MINING minister Serialong Qoo has set his sights on delivering the long-awaited diamond centre to facilitate local processing of diamonds during the 2021 calendar year.
The ministry is also targeting to upgrade its geoscience laboratory for testing soil samples to advance the country’s mineral exploration efforts.
Mr Qoo is however, mindful of the disruptive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the ministry’s plans.
The impact of the pandemic has halted mining operations at Liqhobong diamond mine for 12 months since June 2020 leading to the loss of over 600 jobs, while Mothae diamond mine only resumed operations in October 2020 since closing down in March 2020.
“The ministry is planning to establish a diamond centre for purposes of processing diamonds in the country,” Mr Qoo said.
“We want to ensure that the country’s diamonds create value in the country before they are sold outside.”
The diamond centre establishment has been on the cards since 2016, while the country’s diamonds from its four commercial mines continue to be sold in their rough state.
Exporting raw diamonds has been criticised and described as tantamount to exporting jobs that would otherwise alleviate unemployment in Lesotho.
“We are also planning to upgrade our geoscience laboratory to facilitate testing of soil samples from mineral exploration. We currently rely on South Africa to test our soil samples, which comes at a cost.”
The minister said they were also on schedule to reintroducing artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), having already kicked off the process of collecting illegal diamonds in the market to clear the way.
“We are also going to open small scale mining in the country. The on-going handover of undocumented diamonds is scheduled to end by the end of the month after which we hope to start issuing ASM licenses.
“The intension is to empower indigenous miners and eventually get to a situation where we can turn them into proper commercial miners running sustainable operations.”
He indicated that opening the ASM sector and diamond beneficiation will call for review of certain laws.
Mr Qoo said successful implementation of ministry’s plans would depend on the state of Covid-19 in the country during 2021.
“Covid-19 was a significant threat for the mining industry in 2020 and we expect it to continue into 2021 but we will have to improvise and forge ahead with what is possible under the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Mr Qoo has encouraged those in possession of undocumented diamonds to have faith in the government and declare their diamonds.
This after the ministry’s visit to collect the diamonds in Mokhotlong district in December 2020 failed as no one turned up to hand over their inventory.
Their next stop was in Butha-Buthe last week, where the situation slightly improved with a few people handing over their diamonds.
When the collections are complete, the ministry plans to auction the diamonds on behalf of the holders and handover the proceeds after deducting a commission.
Parliament in November 2020 approved the Precious Stones (Prevention of Illicit and Theft of Diamonds) Regulations 2020 to allow for surrender and declaration of diamonds whose holders do not have proper documentation for a three month period ending 31 January 2021.
“Unlike in Mokhotlong where no one came forward, the turnout in Butha-Buthe was encouraging as people came forward to declare their diamonds but I have a feeling they are not declaring all the diamonds in their possession.
“The feedback we have since gathered is that people want assurances that the government will not reap them off. They seem to be using a wait and see approach before they can declare all their inventory of diamonds.”
Mr Qoo said the ministry delegation would visit the rest of the districts to wrap up the collection exercise by end of this month.
He said they were arranging to go back to collect diamonds in Mokhotlong before expiry of the three month diamond amnesty period ending January 2021.
For his part, prominent artisanal miner, Mabusetsa Mabohla said it was not surprising that people were not flocking to hand over their diamonds to the government.
He said diamond traders are used to selling their diamonds on a cash basis as opposed to handing them over and getting payment at a later stage.