Malawians sidelined as firms race for coal

The country’s mining landscape calls for improvements, but the one that will take steely resolve is ending the exclusion of locals. Does government have the political will to do so? Weekend Nation finds out.
Mpata — a pastoral spot in Karonga West — evokes memories of atrocities that continued until 1895 when the Arab slave trader, Sultan Mlozi, was defeated by the British.
Today, the Ngonde community in the area could add the atrocities of mining to its depressing history. Near the historic headquarters of Mlozi’s abolished trade, armed police officers in 2013 sent group village head Mwenenguwe and his people into hiding in the bush. Why?

Mining activities in progress at Nkhachira Coal Mine
Mining activities in progress at Nkhachira Coal Mine

The villagers had closed the road to eight-year-old Towo Coal Mine where removal of hilltops, felling of trees, whirls of coal dust and contamination of water in nearby streams are common sights.
Recently, the traditional leader threatened to shut down the mine again after the mine’s proprietor, Davie Nyirenda, failed to honour a 2013 community development agreement to construct two classroom blocks and two teachers’ houses at Towo Junior Primary School and a borehole in Mwanjasi Village.
“We need to stop careless coalmining before it kills us,” says Mwenenguwe.
He further revealed that the villagers are struggling to ascertain the ownership of Magnum Coal Mine so that it, too, can commit to invest part of their earnings in the impoverished community.
Towo Coal Mine extends from Mwenenguwe to Nkhayuti while the neighbouring Magnum Coal Mine sits on the shoulders of Mkwinda and Vungu villages.
The villagers, refusing to be reduced to spectators in the race for the coals, say they want a win-win relationship with the mining firms.
“As they extract truckloads of coal, we should be benefitting as well,” says Michael Chihana, village development committee chairperson.
The coal-rich area has become a byword for excavations on mountaintops, soil erosion as trees are being uprooted without replanting and spills find their way into the streams.
The population’s quest for inclusive mining came to a head after the 2013 clash when Nyirenda signed a commitment to build classroom blocks and teachers houses at Towo school and sink a borehole in Mwanjasi Village near the mine.
Looking back, Mwenenguwe says: “The police might have dispersed us, but they did not kill our struggle for a fair deal from mining. [Scottish explorer Dr David] Livingstone wanted fairness to prevail when he came to replace slave trade with commerce.”
Despite the lingering resolve, their confidence in the five-year agreement is waning and dangerously so.
Established five years ago, Towo Primary School has five classes and only one staff house, leaving six teachers renting leaky huts in the community. Lack of proper housing hits the children the hardest as teachers become frustrated and sometimes report late for classes, educationists say.
At Mwanjasi, at the bottom of the hilltop mine, villagers drink water from streams and wells that are being contaminated by run-offs from heaps of coal.
“The so-called investors only care about profits, not lives,” says Mbande area development committee chair Smith Kalambo.
Analysts have previously pointed to gaps in the country’s laws. While section 207 of the Constitution vests all land and territories in the people of Malawi, the Mineral and Mines Act (1981) makes it clear that no one can own mineral resources and the land on which they are situated.
Section 2 of the mining legislation passed during founding president Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial regime stipulates: “The entire property in, and control over, minerals are vested in the president on behalf of the people of Malawi.”
Activists find the law outdated, not in line with the 1995 Constitution of democratic Malawi and out of touch with the concerns and aspirations of affected communities who usually constitute the rural poor.
The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) is one of the civil society organisations empowering community members to start to challenge unjust practices in mining sites.
With increasing awareness, Mwenenguwe residents want lawmakers to align the Mines and Mineral Act with the supreme law of the land so as to offer Malawians a voice and a stake in the extractive business.
“Affected communities will start counting when mining stops answering to the president and central government officials. For years, government has been saying: ‘power to the people.’ When will villagers around mines get the power to demand answers on issues affecting them?” wonders Chihana.
Before being appointed Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines, Atupele Muluzi, who was shuffled to the Ministry of Home Affairs on April 10, was on the ballot for presidency in last year’s polls.
Then, his “agenda for change”, the manifesto for his United Democratic Front, hinged on entrenching transparency and accountability in the extractive sector.
In January, he became the topmost government official to admit secrecy is the major curse of the country’s mining context and promised the ongoing amendment of the mining law would seek to bolster openness and safeguard citizens’ interests while promoting investment.
In Karonga, CCJP is one of organisations with initiatives towards greater transparency in the emerging industry.
CCJP project manager Sydney Mwakaswaya says: “For years, we have been sensitising people to learn how to reclaim their rights. We believe a climate of secrecy and exclusion creates the space for mining firms to be free to get unlimited by locals voices, without fearing a reaction from those they trample. It is up to the people to challenge social injustice.”
In their struggle, Mwenenguwe singles out Magnum Coal Mine as “a big problem” saying it is difficult to tell its real owners.
When we called to ascertain the ownership of the mine and the trickling of information to surrounding communities, principal secretary for mines Ben Botolo indicated being aware of the simmering dispute over Magnum Coal Mine.
“Oh, Magnum, yes it has been under dispute for a while and traditional leaders told us about it,” said Botolo, who asked a questionnaire for a detailed response to the case.
We asked him to name the registered owners of the contentious coalmine, wondering if the ministry has any deliberate measures to ensure communities surrounding mining sites are not left in the dark when it comes to the brains behind these multimillion investments.
The saga shows how the prevailing mining laws sideline locals in the emerging economic activity whose side-effects affect the nearest communities more.
At worst, it contradicts Muluzi’s promised transparency, for the former minister of Mines told the civil society and communities in Karonga that government would not wait for the passing of the new law to start publishing development agreements, names of investors and all vital records emanating from the extractive sector which he aptly termed “the most secretive presently”.
Mpata people’s futile search for facts about the mine in their midst also demonstrate how government, amid increasing calls for the enactment of a long-awaited Access to Information Bill and the amendment of mining and land laws, has failed to do the needful by engaging and sensitising communities about investors venturing into their localities and how the subsequent extractions will affect them and the environmental.
The amendment of the antiquated mining law, which has been under review since 2005, is expected to be tabled in Parliament in June.
Section 159 of the amendments of February entitles affected communities to 0.45 percent of the mines’ annual profits.
Kossam Munthali of the Natural Resources Justice Network termed it “a mockery” saying: “We deserve nothing less than five percent.”
Amid the delayed reforms, Mwenenguwe urges against laws that impoverish the people.
He says: “Investors and locals must meet halfway as equals, not enemies.”

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