Namibia backtracks on offshore phosphate

By Cameron Perks
Published: Friday, 18 November 2016

The Namibian government has halted what would have been the world’s first offshore phosphate mine, retracting its approval of the project after a public disagreement between government ministries came to a head.

By Cameron Perks

Namibia’s Minister for Environment and Tourism (MET), Pohamba Shifeta, has rescinded his support for a recently-awarded "Environmental Clearance Certificate" which had green-lighted what would have been the world’s first offshore phosphate mine.

Namibian Marine Phosphate Pty Ltd (NMP) had been awarded the certificate by Environmental Commissioner Teofilus Nghitila in October.

But government support for the project has now been withdrawn on the back of concerns relating to the local fishing industry and the environment. The legality of the certificate has also been called into question, leaving the future of the project unknown.

Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister Bernhard Esau put pressure on the environment minister to alter his original stance, arguing that the issuance of the certificate was "premature" and disputing the scientific findings NMP had put forth in determining that the project will have minimal environmental impacts.

Esau has insisted that the matter falls under his remit, as laid out in the country's Marine Resources Act.

He argued that "the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) is the competent authority on marine ecosystems and marine resources. Marine resources are defined in the Marine Resources Act (2000) as all marine organisms (…) marine phosphates are derived from fish bones, hence they fit in this description and are therefore under the mandate of the ministry."

NMP has hit back at this, stating that "the marine phosphate deposits on the middle shelf off Namibia are not 'derived from fish bones’ and do not comprise anything that constitutes a living marine organisms [sic] or anything naturally derived from or produced by such organisms (such a guano) as defined in the Marine Resources Act 2000."

"The claim by MFMR for jurisdiction over the marine phosphate deposits is therefore devoid of any substance and exposes a thinly veiled attempt by MFMR to usurp the authority of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in regard to management of mineral resources in Namibia," NMP said.

The company also criticised Esau for intervening at such a late stage in the process, four years after submission of the project EIA and five years after the award of its mining license.

NMP has also defended its scientific findings, stating that "the clear consensus of independent expert opinion with knowledge of the Benguela Large Marine Ecosystem is that at the scale of the proposed operations, the project can be safely developed."

In addition to the various actions taken by the government and relevant ministries to block the offshore mining operation, Namibia’s fishing sector has also taken both NMP and the government to court in order get the certificate nullified.  

Local press outlets have named the Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations, the Namibia Hake Association, Midwater Trawling Association of Namibia and Omualu Fishing as applicants in the suit, which argues Environmental Commissioner Nghitila has no legal grounds to issue the EIA clearance certificate.

A trip by Namibia’s President, Hage Geingob, to the Middle East in 2013 has been drawn into the equation, with sugestions that he sought investors for the venture, which is 85% owned by the Omani company Mawarid Mining LLC.

The allegations have prompted Geingob to hit back, stating: "I challenge you publicly to say who I went to and asked for a cent. I’m not for sale. I’ve never asked anybody for a single cent in all my life. You make it sound like I can be bought. I’m not that cheap."

Way forward

In a media release addressing the various issues surrounding their deposit, NMP said it is "deeply concerned at the course of actions and allegations that the Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations, Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and other third party objectors […] have elected to take."

The company claimed that the public outcry coupled with the court case, have "directly or indirectly resulted in the Minister Ministry [sic] of Environment and Tourism making the decision to reconsider his support for the Environmental Commissioner".

NMP’s project, known as Sandpiper, has a defined mineral resource inventory of 1.8bn dry tonnes at 19.05% P2O5 (phosphorus pentoxide), using a 15% cut off grade.

Most of the world’s phosphate is used as fertiliser and in animal feed. In a 2012 media release, NMP argued that an important strategy for Namibia in securing its own domestic food supply, would be to make phosphate fertiliser more accessible to farmers.

New Zealand-based Chatham Rock Phosphate had hoped that the original green light for mining in Namibia would set a precedent worldwide for offshore phosphate mining.

The company, which also holds offshore permit applications in Namibia, has been focused on their offshore phosphate project in New Zealand.

When reached for comment on the current situation in Namibia, Chris Castle, Chatham Project Director, said he was "a bit surprised" by the developments, but wasn’t worried as Chatham’s main focus is New Zealand.

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