Families on graphite rocks

It is 5.10pm and Zaliyele Yesaya, 65, is selling petrol to motorcyclists shuttling on a dusty road that splits Kumalindi Village, almost15 kilometres southwest of Lilongwe City.

The farmer faces an uncertain future as his three-bedroom house is linked with demolition as it sits on rocks containing a mineral used for making dry cells that power his radio receiver, a trusted source of information on sticky mining issues.

Together in the face of displacement: Yesaya with his wife in Kumalindi

 “I don’t know when we will relocate and how much money we will get in compensation, but our days are numbered,” he says.

Yesaya’s uncertainty started in 2013 when he saw a small plane flying low across the Lilongwe Plain where winds freely whirl past crop fields.  After the mineral exploration bankrolled by World Bank, Sovereign Metals deployed a drilling team to extract samples, leading to the discovery of the world’s largest known deposits of soft graphite found in clay-rich rocks.

He narrates: “We’d heard it on radio that the small aircraft was searching for minerals. I feared for the farmland I’m supposed to pass on to my nine children and six grandchildren.”

Yesaya inherited the land equivalent to two football fields from his deceased parents and he yields about two tonnes of maize.

In the age-old relay race, this inheritance constitutes the most prized asset and source of livelihood for most families living in grass-thatched huts smoothly floored by shiny, blackish clay rich in flake graphite.

Fears and hopes

Sovereign Metals plans to remove 367 structures, including 108 homesteads. The Australian firm’s environmental and social impact assessment (Esia) shows nine households in Kumalindi face displacement in the first phase. The second will affect 99 homes in Kubale, Chitimbe, Jaulani, Kokotani, Ndumila II, Pingeni and Chikosi villages.

Yesaya, who spent a decade in Johannesburg,  South Africa, envisages mining transforming his area where the company plans to extract 52 000 tonnes of graphite annually for 16 years.

“Malawi has lost decades thinking the country has no minerals. Johannesburg was built on its minerals. I hope my village will benefit as well, so I will gladly relocate given fair compensation. After all, the company is working closely with our government and chiefs,” he explains.

The locals say Sovereign Metals has been constantly engaging and updating them on how mining may affect them.

“We are just waiting for the time we will relocate to another area which may be unfavourable for our crops and livestock. Some will get jobs, others will find a better market for their farm produce and yet others will have to cope with skyrocketing food prices. This area will never be the same,” says Gani Ngalade, from Kubale Village.

Resettlement aside, the locals also worry about their right to safe water, clean air and a noise-free environment. They visualise mining machines churning out dust, noise and fumes while digging, processing and hauling graphite for the world market. However, Sovereign Metals says its free-dig mine will not require drilling, blasting, grinding and crushing.

The firm expects the mine’s proximity to the capital city’s skilled labour, grid power, road network and rail line to the deep-sea port of Nacala in Mozambique to trim operational costs to $323 per tonne of concentrates.

The mine will be located close to Kamuzu Dams II, the capital’s sole source of piped water currently drying due to massive deforestation in Dzalanyama Forest nearby.

“The open-pit mine may pollute and deplete groundwater. If that happens, the dams and boreholes will be affected. We get fresh fish from the dams which Lilongwe city residents drink,” says Evelesi Tambala, from Kumalindi.

Since February, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) has been working in Malingunde to promote responsive and accountable governance in the mining sector. The project funded by the European Union through Tilitonse Fund seeks tp increase access to information and community participation in mining activities in villages affected by the Malingunde Graphite Project.

Project officer Tamara Lonje says: “When we arrived in Malingunde, the focus of many was on money. They wanted to get their compensation and relocate. But now some know their land is more important than the resettlement package. They are aware of the possible social and environmental impacts of the mine and they talk about them. But more work needs to be done to senstise chiefs.”

Lawrence Dickson, chairperson of a committee comprising representatives of 15 affected villages, is one of those most likely to relocate in 2021. He says information is power.

“We are no longer in a hurry to get cash. Knowing the impacts of mining on our land and livelihoods has calmed our fears. We now have the power to summon the mining company and government officials to demand answers,” he says.

More wok to be done

Dickson sees mining reducing Kumalindi to a gaping pit as surrounding villages welcome numerous workers and increasing sexual partnerships fuelling sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Sovereign Metals plans to employ 220 people (including 160 Malawians) during construction and 260 when mining begins.

“Local workers from the surrounding Malingunde area will be given preference for job opportunities depending on their skills level as it is anticipated that available jobs will be largely low-skilled or semi-skilled,” it writes.

But Yesaya is worried because workers in the graphite-rich plain lack mining skills. He says: “We may miss out on jobs. Most people are unskilled. We only rely on farming. Unfortunately, the mine will dispossess us of our land, the main source of income. This may worsen poverty.”

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