Lessons from coal rails

Families living on graphite-rich clay in Malingunde, Lilongwe, have learnt from communities along Vale Logistics’ railway in Mwanza what not to do with money for resettlement.

Sovereign Metals plans to clear 108 homesteads in the plain almost 15 kilometres southwest of the capital city.

The first phase targets nine households in Kumalindi Village where an open-pit mine is expected to produce 52 000 tonnes of the mineral used for making dry cells and other energy accessories.

Lonje: People were eager to receive compensation

The rush for payouts keeps rising among families sitting onthe world’s largest known deposits of soft graphite found in clayish rocks.

But Mwanza residents compensated for giving way to the railway splitting the Southern Region call for self-control.

Lessons from Mwanza

In 2013, Paul Tobias received K3 million kwacha for ceding farmland to the rail line constructed to ease the hauling of coal from the seams of Moatize to Nacala Port in Mozambique.

As cargo trains carrying coal race past Nikisi Village in Traditional Authority Kanduku on the way to the Indian Ocean, the father-of-two looks back regretfully: “Money flies away. I bought two motorcycles, relocated to Mwanza town and took my wife to a beach resort in Salima.

“It’s the first time I saw Lake Malawi and took a boat. We enjoyed all week before travelling to Nkhata Bay on the northern shoreline of the lake.”

However, the adventure did not only erode the earnings but also ripped the couple.

“After the voyage, I started sleeping around and my wife got annoyed. She sold a house we bought at Mwanza Boma using the compensation for her land. She evicted me from chikamwini. We only reunited when the money was over,” he says.

Tobias downfall is not uncommon in the countryside dotted by scraps of motor vehicles from the era to forget.

“There was no civic education and no banks when we received compensation,” says Damiano Moffat, from Nikisi.

His family built a house powered by solar energy after getting K3.2 million for land half the size of a football ground.

“Had I known, I would have built a bigger house and bought land to escape hunger and poverty,” he says.

Group village head (GVH)  Lupiya was one of the hand-to-mouth farmers that became instant millionaires.

“People walked home with bags of money, burying them in pillows and others in crop fields. People were attacking their parents to grab the money. Sadly, most of us used the money like headless chickens,” he explains.

The GVH “suddenly became a drunk”, he says. 

He remembers wives banishing their husbands and husbands abandoning their partners for sex workers.

He says: “I used to spend four days at Mwanza, clubbing with beautiful women. I bought two cars at K5.5 million and lived like a king. Sadly, both vehicles broke down within six months and I couldn’t afford repairs.

“It’s never easy for a person without a bicycle to run a car or a person who had never handled K20 000 to own millions.”

Now he lives in a “small house” roofed with iron sheets.

“Luckily, I have a home. But we have become laughing stocks,” he states.

Looking forward, Lupiya asks Malingunde residents to learn from the Mwanza experience and use the money wisely.

“It takes years to receive compensation, but no time to blow it away. We waited from 2001 to 2011, but we have nothing. So, bank the money and think wisely,” he says.

GVH Thambala was “young and tender” when farmers in Kanduku were queuing for millions till sunset.

She recounts: “For people receiving millions around 4pm, there was no time to bank it or to sleep. Many forgot to buy new land.”

“Married men approached me for sex, claiming that they had been coveting me for years. I used to demand up to K100 000 to put them off, but they could bring me K200 000 within 20 minutes. Those men who kept millions at home are now penniless.”

‘Families must talk’

Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) shuttled the Mwanza residents to Lilongwe in a year-long project promoting responsive and accountable governance in the extractive industry.

Since March, the think-tank bankrolled by the European Union through Tilitonse Fund has been sensitising Malingunde communities to land rights as well as environmental and social impacts of mining.

“Initially, people were eager to receive money and vacate their land, but now they know their rights and implications of their choices,” says Cepa project officer Tamara Lonje.

Malingunde Mining Action Group secretary Evelesi Tambala calls for unified voice and access to mining development information to avoid the Mwanza scenario.

“These agonies will happen again unless government, investors and community leaders work together to prepare families listed for relocation to use compensation wisely,”  she says. “Family members must also start talking to each other to agree on how they can put it to good use.”

Tambala will give up four acres which produced 20 bags of groundnuts and four tonnes of maize last year.

“Our land is our goldmine, but we’re about to lose it to a project likely to drive food prices beyond our reach due to increased money circulation when mining begins. If we are not careful, the mine will may leave us poorer,” she says.

Sovereign Metals plans to employ 220 people to construct the mine and 160 when mining begins.

“With the influx of workers, brace up for increased marriage breakups, sex workers and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Only the wise will benefit,” warns GVH Thambala.

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