WINDHOEK – University of Namibia’s Professor Benjamin Mapani has been appointed the first African to chair the influential Commission on Geoscience for Environmental Management (GEM) of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).
Established in 1961 the IUGS brings together 118 countries worldwide and is an international non-governmental organization devoted to international cooperation in the field of geology. GEM’s mandate is to find solutions to environmental problems due to anthropogenic contamination or environmental degradation caused by humans. Considered to be the most powerful geological body in the world, it wields immense academic clout in that it approves policies that bring about regulations, standards and norms in the geological world.
In a recent interview, Mapani, who is also the Secretary General of the Geological Society of Africa, bemoaned the apparent low visibility and involvement of the continent’s scientists in overcoming challenges facing the continent. His view is that there is a disconnection between scientists and lawmakers. “I think our politicians have been doing a good job at the United Nations, but from academia, which I prefer to call the quiet, unseen but potentially effective side, African scientists have not been very active,” he said. He further said while scientists were by nature politically shy, the problem of poor collaboration between scientists and lawmakers is to be blamed on both sides.
“In most cases the politicians do not really understand the significance of what we are doing and how it can add value to national development. Knowledge creation is a process whereby you need to develop cadres continuously. That should not be done in a vacuum. It needs to be peer-reviewed.” He called for enough funding to African universities for research, as well as for the coordination of political will and academic involvement. There is also a need, he said, for governments to strengthen the capacity of their universities to produce more post-graduate students who can continue with the cycle of knowledge production. “It is not by accident that countries that include the United States of America, Germany, Japan, Britain and now China are coming on board as being at the forefront in development. It has been achieved through funding and collaboration.”
Available data shows that only about five percent of African scientists participate in the global production of knowledge. A cursory look at some top peer-reviewed journals of the world such as Geology, Nature and Science shows that articles by African scientists are conspicuously few. A multiplicity of often conflicting regulations related to geology before the 1950s prompted the establishment of the IUGS to bring about uniformity in many aspects of the profession, including the production of geological maps. Mapani has an illustrious academic and professional profile. He obtained his honours degree at the University of Zambia in 1986 in mineral sciences, specialising in geology. He worked for the Geological Survey of Zambia for four years and then proceeded to France, where he attended the Ecole de Geologie at Nancy where he obtained a M.Sc. equivalent qualification. He carried out his PhD studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, during the period 1991-1994. Prof Mapani also taught at the University of Zambia until 1998, when he moved to the University of Zimbabwe where he helped install the Master of Science programme in exploration geology, before he joined Unam in 2003.
Mapani has led a number of International Geological Correlation Programmes (IGCP) sponsored by Unesco and SIDA of Sweden. The programmes included work on groundwater resources and management for six SADC cities; environmental effects of mine waste and its effects on humans, and the impact of mine dumps on water, soils and the effects on specific human health problems. Each of these IGCP programmes addressed specific geological problems that required global cooperation. Currently one such programme is focusing on contamination associated with mining districts across the African continent and how to protect populations living in or near abandoned mine sites from exposure to anthropogenic contamination.
In Namibia Mapani is undertaking research in the Naukluft mountains on groundwater assessment and the impact of climate change on groundwater levels in alluvial and karst aquifers with an international team of experts from the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Cape Town and the University of Laussane in Switzerland. He has published more than 40 papers in international journals and has received several awards, including one from the Commonwealth Scholarship Fund. He has also served as guest editor on the Journal of the Physics and Chemistry of the Earth and is a reviewer for several other journals. Prior to his latest election, Mapani was the Africa representative on the IUGS for four years during which he worked with others to create awareness among African governments, whose citizens are involved in small-scale gold mining and the consequences of using mercury in gold panning. He described his election as “an honour and proof that some people have recognized my contribution.” As the new chairperson of GEM, his work is cut out for him. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has asked GEM to formulate a policy on global mercury reduction all over the world.
Small-scale gold panners have been using mercury for many years. Evidence now shows that inhaling or ingesting mercury reduces the quality of sperm among men, leading to the birth of deformed children in some cases. Mapani said he would ensure that the work programme drawn up by the IUGS up to 2016 is implemented. Turning to trends in geology, Mapani explained that when the price of a mineral commodity goes down extractive industries cannot afford to exploit the metal used to produce it. “As a result of the Fokushima accident in Japan, uranium prices have gone down, making it difficult for uranium mines to cope. Suddenly, there is a great demand for coal as a source of energy, but I think that uranium will bounce back because it is a very clean source of energy.” He said the same goes for the price of gold, which has taken a tumble. “One of the most interesting commodities are the rare earth elements like platinum used to manufacture high-tech gadgets like cellphones. The Chinese and the Americans are in the forefront in buying them from wherever they are found.
Copper has been more or less flat, but still commands a good price.” He said when geologists see these trends they forecast how long the minerals would last, and that is why it is important that geologists are trained in such a way that they remain relevant in case a particular field of geology becomes unpopular. Attention, he said, is expanding into medical geology, which looks at diseases that are the result of geological materials and how medical doctors can deal with them. Some universities in Sweden are already teaching courses in medical geology.
By Moses Magadza