THERE is every reason to believe that with the fledgling diamond mining operations, Lesotho could be on the verge of considerable economic growth. For that to happen all the stakeholders – from government, mining companies to the affected communities must play their part.
Hardly a month now passes without reports of huge diamond finds around the Kingdom’s diamond fields and, only last month, Letseng diamonds recovered a high quality 910 carat diamond worth about half a billion maloti.
This was on the back of two other discoveries this year of gems of more than 100 carats each.
Other companies like Lucapa Diamonds have carried out successful trial mining and are poised to begin full scale operations in the second quarter of the year.
Such positive developments have served to spur other companies like Pure Lesotho Resources to prospect for the precious stones.
And as we report elsewhere in this edition, Thaba Tseka district will have its first diamond mine should the prospecting currently being conducted by Pure Resources yield positive results.
This and the other fledging operations should be received with joy and inspire a new vision of economic prosperity in a country like Lesotho where high unemployment and the resultant grinding poverty are the order of the day.
But sadly this is not always the case because of persistent clashes between mining companies and their host communities who say they are not consulted when projects are unleashed into their communities and are not compensated adequately, or not at all, for the loss of their lands and livelihoods.
Diamonds and other precious minerals can be a vehicle of transformation as we have seen in Botswana. But as the cases of Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo demonstrate, the minerals can also be a source of problems.
They can be a scourge, causing intra and even international conflict.
Whole communities where the mining operations take place can be alienated from the mining companies and government.
The communities can suffer untold misery, loss of their ancestral lands and loss of their livelihoods to the benefit of mining conglomerates.
When this happens, the ‘resource curse’ scenario sets in.
We have already seen how thousands of people in the diamond-rich areas of Marange in Zimbabwe were killed while thousands more were displaced from their homes without adequate compensation if at all.
Some well-connected individuals in the Zimbabwean military and government as well the mining companies reaped huge financial windfalls while the villagers were either killed or impoverished.
They suffered for the simple reason of having precious diamonds in their communities.
An even worse scenario has played out in the DRC which has never known peace since it was colonised in the 1800s by the notorious Belgian King Leopold. Even the dawn of independence has been characterised by incessant civil and international conflicts that are a direct result of the country’s huge mineral resource base.
The situation has not gotten that far in Lesotho but the frequency with which local communities are up in arms with mining companies could be a recipe for disaster.
There is a similar chorus in every community where mineral resources particularly diamonds have been found.
We therefore call for call for transparency and effective communication on the part of government and companies whenever operations of such magnitude are planned to avoid conflict with local communities.
There must also be clear compensation guidelines which are strictly adhered to lest the locals cry foul and work to derail projects that would otherwise benefit the country as a whole.
Even if it is less than 10 villagers who are affected, it is our considered view that these are not insignificant and their compensatory interests should be brought on board.
Local communities must also accept that huge developments, particularly natural resource extraction, can result in significant changes to their lifestyles. In many cases, communities have to be moved from their ancestral lands. Their selflessness and cooperation are vital for the greater good of the country’s economic development. But to get the cooperation of communities, mining companies must keep their word and invest significantly in the socio-economic development of the communities around which their projects are located instead of parachuting all profits to their head offices.
Diamonds can make a huge difference to Lesotho’s development and economic fortunes. Botswana is reliant on diamonds for most of its foreign exchange earnings. While Botswana produces most of the industrial diamonds for the world via its mining conglomerate DEBSWANA, Lesotho is privileged to have high value quality gems. There is therefore huge scope for exploration and investment into this sector. But for the needed investment to flow, there ought to be enabling legislation and political stability. We are not sure the recent changes to mining policy will be helpful in achieving the full potential of the mining sector. But we are certain that continued political instability, spawned by bickering and hapless politicians not interested in the country’s economic development but gaining access to political office, as the easiest way of earning a living, will kill prospects of increased investment into this crucial sector.