When the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 during the World War II, thousands of Japanese died. Because one of the uranium used in atomic bombs, survivors who were exposed to radiation developed solid cancer (tumours) and leukemia after more than a decade. Children born to survivors also developed cancer and other diseases such as mental disability and stunted growth.
The point is to illustrate that uranium has radioactive material which is toxic. It is a deadly mineral that can cause all kinds of cancers. If people are exposed to radioactive material, chances of developing cancer are high. Their children also risk suffering from cancer at one stage in their lives. That is why cancer is such a deadly disease because it can run in the family as the genes are passed on from one generation to the other.
Extreme care should be taken when mining uranium to ensure the safety of both the workers, the community and the environment. From the sentiments of the people of Karonga, one can sense that something has gone wrong somewhere.
They have been complaining about contamination of water with radioactive material around Kayerekela mine for a long time. They have also complained that the mine is a threat to their health. Paladin has denied the damage the mining is causing to the environment and the danger it is posing to the surrounding community.
What is more disappointing is that government has paid a deaf ear to the people’s complaints for a long time. One would have expected it to carry out its own investigation to establish the truth. The lack of seriousness in the whole Kayerekela saga is an indictment on the government which should also have appointed its own consultant to carry out the tests rather than leave it to Paladin alone.
This is hardly surprising judging by the response of the government to people’s complaints. It has been very slow to act. By the time it acts, the damage would already have been done. Since the people started complaining about several years ago, no government minister went there to see the situation. It is only last year that Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Atupele Muluzi went there to discuss with Paladin and the local people the issues at stake. This was after Chief Kyungu, fed up with Paladin’s shenanigans, was calling government to depot the general manager Greg Walker for “ignoring laws governing mining” and accused him of being “inhumane and arrogant.”
The media have covered several stories of employees who have died of cancer as a result of working at Kayerekela Mine. But government seems not to take an interest in sending a team of government medical officials to assess the conditions under which people are working. We cannot just be listening to accusations and counter-accusations or denials and counter-denials between Paladin and the people of Karonga. Government should have stepped in a long time ago to get to the bottom of the issues and chart the way forward. But everything was left to the people of Karonga to apply pressure on Paladin to make certain decisions.
The same applies to the corporate social investment that Paladin agreed to undertake for the people of the Karonga. They have accused Paladin of reneging on its promise and giving business to people outside Karonga. Government has not taken any interest to ensure that Paladin fulfils its promises, let alone empower the local community. Again, it was only after Minister of Trade and Industry Joseph Mwanamvekha went to Karonga last month that government asserted that “Paladin business tenders should be prioritied for Karonga people to supply commodities and that there is community empowerment.”
Government should start working for the people and begin to act swiftly when communities are facing problems and not going there when the damage has already been done. That does not sound like “days of doing business as usual are long gone.” Or are they?