With low transparency and accountability in the extractive industry, Malawians are not aware of agreements in mining contracts and oil exploration in Lake Malawi may not benefit the citizens who rely on the freshwater lake.
Random interviews in Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota, Salima and Mangochi along the lake reveal that few respondents—five out of 80—are aware that some companies were licenced to search for oil and gas in Lake Malawi.
However, none of the respondents was able to elaborate what the licences entail.
However, 75 percent—60 out of 80 respondents— expressed fears that the oil and gas drilling may pose serious environmental risks.
With the contents of the contracts not made public, Malawi Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (Meiti) reports single out this gap as one of the signs of lack of transparency and accountability in the country’s extractive industry.
The feared environmental risks include oil spills, gas flares, affluent and waste discharges, adverse impacts on the biodiversity (including fish).
There are also socio-economic and health impacts on communities bordering the marine blocks where oil and gas shall be tapped.
Operations in the extractive industry have raised suspicions because communities seem not to know finer details of the agreements government makes with investors, including oil contracts.
Malawi’s extractive industry has a great potential and several mining investors have been operating in the country for the past 10 years.
However, the sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) remains low.
The highest recorded contribution was recorded when Kayelekera Uranium Mine in Karonga was operating.
Although there are several mining companies operating in the country, the National Statistical Office reports that the extractive industry contributes a meagre 0.9 percent to GDP.
There is a need to revamp the extractive industry by amending and updating all relevant laws on top of the 1981 Mines and Minerals Act, which was revised last year.
For instance, all pieces of legislation governing the current oil exploration in Malawi—the Petroleum Exploration Act of 1983 and The Petroleum Act of 2009—are outdated.
The oil and gas exploration and drilling should be well planned, with an extensive awareness campaign for communities to have enough scientific knowledge to appreciate and accept the projects.
Unlike other sectors, the extractive sector has not yet devolved to local councils under the decentralisation policy.
Despite several demands from CSOs, communities and other stakeholders, local councils have no powers to act on complaints emerging from the industry in line with people’s needs.
The case in point is what happened in Mangochi.
Despite several stakeholders, including the communities and traditional authorities Makanjira and Namavi, asking authorities to evict the illegal miners from Namizimu Forest, it took over 30 months before the illegal miners were finally booted out and arrested by Malawi Defence Force.
The soldiers only intervened after a directive by President Peter Mutharika in a direct response to the petition in which the locals demanded immediate action within 14 days.
By the time central government acted accordingly, the illegal miners had already afflicted untold environmental and social ills on the mining site and surrounding communities.
For government to achieve its ambitious plan to promote investment for the extractive industry to contribute at least 20 percent of the GDP by 2020, it must, amongothers, adopt the latest Meiti recommendations.
This includes having relevant mining laws, accurate and reliable mining data as well as ensuring transparency in all extractive interventions.n