One morning in early 2000, a heavily bearded man announced to journalists gathered at the Central Office of Information then located in Limbe, Blantyre that Malawi was embarking on a path of mining.
This was contrary to the generally held belief that Malawi had no minerals and its only hope for prosperity was in agricultural production, a notion rubbed in by founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda during his 31-year-rule.
“In this country, as I have said so many times before, we have no mines, no factories. The soil is our only mine, in fact. And all the money that we have here comes from the soil,” said Kamuzu in 1964.
The news of Malawi becoming the new destination for mining jobs, brought excitement among the youth who used to trek to South Africa in search of opportunities not provided by the agrarian economy back home.
Many imagined Malawi’s cities standing shoulder to shoulder with mineral-rich urban centres in the region like Zambia’s copper belt and South Africa’s Johannesburg.
While skeptic minds doubted that Malawi could become a mineral-rich country after decades of being told that her soils were only good for cultivation, Leonard Kalindekafe, for that is the name of the bearded man, then an official from Department of Mines, who brought with him samples of bauxite, among other minerals, responded that countries that have not been known for mining like Botswana, had joined the glittery league.
Close to two decades later, the dream of weaning the country’s economy from agriculture and feeding it with mining proceeds appears blurred in a distance. National Statistical Office (NSO) figures show that mining contributes a meagre 0.9 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP).
There are a number of uninspiring stories from sites where the mining ‘boom’ was supposed to kick-off.
Mwaulambo Coal Mine in Karonga left yawning trenches after Eland Coal Mining Company abandoned the mine without following mine closing procedures that require that trenches should be covered when mine operations are concluded.
An Exclusive Inquiry in the Nation On Sunday exposed several gaps in the handling of the contract. The report established that government could not trace Eland Coal Mining Company to bring them back to Malawi to fulfill mine closing procedures.
Kayelekera Uranium Mine operated by Paladin (Africa) Limited is another sad tale in the district. The mine was placed under care and maintenance due to falling uranium prices on the global market. The district’s hope for glory was nipped in the bud.
The hope of striking gold has led to a rise in illegal mining operations. Chimwadzulu in Ntcheu, Nathenje in Lilongwe and Namizimu Forest Reserve in Mangochi are but a few of the sites where locals and foreigners have raided natural resources without following legal procedures.
In Mangochi, locals demonstrated against illegal mining in the Namizimu Forest Reserve and government deployed the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) troops to bring sanity. The MDF raid yielded 133 arrests.
Endless exploration and sample collection
Communities in mining areas watch in awe as mining companies keep exploring for minerals for years. In Phalombe, for instance, Mkango Resources Limited has been exploring for rare earths for over a decade.
Recent media reports that Sovereign Services Limited exported 40 tonnes of graphite samples from Malingunde in Lilongwe to Canada for testing. The quantity attracted social media backlash where citizens felt the figure was too big for a sample.
Kalindekafe, however, said what are being called samples are not entirely minerals.
“Not the entire sample collected is a mineral. The samples are collected to establish the percentage of the mineral in the collected sample,” he explains.
Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining director of mines Jalf Salima told journalists that the quantity of the samples sent for testing is within the required volumes of samples needed for laboratory work.
“During the laboratory test, you establish the volumes of the mineral likely to be extracted, the nature of the land on which the activity will take place and many other factors. So, you need huge quantities of the sample,” argues Salima.
In view of this, Kalindekafe recommends establishment of a laboratory that would test the minerals locally to reduce suspicions that arise when samples are exported for testing.
Missing information on a mining cycle
Mining operations have raised suspicions because communities seem not to know the entire mine cycle.
A presentation by researcher Rachel Etter-Phoya of Mining in Malawi (MinM) during a media training on Natural Resource Governance organised by The African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (Afrodad) recently in Blantyre, shows that there are four main phases of mining operations with timelines ranging from two to 100 years.
For instance, exploration can take between two to three years, while feasibility can take three to 10 years and the actual operation of the mine can take two to 100 years. The final phase of mine closure and decommissioning can take two to 10 years.
Is this a resource curse?
A Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Livingstonia Synod Church and Society Programme researcher Jacqueline Chiwale, who produced a documentary on the plight of the community around Mwaulambo Coal Mine in Karonga, feels a lot more needs to be done when drawing contracts between government and mining firms.
She feels the resource curse is real for the people of Mwaulambo who are being exposed to contamination because water has come in contact with coal.
“The people of Mwaulambo are frustrated with the way the issue has been handled. The investors left the community with deep, unsecured trenches posing a threat to life in the area. The community claims to have lost people and livestock due to drowning in the trenches,” she says.
Chiwale says the community also complains of mosquito infestation, coal spillage into farmlands due to open trenches.
Should the resources be left in the ground?
For a couple of years a Leave Oil in The Soil Movement is calling upon authorities across the globe to look at alternative renewable sources of energy that do little or no harm to the environment. The movement feels countries can prosper without exploiting fossil fuels.
International environmental campaign group Green Peace advocates for a departure “from coal, oil and natural gas, and [move] towards a renewable energy future”.
Anything good from mining?
Kalindekafe, now associate professor at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must), however, says mining is not bad in itself. It is the people that manage the processes that give mining a bad name.
“Mining is beneficial to humanity. The electronic gadgets that we use are all products of mining,” he argues.
Kalindekafe says mining can be beneficial if authorities realise that minerals are not renewable; hence, resources raised from mining should be invested.
“Once used, the minerals cannot be replaced. Therefore, revenue from mineral resources should be used for the benefit of future generations,” he says.
Etter-Phoya observes that with transparent awards of mining contracts, regulation of operations, collection of taxes and royalties, revenue distribution and management and sound policies, the country can achieve sustainable development from its natural resources. Until then, the wait for the day Malawi’s GDP will lean on mining continues.