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Element Africa: Diamonds, oil, coltan, and more diamonds

A man in a boat in Bodo

A man in a boat in Bodo, Nigeria. Decades of oil production in Bodo have taken a toll on the fishing and farming communities as well as the region’s rich biodiversity. Image by Milieudefensie / Akintunde Akinleye via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • Offshore diamond prospecting threatens a fishing community in South Africa, while un-checked mining for the precious stones on land is silting up rivers in Zimbabwe.
  • In Nigeria, serial polluter Shell is accused of not cleaning up a spill from a pipeline two months ago; the company says the spill was mostly water from flushing out the pipeline.
  • Also in Nigeria, mining for coltan, the source of niobium and tantalum, important metals in electronics applications, continues to destroy farms and nature even as the government acknowledges it’s being done illegally.
  • Element Africa is Mongabay’s bi-weekly bulletin rounding up brief stories from the commodities industry in Africa.

From oil to diamonds, offshore prospecting looms over South African fishing town

DORINGBAAI, South Africa On Sept. 23 and 24, 150 women in the small fishing town of Doringbaai, on South Africa’s west coast, held an event to protest the threat that offshore exploration for oil, gas, minerals and even diamonds poses to their livelihoods and marine ecosystems. South Africa’s territorial waters have recently become a target for offshore prospecting.

The Fisherfolk Women’s Festival in this town of just 1,260 people, 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Cape Town, ended with a protest march along the coastline. Carrying placards reading “Hands off our sea and land” and “Protect our ocean life! Keep the mines out!”, the women said their families would starve if the exploration licenses are granted.

Deborah de Wee of the community-based organization Doringbaai Fisher Folk Women was born and raised in the tiny village. She said there are already companies sifting through the sand just off the coast, searching for diamonds in small boats with pumps.

“This has caused a crisis because we have found that our fish have left the bay. Our fishermen now have to go into the deep sea if they want to catch fish and they do not have the petrol to get there,” de Wee told Mongabay by phone.

Trans-Atlantic Diamonds (Pty.) Ltd. has applied to prospect across more than 1,240 hectares (3,060 acres) of the seabed just off the coast of Doringbaai. The company is searching for gold, silver, platinum, alluvial diamonds, sapphires and garnets, iron, rare-earth elements, titanium-holding minerals like ilmenite and rutile, and zircon.

Protesting fisherfolk standing by a beached boat with a sign saying "Hands off our sea and land". Image courtesy Wendy Pekeur.
Fisherfolk protesting mining of the sea bed off Doringbaai, South Africa: “We, as the Indigenous people here, know that they will not stop mining until they have stripped our sea.” Image courtesy Wendy Pekeur.

The company’s socioeconomic assessment report says there’s a “very low risk” that water quality will be degraded by the drilling during the two to five years it will need to prospect. It also says that fisherfolk and their vessels will not be barred from the prospecting area and that fish and lobster will not be disturbed.

​Local fisherfolk formally objected to Trans-Atlantic during a consultation meeting held on Nov. 11, 2021. “There is no way that we are going to let Trans-Atlantic come and mine. We, as the Indigenous people here, know that they will not stop mining until they have stripped our sea because we are rich in resources,” de Wee said. “We are a very poor community but we look out over the ocean — it is our livelihood, our heartbeat, it is part of us. If we do not stop mining, we will starve.”

Unchecked diamond mining drives pollution of rivers in Zimbabwe’s arid east

MARANGE, Zimbabwe Diamond mining in Zimbabwe’s Marange region is causing increased siltation and pollution of the Odzi and Save rivers in the country’s east. Hundreds of small-scale farmers who rely on the water from the rivers say they’re struggling to survive.

Farai Maguwu, director of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which works with communities affected by mining, said unregulated digging at the Marange alluvial diamond fields in Mutare district has caused large amounts of soil to wash into the river.

In a phone interview, Maguwu told Mongabay that while no official information about water use by mines is available, residents have noticed escalating impacts in recent months. “It is really so bad. In some areas the rivers have disappeared underground because of siltation,” he said.

Marange is an arid area and people there are heavily dependent on the rivers’ water. “Communities use river water to irrigate their vegetable plots. People used to fish along the river, but now we have families that have lost whole herds of cattle because of the polluted water that is discharged into the river.”

Children play in the Odzi River
Children play in the Odzi River as it flows through Zimunya, Zimbabwe. Image by MuJindwi via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Marange diamond fields were discovered in 2006; the ensuing diamond rush saw an estimated 35,000 people flock to Chiadzwa to pan for diamonds or buy and sell them. In November 2008, the Zimbabwean government moved to take control of the diamond fields. According to Human Rights Watch, the Zimbabwean military killed as many as 200 miners and local villagers in a three-month operation.

