Mutoko, Zimbabwe — As global demand skyrockets for the metal used in batteries, outside interests have stepped in to mine, leaving locals with a stark choice between living in a mining zone and relocating.
"I have been dreaming about these precious stones for the past 11 years. They were revealed to me by my ancestors through dreams," says Sagacious Dangaranga, a farmer who began mining lithium last winter on his communal land in Nyagore, a village in Mutoko, east of the capital, Harare.
Mutoko, a mountainous rural district, has always been home to black granite, a highly priced stone used in homes, kitchens and buildings. But last year, lithium -- a silvery white metal considered the new gold for its use in batteries for goods such as laptops, phones and electric cars -- was found in the area. In what has become known as the lithium rush, local residents like Dangaranga started mining their land, using picks and shovels to extract the metal.
"It was my hope that, in the future, my life and that of my family would be transformed for the better," Dangaranga says.
Zimbabwe has the largest lithium deposits across Africa, according to the United States Department of Commerce, and is expected to meet 20% of the world's total demand for lithium. But as global demand for the metal has surged in recent years and is expected to skyrocket more than five-fold by 2030, activists worry that only a few are benefiting from the market boom.
While locals in Mutoko have been waiting months for their mining licenses, which Zimbabwe's government requires for all mining activities in the country, unlicensed private companies and illegal organizations have stepped in and begun removing residents from their land to start their own mining operations.
Only three months after Dangaranga started mining, and while he was still waiting for his license, an unidentified group of armed men claimed to own the piece of land he had cultivated for over a decade and forced him to give it up, threatening him with a gun, he says. He reported the land grab to authorities, but no arrests have been made.
"We used to grow maize on this land," says Dangaranga. "We had gardens that we used for survival, and now all that has been disrupted and yet we are not getting anything from these mining activities."
Land grabbing and mining-induced displacement are widespread in Zimbabwe, where gangs and illegal miners but also foreign investors and even the government have been accused of forcibly removing thousands of people from their land to pave the way for mining. In the city of Mutare, about 167 miles (269 kilometers) from Nyagore, more than 1,500 families were forced to leave their ancestral land to usher in diamond mining.
Critics accuse the government of selling out the country's precious natural resources to foreign interests.
According to research by the London School of Economics, Zimbabwe's systemic lack of transparency and accountability in natural resource governance, especially in the mining sector, has been a breeding ground for corruption.
"Foreign companies contribute to corruption through bribing powerful officials so that they get mining rights secretly," says Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, an organization that protects the rights of communities affected by extractive industries. "The deals are negotiated in the dead of the night. There is no transparency."
Winston Chitando, the minister of mines and mining development, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on corruption allegations.
Biriat Tasarira, the chief executive officer for Mutoko Rural District Council, says there is no legal mining of lithium in Mutoko. "It's hide and seek," he says. "Whenever a team goes to probe on sites where they find machines for mining, the security detail always says they are not mining but taking samples. They do not have any licenses for mining, and when the supposed owners are engaged telephonically, they always promise to come with them but to no avail."
Michael Munodawafa, the chief mining engineer at the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, says the ministry is aware of the vast illegal mining and is working with law enforcement officers to clamp down on such operations. Munodawafa adds that often local residents aren't aware of their rights.
"Residents should ensure that people who are coming to mine have proper mining registration certificates from the Ministry of Mines because many are illegal and may hold fake certificates," he says.
While evictions are often the result of threats and intimidation, mining companies also promise financial compensations to persuade locals to give up their land.
Tambudzai Chigayo, 40, found lithium near her home in Mudzi district, about 43 miles (70 kilometers) from Mutoko. At first, she started mining on her own, but when a company that specialized in mining tantalite and lithium offered her 15,000 U.S. dollars (about 68.5 million Zimbabwean dollars) to relocate her family, she accepted.
Today, Chigayo says the deal she made isn't worth what she has lost. "It's not enough to compensate my home, my trees, my farmland and our history that is inherent on this place," she says.
But others seem happy with their relocation deals. Together with his family, Raymond Butau, 25, is in the process of completing his new home and clearing his farming fields.
"We used to live in the area that they are mining now. We were offered either houses or 10,000 U.S. dollars cash [about 46.6 million Zimbabwean dollars], and we opted to take the cash in February this year," he says.
Butau says the money he received is sufficient to build a good life for him and his small family.
Fombe Gobera, 83, the headman of the village where the mining company is located, says displacement of people from their ancestral land has been a major issue.
"Five families so far have been given money to relocate to pave way for lithium mining, but others remain in the mining zone and are being affected immensely," says Gobera.
Mining operations have disrupted farming activities and exposed residents to health hazards.
Kenneth Mutepfura Kapfunde, 89, says a flying stone from the mine blasting hit his house and his son's grave, which cracked. "Each day we are inhaling dust, and we are living in fear of the stones that they blast which constantly fly over our yards and houses," he says.
Despite the difficult situation, the thought of moving worries Kapfunde, who has lived in his ancestral home since 1956.
Josephat Chiripanyanga, a medical doctor based in Harare, says such a setup is bound to impact people's health.
"Living in a place where mining is taking place will result in people inhaling a lot of dust that is going to predispose them to suffer from respiratory problems," says Chiripanyanga. He adds that dust exposure could result in long-term complications like lung cancer.
"People should not stay or live near mining areas," he says.
Paradzayi Hodzonge, the director of Environment Africa, a nongovernmental organization working to protect natural resources in Zimbabwe, says uncontrolled lithium mining can have devastating effects on the environment, too, with digging operations leading to soil erosion and gullies. "Dug-up areas become a hazard to humans and animals when they fill up with water," says Hodzonge. "In some cases these stagnant pools become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, resulting in the spread of malaria."
In Nyagore, Dangaranga's village, mining operations encroached on the land of a secondary school and formed gullies. Locals now worry that children may fall into these pits, especially in the rainy season.
Tasarira says that during public consultations, miners with prospecting licenses always make many promises to communities, including regarding environmental rehabilitation, but they hardly ever keep their word. "As of now, we have not seen any tangible promise coming to manifestation," he says.
Dangaranga, who lost his field to mining, hopes to at least see his rural home developed through the discovery of lithium. "What we need to see is value addition on the lithium that is mined, production of final products here in Nyagore and creation of jobs for local villagers. With that, we would have gained as a country," he says.
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.