Mafeteng villagers block M2,8 billion solar project

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  • demand compensation for loss of land before project can proceed 

Pascalinah Kabi

ANGRY Mafeteng villagers have blocked the construction of a M2,8 billion solar power generation plant in the district to force the government to first compensate them for the loss of their land.

The project, being undertaken by Chinese contractor, Sinoma Tbea, is aimed at producing 70-megawatts (MW) of solar power to augment Lesotho’s power supplies.

The villagers accuse the government of reneging on its promise to compensate them within two weeks of the launch of the project. Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro officiated at the 15 December 2020 sod-turning ceremony to mark the beginning of the construction work at Ramarothole, Mafeteng.

The villagers accuse the government of reneging on Dr Majoro’s promise to have compensated them within two weeks of the sod-turning last December. The premier had made the promise at that ceremony.

About 140 land owners are expected to receive their compensation over a three-year period. It is not clear what the total package will be and how much each household will get.

However, Energy and Meteorology principal secretary (PS), Themba Sopeng, this week told the Lesotho Times that the first tranche of payment, M23 million, will be paid out in five weeks.

But despite promises that they will be compensated, the villagers have blocked construction work at the project site.

Last Friday, land owners from seven villages rejected Energy and Meteorology Minister Mohapi Mohapinyane’s plea for them to allow construction work to continue while the government sources funds to pay them.

This was after Mr Mohapinyane had allegedly indicated that the state did not have money to compensate them and would need up to five weeks to raise the money.

The project is set to take up land belonging to 140 households in the Ha-Ramarothole, Ha-Lempetje, Ha-Mohapi, Makeneng, Ha-Rankapu, Ha-Mahali, Ha-Qobete and Ha-Raliemere villages in Mafeteng.

On Tuesday, Ha Ramarothole Chief Konyana Ramarothole told the Lesotho Times that all roads leading to the construction site were blocked with rocks by villagers on 6 June this year. Chief Ramarothole said the villagers were adamant that they would only allow construction work to resume after the state had compensated them.

“Farmland was lost to the project and the owners from the Ha-Ramarothole, Ha-Lempetje, Ha-Mohapi, Makeneng, Ha-Rankapu, Ha-Mahali, Ha-Qobete and Ha-Raliemere villages want compensation,” Chief Ramarothole said.

“I received a call from one of the security guards at the project site saying that villagers had blocked roads leading to the construction site. It was around 8pm on Sunday (6 June) and I immediately went there to see whether this was true,” he added.

He said the villagers were angry that they had not been compensated as promised by Dr Majoro and Mr Mohapinyane at the project launch last December.

Mr Mohapinyane made the commitment to pay the villagers at a December 2020 meeting with Likhoele Principal Chief Lerotholi Seeiso, area Chief Fako Seeiso and Councillor Sebofi Moeketsi.

The Ramarothole site of the project falls under the Likhoele area which is under Principal Chief Seeiso’s jurisdiction.

“You may recall that last November, the government promised that the land owners would be compensated before the start of the project and when that did not happen, villagers threatened to disrupt the official launch in December.

“Minister Mohapinyane came here on 14 December 2020 and held a public gathering after villagers’ crops were destroyed by excavators in preparation for the construction of the solar plant. He promised that villagers would receive their compensation in two weeks. The following day, during the sod-turning, Prime Minister Majoro also promised that compensation would be paid in two weeks but up to now land owners have not been compensated,” Chief Ramarothole said.

He said the villagers’ actions of blocking roads leading to the construction site had resulted in the suspension of construction work.

Chief Ramarothole said Mr Mohapinyane, Mafeteng District Administrator Motinyane Motinyane, Chief Lerotholi Seeiso and officials from the energy ministry had met last week over the issue in Ha Ramarothole.

“The minister pleaded with the land owners to unblock the roads and allow construction work to resume. The villagers rejected the request and insisted that the work will only continue after they have been compensated.

“This issue has deeply affected the land owners as some of them lost their produce that was destroyed by excavators before harvest time. The poverty and hunger in these villages has deepened because they cannot even plough their land to produce food,” Chief Ramarothole said.

He said in that meeting that ‘Mathabo Mahahabisa, the chief accounting officer of the Lesotho Electricity Generation Company (LEGCO), promised that they would be compensated within two weeks.

However, Ms Mahahabisa denies the allegations.

“Those are their issues which I would not want to involve myself in. What happened is that Ntate Minister (Mohapinyane) and Ntate PS (Sopeng) met and discussed compensation issues with land owners on Friday,” Ms Mahahabisa said without providing further details.

At the sod-turning ceremony on 15 December 2020, Dr Majoro said he was happy that Mr Mohapinyane had promised to pay villagers within two weeks from that date.

“I am happy with the energy minister’s statement that land owners must be compensated in two weeks because they have lost assets which they were earning a living from and they have every right to be compensated.

“I am also happy that the energy minister has instructed his finance colleague to pay in two weeks but since I am the one with the authority to instruct, I instruct the ministers of finance; energy as well as development planning minister to work together to ensure that the Ramarothole villagers are compensated for their land. You must carry out this assignment in a way that will not cause any problems among the contractors and villagers,” Dr Majoro said on the day.

Repeated efforts to obtain a comment from Mr Mohapinyane were unsuccessful as his mobile phone rang unanswered this week. He did not respond to messages sent to his phone.

On his part, PS Sopeng said both his ministry and the villagers must shoulder the blame for the delays in processing the compensation.

“As a ministry, we must acknowledge that we should have processed the compensation before the start of the project but both parties have contributed to the delays. What caused the delay is that around October last year, we started the verification process led by the DA and the council. The principal chief complained that he had been excluded and wanted to conduct his own verification process.

“It was only in April this year when all parties agreed to sign a contract indicating that the land owners will be compensated in three years. The first tranche of payments is about M23 million. Payment processes, which are at an advanced stage, are now being handled by the Ministry of Finance which has indicated that the funds will reflect in the villagers’ bank accounts in four to five weeks.

“We met with the villagers last week after they blocked the roads, demanding that they be immediately compensated. After our discussions, they asked for more time to decide whether or not to unblock the roads and they have promised to give us an answer on Thursday (today),” Mr Sopeng said.

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