Human Rights Watch (HRW) has commended President Peter Mutharika for signing the Access to Information Bill (ATI) into law, but warns it may not bring meaningful change unless those who are illiterate know how to use it.
Mutharika last week assented to the long-awaited law which enables people to request and obtain vital information.
The global human rights defenders have since described this as a positive step to tear the veil of secrecy, especially in the country’s nascent extractive sector.
“As Malawi’s government promotes investment in mining and resource extraction, ordinary Malawians have been struggling to access information on the impact of mining operations on their lives: Is mining polluting their drinking water? Their fields?” reads a statement signed by HRW health and human rights researcher Katharina Rall.
The civil society and communities close to mining sites have been calling for an end to secrecy for decades.
In September last year, HRW released a report showing how Malawians have been left in the dark about the risks mining activities pose to their daily lives.
The highlights included lamentations of communities near Eland Coal Mining and Kayerekera Uranium Mine in Karonga who spoke of exclusion from mining activities, air and water pollution as well as dismal investment to improve the well-being of the villagers.
“Malawi’s government has failed to protect the rights and livelihoods of people living in nascent mining communities. Families living near coal and uranium mining operations face serious problems with water, food, and housing, and are left in the dark about health and other risks from mining,” writes Rall who visited the two mines last year.
According to the campaigner, the rural Malawians near mining hotspots, at a minimum, expect government to go to them and talk about mining and educate them about the risks.
The statement amplifies the concerns of the locals who feel excluded because the authorities have never told them about the dangers of mining as local civil society organisations have repeatedly asked the government to release the results of water testing, but to no avail.
She says: “Accessing information under the law should be a simple process for everyone – including for people who cannot read or write. Training sessions for communities and government officials will also be important,” she said.
“The new law, if carried out effectively, could be a boon to mining communities that have long sought answers to questions literally of life and death.”
But Natural Resources Justice Network board chairperson Kossam Munthali asked government to table the revised Mines and Minerals Act in Parliament to make access to information meaningful. n