Since then, there have been intermittent protests by local communities and artisanal miners against “the looting of diamond revenue” by state-owned companies, HRW reports. Mining is now dominated by the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company, a state-owned enterprise, and Anjin, which is jointly owned by the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group of China and a company called Matt Bronze, the investment arm of the Zimbabwean army.

The Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association has recorded large-scale environmental damage from the mines in the area, including “groundwater depletion or pollution, biodiversity loss, soil contamination, soil erosion, loss of vegetation and mine tailing spills.”

Shell flushed out an oil pipeline in Nigeria in August and still hasn’t cleaned up

BODO, Nigeria — Residents of a Nigerian community say an August spill from a pipeline operated by oil giant Shell has still not been cleaned up. Crude oil from the Trans Niger Pipeline, which transports as much as 180,000 barrels of crude daily, has covered farmland and contaminated rivers in Bodo community, near Port Harcourt, the capital of southeastern Rivers state.

Immediately following the Aug. 3 incident, Shell characterized the spill as being “largely water” mixed with about five barrels of “residual crude oil” discharged during the flushing of the pipeline. It said what leaked constituted 98% water, and that any impact would be “minimal” as the pipeline had not transported crude since mid-June.

“Clean-up of the impacted area and repair work on the pipeline are under way,” it said in a statement. But nearly two months later, the cleanup has still not happened, locals say.

“The community people are saying that Shell was not forthcoming in paying compensation in the past, and they have to complete negotiations this time before allowing them access to the area,” Eric Dooh, a community leader, told Mongabay by phone.

Getting oil firms to clean up or pay for environmental crimes in Nigeria can be difficult, and legal claims for compensation can take years. Last year, Shell paid a community $111 million to settle a spill from the 1970s.

Bodo is part of Ogoniland, a flashpoint for oil pollution in Nigeria. A landmark U.N. report in 2011 held Shell and other multinational oil companies responsible for devastating pollution in the area and the wider Niger Delta.

A man in polluted water in Bodo
A man in polluted water in Bodo in 2015. Bodo is part of Ogoniland, a flashpoint for oil pollution in Nigeria. Image by Milieudefensie / Akintunde Akinleye via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Decades of oil production have taken a toll not only on fishing and farming communities, but on the region’s rich biodiversity, which includes threatened species like manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti), and the Niger Delta red colobus (Piliocolobus epieni).

A $1 billion cleanup effort backed by the United Nations Environment Programme has not achieved much. Last month, a group monitoring the cleanup effort, Stakeholder Democracy Network, said the pollution in Ogoniland could be worse than previously estimated. UNEP says it will withdraw from the project by the end of 2022.

Dooh said the latest spill in Bodo had left farmlands “badly affected” and people’s health “in jeopardy.”

Authorities look on as illegal coltan mining destroys farms in Nigeria

ANGWAN KADE, Nigeria — Residents of a community 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, say illegal mining for coltan is destroying their farms and polluting the environment despite the full knowledge of local authorities.

Coltan (short for columbite-tantalite, the respective sources of niobium and tantalum, which are used in electronic and biomedical applications) was first found in Angwan Kade a decade ago. Under Nigerian law, the federal government owns all mineral resources found in the country, and local communities have only limited rights to prevent mining.

But according to government records, no licenses have been issued to mine coltan in Angwan Kade, yet extensive mining is taking place openly. Workers using explosives and bulldozers have leveled hills and dug deep pits in search of ore-bearing rock. Many residents work at various sites, carrying and crushing rocks or cooking for mine workers.

They are paid by a shadowy company called S.B. Olatunji Global Nigeria, whose trucks carry tons of rock to an off-site processing facility every day. Managers at both the mining and processing sites refused to provide contact information for the company.

Shehu Akowe, a program assistant at the Health Of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an environment-focused organization, said many mining-affected communities across central Nigeria suffer similar problems.

Gold mining in Nigeria.
Gold mining in Nigeria. Many mining-affected communities across central Nigeria live with destroyed farms and polluted environment. Image by Gudjohnsen007 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

“Host communities to extractives and mining companies in Nigeria are at the mercy of companies in their communities,” Akowe told Mongabay. “Land grab in the course of extractive and mining activities is a thing of pride enjoyed by mining companies in Nigeria.”

Villagers say their lives have not been improved by mining, and complain of exploitative work, loss of lands, and pollution of fields and water sources.

The Nasarawa state governor, Abdullahi Sule, has acknowledged the damage mining is doing, but despite promising action, has allowed it to continue unchallenged.


Banner image: A man in a boat in Bodo, Nigeria. Decades of oil production in Bodo have taken a toll on the fishing and farming communities as well as the region’s rich biodiversity. Image by Milieudefensie / Akintunde Akinleye via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of how resource extraction impacts people and nature in the DRC with two expert guests, listen here:

See related coverage:

The mine leak was bad. The DRC and Angola’s response are no better, report says


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