani – Oman’s richest businessman estimated to be worth US$1,35 billion by Forbes magazine.

The other company is LL Namibia Phosphates that is owned by renowned Isreali diamond businessman Lev Leviev, who visited Namibia last month, a trip seen by some as a way to lobby for support to mine phosphate.

As expected, LL Namibia Phosphates managing director, Kombandayedu Kapwanga, said after Leviev’s visit that the ‘moratorium was not needed’ and that phosphate mining was not harmful.

Depending on the outcome of the technical committee, minister Esau faces a massive task to convince his Cabinet colleagues, who are friends with businessmen who want to mine phosphate, against the project.

Although facing pressure from fellow ministers, the minister has the backing of marine biologist. He is however battling with two billionaires who have influence in the corridors of power.

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