A SUSPECTED smuggling racket that could involve millions of dollars has been unearthed in the Kaokoland West area of the Kunene Region after a truck containing a load of suspected beryl was impounded at Opuwo this week.
A well-placed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Namibian yesterday that a group of businessmen with mining interests in the area are running a syndicate which involves Angolan nationals to allegedly illegally import the rare earth element into Namibia.
The syndicate has apparently been in operation for two to three years.
The deputy regional commander of the Namibian Police in Kunene, Commissioner James Mberura, has confirmed that a truck carrying minerals has been impounded.
Mberura said the police have called in the assistance of the Ministry of Mines and Energy to investigate the nature and origin of the impounded material. The ministry has dispatched a team from Windhoek to Opuwo to investigate the matter, upon which charges may be laid against the owners of the truck.
He said the investigation would include the verification of the country of origin of the minerals.
Mining commissioner Erasmus Shivolo confirmed that a team has been sent from the ministry to investigate but could not provide further details on its progress.
Shivolo said it is suspected at this stage that the minerals were illegally transported without the necessary paperwork.
The ministry's investigators are expected at Opuwo today.
The Namibian established that the truck belongs to copper-mining company Kaokoland Mining and Exploration CC, which has been fingered in unconfirmed reports to be the site where the mineral is allegedly processed.
The source said the mine has all the necessary machinery to crush beryl, which is sometimes emerald green or colourless.
The source suspects that the beryl, which is an uncontrolled mineral, is exported in powder form to a refinery outside the country where beryllium aluminum oxide is extracted.
The powder can easily be disguised as silicon powder or dolomite powder, as all elements are whitish in colour when crushed.
Although beryl is not worth much in its raw form, the oxide is worth millions of dollars depending on its concentration.
Wim van der Plas, who is said to be one of the owners of Koakoland Mining, has denied any knowledge of an impounded truck belonging to his company.
Eddy Angula, business advisor to Van der Plas, said: "This is news to us. We are not aware who wants to tarnish our name."
However, Mberura confirmed that the truck is the property of the company.
The driver of the truck has not been arrested and has accompanied the Ministry of Mines investigating team to point out where he loaded the mineral.
The Namibian learned that established miners in the area are using small miners to dig for rare earths and pay them a pittance for their the products.
What infuriates The Namibian's source is the fact that the future of small miners that are attempting to make a honest living from the trade could be compromised by illegal mining while the diplomatic relations between the two countries can suffer.
He claims that the border along the Kunene River is not regularly patrolled by security forces in either country, making it easy for smugglers to conduct clandestine activities, including illegal imports.
The legal mining of beryl could allegedly offer jobs to about 100 small miners.
The mineral is supposedly transported with pontoons from Angola into Namibia across the river by small miners who are paid very little for their effort.
The source says that the beryl also occurs in significant amounts in parts of the former Kaokoland and Damaraland, especially in the Hartman mountains. He claims the ministry has done little or no research and exploration for the mineral, as most available data dates back to the pre-independence era.
"It is maybe because the area were the element occurs us very rugged and inaccessible while a lot of infrastructural development will be needed," he said.
Shivolo said although the ministry is doing limited research into minerals, it is not mandated to explore for minerals, adding that it is up to private individuals and companies to apply for such permission.
Beryl is harmless in its unprocessed form but it poses health risk if processed under uncontrolled conditions.
According to Wikipedia beryllium is a divalent element which occurs naturally only in combination with other elements in minerals.
Notable gemstones which contain beryllium include beryl (acquamarine, emerald) and chrysoberyl.
Beryllium oxide is useful for many applications that require the combined properties of an electrical insulator and an excellent heat conductor, with high strength and hardness, and a very high melting point.
Beryllium oxide is frequently used as an insulator base plate in high-power transistors in radio frequency transmitters for telecommunications.
It is also being studied for use in increasing the thermal conductivity of uranium dioxide nuclear fuel pellets.
Beryllium compounds were used in fluorescent lightning tubes, but this use was discontinued because of the disease berylliosis which developed in the workers who made the tubes.