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Story Publication logo April 9, 2024

Mine in Trouble Over Water Pollution



This project reflects an investigation into the allegations surrounding Lesotho Prime Minister...


Discoloured water flows from the Letšeng Diamonds Mine operations in Mokhotlong district, Lesotho, in January 2024. The tainted water seeps into a Letšeng stream reportedly utilized by Phuthalichaba villagers for washing blankets. Image by Pascalinah Kabi.

A parliamentary portfolio committee has accused the government of turning a blind eye to big mining companies polluting water sources.

The Natural Resources portfolio committee says while the government is brandishing a long stick to flog small companies violating environmental laws it has treated conglomerates with kid gloves.

For instance, Letšeng Diamonds Mine appears to have been shielded from prosecution for polluting water sources in Mokhotlong.

Yet local miners like Makara Toloane have been slapped with fines for almost similar transgressions.

This is despite that Letšeng admitted in a January 2022 report that its operations contaminated water sources in Mokhotlong.

And in February 2023 the Department of Water Affairs confirmed that Letšeng was “intentionally” polluting Mokhotlong’s Maloraneng stream with nitrate, a chemical dangerous to humans and animals.

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The London Stock Exchange-listed Gem Diamonds owns 70 percent of Letšeng while the government controls the other 30 percent.

There is mounting evidence that Letšeng is polluting tributaries of the Khubelu River, essential for irrigation, domestic use and livestock in surrounding villages that are home to about 560 villagers.

Letsema Adontši, the Minister of Environment and Forestry, has also said the toxic chemicals that Letšeng discharges into rivers are killing fish.

“I can cite my home district, Mokhotlong, where the mine’s discharge into the stream is killing fish,” Adontši said in an exclusive interview.

Yet despite the evidence, its admission and confirmation from the Department of Water Affairs that it’s contaminating water sources, Letšeng has not been fined, ordered to stop or censured.

Letšeng’s violation of the environmental laws took centre stage when Adontši and his officials appeared before the Natural Resources portfolio committee last month.

In the meeting, Mekaling MP Thabiso Lekitla demanded to know why Letšeng has not been punished for polluting water sources in Mokhotlong.

“The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) appeared before this committee and told us that Letšeng Diamonds Mine is polluting water in its catchments. My question is, have you ever prosecuted the mines? And if you have, give us that evidence,” Lekitla asked.

The answer from the Acting Director of Environment, Qongqong Hoohlo, revealed the real reason why the government is reluctant to punish huge companies violating environmental laws.

Hoohlo told the committee that the government is hesitant to punish companies like Letšeng because they are a huge employer.

The fear, Hoohlo said, is that going hard on big mines would force them to cut jobs.

She said instead of punishing the companies for polluting water sources the government prefers talking to them.

“We sit down, talk to each other, encourage each other and where there is a need to talk tough, we do so. Right now, we have not charged any mining company,” Hoohlo said.

She said the Mining Forum is one platform for such discussions.

The forum, comprising representatives from the Department of Environment, Department of Water Affairs, LHDA and mining companies in Lesotho, aims to encourage these mines to treat water before discharge into natural systems.

“I think honourable members, you can understand how many of Basotho’s lives will be affected if we can say one big mine should be closed. This is why we are gently walking with them.”

There is, however, no evidence that mining companies have threatened to cut jobs or shut down if penalised for polluting the environment.

Koro-Koro MP Abinyane Tšilo pointed out that Hoohlo’s explanation highlights the selective enforcement of laws in Lesotho.

“‘M’e Qongqong (Hoohlo), your reasoning is not convincing because it now appears those with financial muscle are approached in a certain manner, yet you are not saying anything about Basotho at the grassroots, their livestock who are being infected with diseases from that polluted water,” Tšilo retorted.

While preferring to “discuss” environmental crimes with big companies, the government takes off its gloves against small companies.

Toloane, the local quarry miner, learned that reality the hard way.

In January, the Maseru Magistrates’ Court fined the 57-year-old M5 000 for mining a quarry in Thaba-Bosiu without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study.

“In January of this year, I was summoned to the police station in Thaba-Bosiu on allegations of mining without proper permits. I presented my documents, and the officer in charge dismissed the issue,” Toloane told The Post this week.

“However, less than two hours later, my workers alerted me that officers from the Department of Environment came and stopped my excavator and trucks from operating. They also instructed me to return to the Thaba-Bosiu Police Station.”

