As mining firms reap the benefits of Malawi’s emerging extractive sector, dust refuses to settle on local communities’ petitions for a fair share.
Most Malawians close to mining sites say they are getting no gain.
Villagers surrounding Songwe Hill in Phalombe, which is rich in rare earth, want a fair deal from Mkango Resources.
The communities, with support from Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), Oxfam and Ufulu Wathu community-based organisation, have formed interactive circles to share lessons on their rights on mineral resources and mining laws.
The reflect action circles engage the mining firm on sticky issues, including the hauling of 60 tonnes of samples just when many thought the exploration was over.
“During the meeting, we explained that this was the last load of samples and it was already excavated,” says Samson Livava, the circles’ leader in Sub-Traditional Authority (ST/A) Maoni.
They also engaged Mkango Resources to act on environmental concerns, leading to tree-planting.
“Apart from establishing woodlots at Changa, Mphembezu and Mangazi schools, they also employed people who look after the trees,” says Livava.
Maoni says the rural population enjoys a cordial relationship with the mining firm, unlike many others which have left painful memories in communities where they work.
He censures Eland Coal Mining for dumping Mwabulambo Coal Mine in Karonga, leaving open pits which pose a hazard to the locals.
Dickson Malela, who visited Mwabulambo, knows the damage mining causes if companies neglect their social and environmental obligations.
“To prevent this, we want to ensure that Mkango adheres to the environmental protection clauses,” he says.
Cepa advocates free, prior and informed consent as part of its community awareness inroads in Phalombe.
Phalombe East and Phalombe North East constituents say they have been enlightened to engage the mining firm at every stage of its work at Songwe Hill and surrounding communities.
They track all stages in the mine’s life cycle and are looking forward to the environmental and social impact assessment (Esia) report the company promised to publish by November 2019.
“Once the Esia is published, we will track the promises made. They should not implement mining projects without involving us,” says Livava.
Phalombe East legislator Robert Mwina, a civil engineer by profession, pledges to unpack the highly technical report for the benefit of his constituents likely to be left behind in the push for inclusive mining and environmental protection.
“As an engineer, I also studied mining. Where I don’t understand the report, I will engage a network of colleagues in the mining sector to help us understand the contents,” he states.
Nazombe Area Development Committee chairperson Blessings Chikopa, says people in the hilly terrain do not want the rare earth mine to bring misery, but economic prosperity.
“We agreed that once mining begins, the mining company should enforce strict safety measures to reduce exposure to dust and other forms of pollution,” he says.
Chikopa calls for the government to remain vigilant in protecting Malawians’ interests and nature.
Maoni Village Development Committee vice-chairperson Alfred Msasa wants Capital Hill to deploy mines’ officers in all mineral-rich districts, including Phalombe.
“Communities likely to be affected by mining activities should be prepared beforehand. They should know their rights on compensation, land and mining laws as well as where to go if they have any query,” he says.
Youth activist Monica Kwerengwe, 23, participated in the free, prior and informed consent training.
She says the future looks bright with ongoing reforestation projects Mkango Resources supports.
Kwerengwe expects the company to fulfil its promise to employ young people and improve the wellbeing of the communities near Songwe Hill.
“So far so good,” says Eric Kenamu, director of planning and development at Phalombe District Council. “All development initiatives to be carried out by the company will be detailed in a memorandum of understanding, which communities can easily track.”
Cepa also promotes community awareness in line with new mining laws.
“We are looking at the bigger picture. We are influencing policies because mining is in its infancy and whatever we do will serve as a model of how things should be done even in other areas” says Cepa executive director Herbert Mwalukomo.
Cepa also works with communities surrounding Malingunde Graphite Mine in Lilongwe as well as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Karonga Diocese close to Kayelekera Uranium Mine and Mwaulambo.
“Apart from linking up with our partners in those sites, we are observing what is happening at the policy level to provide our input,” says Mwalukomo.
He bemoans lack of regulations activating the Mining Act Parliament passed in 2018. The law promotes the signing of community development agreements for win-win deals and greater accountability.
“Since the regulations are not ready, communities have no guiding framework if the mines are approved,” he says.
Oxfam extractive industries coordinator Elyvin Nkhonjera-Chawinga says increased awareness has helped communities understand the role they can play while working closely with mining firms to achieve shared goals.
“At first, there were mixed reactions about mining activities and most of it was quite negative,” she says.
Oxfam has developed Chichewa and Chitumbuka training manuals to increase access to mining governance information.