Saving communities from mining ills


Uranium and coal deposits in Karonga are said to be more of a curse than a blessing

In mining hotspots, the locals feel cheated as the activity has not brought the development, jobs, good roads, schools, safe water and health facilities they envisioned when they learned that they were sitting on ores.

The emergent extractive industry has left anger and frustration in the communities which cannot wait for mining firms to start earning profits to start demanding the trickles.

Sidelined from the start, the people are wallowing in the dark as there has been an official information blackout from both government and mining firms.

Bonongwe rues being sidelined on mining issues

They are convinced their dreams for transparency, accountability and community involvement will come true the day Parliament passes amendment of the Mines and Minerals Act crafted at the height of dictatorial rule in 1981.

But ‘once beaten, twice shy’ is not a new saying.

The curse of Karonga has become a case study of ills of mining in a country with weak laws and entrenched secrecy.

Communities in mining destinations and the civil society seem determined to avoid a repeat of the scenario in the country.

Such is the mood around Thambani Hill in Mwanza where a nationwide airborne survey revealed significant potential for uranium, niobium and tantalum mining. Similarly upbeat are Malawians surrounding Songwe Hill in Phalombe where Mkango Resources is exploring the possibility of mining rare earths and associated minerals.

In Traditional Authority (T/A) Nazombe area, residents feel Mkango Resources is working in isolation.

Group village head Namalima wants government and the mining firm to offer the locals vital information on the proposed mining activity.

“One day, we saw machines going uphill and trees cut down. There is panic. We do not know how mining operations will affect us.”

Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) is empowering communities in the area to engage Mkango and other prospective investors right from exploration stage for sustainable development.

Funded by Oxfam, Cepa is strengthening governance of the extractive industry by equipping communities with the capacity to hold companies accountable and entrench a culture of transparency.

Correspondingly, the people are demanding transparency on revenue, community development agreements and adherence to mining regulations and environmental policies.

Even the youth, women and people with disability are part of the community push to avert a stand-off the size that haunts Karonga’s mines.

In Mmwala Village, Loamson Makwinja has concerns he wants government and the investors to clarify.

He explains:  “What is the size of the land earmarked for mining? How will the company protect the environment? What about water, sanitation, hygiene and security. How will Mkango discharge waste water from the mine? How will the miners fill excavations?”

Namalomba villager Lyn Bonongwe feels it is high time  the company met the citizens to hear their needs and expectations.

“If it does not come to sort out these issues now, this could be the beginning of tough times,” she says.

On the edge of the potential mine, group village head Wahiya concurs.

“There is room to create a cordial relationship if Mkango and government officials act appropriately now. All of us will benefit,” he says.

The traditional leader is worried about the blocking of Napolo River in Songwe Hill which used to flow into Mpoto Lagoon, a major source of fish and water for communities downhill.

Cepa project officer Charles Kabambe wants government to strengthen mining laws to make investors accountable for their compliance to environmental impact assessment and community development agreements.

“As we wait for Parliament to pass the law, there is need for communities to initiate early signing of memoranda of understanding for easy monitoring of development activities in the course of operations,” he says.

According to the activist, communities have the duty to present the concerns, expectations and monitoring aids to the investor as soon as possible to avoid exploitation.

But Mkango Resources country manager Balton Kachinjika says there is no need for communities to worry as commitments cannot be made at exploration stage.

In an interview, he explains: “Before the extraction, with the help of government, we will sign the community development agreement [CDA].

“Time-frame of the implementation of CDA components will be observed and communities should not be worried as they are well protected by government.”

The company has since drilled two boreholes, maintained more; planted trees in bare patches and repaired the road from Migowi.

When asked about Napolo River, he doubts its existence and asks the community to stop blaming the company for problems they caused.

Mkango Mining is expected to start extracting rare earths when the prices on the world market improve, he says. n

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