He said when he got to the police station the officers attached to the Department of Environment became aggressive.

“They handcuffed me, tossed me into the back of the police van, and drove me around town, which was humiliating. Eventually, they locked me in a holding cell at Maseru Central Charge Office.”

Toloane was convicted of contravening the Environment Act of 2008 and fined M5 000, which he paid in lieu of a two-year jail term.

Toloane is now working on getting the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study but insists the government is punishing small mining companies like his while big companies continue to violate environmental laws without serious consequences.

Mojalefa Lebina, the Maseru-based sand miner, spoke on behalf of local miners who petitioned the Natural Resources portfolio committee following the arrests of Basotho businesspersons for failure to conduct EIA studies.

Lebina said despite numerous meetings with various government ministries, the Department of Environment insists on arresting local sand and quarry miners for failure to conduct EIA studies.

“I must emphasise that we possess valid permits from our respective local councils, authorising us to mine sand and quarry. However, the Department of Environment insists on the necessity of an EIA. They are actively arresting local miners and some have even spent nights in police cells, while others have been prosecuted and fined M5 000,” Lebina said.

During the committee’s hearing, Tšilo, the MP, came down hard on Hoohlo for the discriminatory application of the law.

“This is because you (Hoohlo) are saying dealing with this issue will affect the mine, but the issue is, you are unfairly treating small Basotho businesses, you are denying them an opportunity to grow and become as big as these mines.

“You are denying them that opportunity because your first step towards them is to throttle them, you block them from mining sand and put in place high demands, yet the treatment is not the same towards this mine dirtying Basotho’s water,” Tšilo said.

In her defence, Hoohlo said her department stood ready to implement any directive dealing with polluting mines.

“If the committee supports us, we can shut down a mine or mines tomorrow, but the question is, will you support us in responding to the public outcry?” asked Hoohlo.

Lekitla, the Mekaling MP, was quick to point out that Hoohlo was stretching it by suggesting that companies could be closed by violating environmental laws.

“For the purpose of recording these proceedings, I wanted to make it clear that this committee is not saying mines must be shut down. Instead, we are saying for revenue collection, fine polluting mines, let them pay those fines. This committee has never said mines must be closed,” Lekitla said.

While M5 000 is the highest fine imposed under the Environment Act of 2008, the Water Act of 2008 states a company can be fined as much as M20 000.

Dr Tlohang Letsie, a National University of Lesotho senior lecturer, said the fear that companies Letšeng could close because of a M20 000 fine is either overdone or scaremongering.

“This is a very lame excuse coming from people who are sleeping on the job,” Dr Letsie said.

“The amount is so insignificant that Letšeng can afford to pay it on a daily basis without a serious impact on its profits.”

Dr Letsie cautioned that for the mine, preventing water pollution should not solely be about avoiding fines, but rather about demonstrating “the will to protect the environment.”

In emailed responses, Letšeng Diamonds Mine contended that the government of Lesotho presently lacks gazetted regulations and standards for water quality to govern specific parameters.

“Thus, Letšeng has undertaken voluntarily to adopt the South African standards which are also based on international best practices. Letšeng has further developed its own internal water quality monitoring protocols based on South African best practice guidelines and where none exists, Letšeng adopts best international practices which are vetted against the ambient local conditions,” the company said in responses sent earlier this month.

Minister Adontši has vowed to act against polluting mines.

“We (government) are insisting on prosecution for everyone. There should be no discrimination; even mines must face prosecution for the pollution they cause,” Adontši said.

“We haven’t ignored this (concerns of small companies). We are addressing their concerns. You will soon witness such charges as we are in the process of amending the law.”

When asked why the law under which local violators were being charged needed amending before applying to mines, Adontši emphasised that the law should be applied uniformly to all entities.

“If they (big companies) were ever handled with gloves, we will ensure it’s discontinued. We will not hesitate to address issues head-on because some matters have come to light during meetings like this one (parliamentary session), revealing areas that need immediate attention,” Adontši said.

He stated that they would enlist the assistance of police officers assigned to environmental matters and legal experts to discuss the necessary course of action. Additionally, these officers would be required to provide explanations as to why certain measures were not taken.

“There are currently no set timelines as we only met with the natural resources committee yesterday (March 5, 2024). However, following that meeting, we will proceed to take action promptly,” Adontši said.


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