About three kilometers from the multimillion kwacha uranium mine in Karonga, traditional authority Kyungu lies Kayelekera village, apparently saddled with hopelessness and despair. It is situated some 8 kilometers off the Karonga-Chitipa road.
An uphill gaze at the village tells a story of unrelenting poverty, yes poverty which refuses to subside as manifested by scanty houses that are clad in iron-sheets and burnt bricks.
Bleak and barefoot inhabitants of the needy Kayelekera village playing Bawo was a common sight last Thursday when Business Review descended onto the rural community to appreciate the trickle-down effects of Malawi’s largest mining investment venture belonging to the Australian-based Paladin Energy Limited.
A somber countenance exuded by one Sele Fogolo Mweso, who is also a village head Kayelekera, was enough to acquaint this reporter of a sad tale of natives suffering amidst ‘plenty’ uranium on their finger-tips.
Ecstacy subsides, poverty rides Mweso himself vibrantly recalls that in July 2009, when Paladin issued 15 percent equity in PAL to the government of Malawi under the terms of the Development Agreement signed between PAL and the Government in February 2007, there was a lot of excitement among most villagers and the entire residents in the provincial town of Karonga.
The company’s Mining Licence, ML 152, was issued covering 5 550 hectares in April 2007 for a period of 15 years, following the completion of a Development Agreement between the two parties.
It was good news to all and sundry indeed.
“Our expectations were high that our livelihoods will be uplifted as mining activities progress,” he recalled.
True to the expectation by Mweso and other villagers, Paladin had employed a lot of unskilled labourers during the construction phase between 2007 and 2009 before the mine progressed to rump-up to full scale and later commercial production in 2010.
But Mweso, who was surrounded by other irate villagers at a time of the interview, said since 2010, the mine changed its recruitment thrust which saw some technocrats jumping onto the mining ship to replace most unskilled workers from the village which angered many.
At its infant stages, the mine, according to villagers became a source of hope as the villagers sold their vegetables and other merchandise to the workers inside but things later went sour.
“My wife used to supply vegetable at the mine but the deal went sour later as the official supplier who acted as a middle man between us villagers and the company was cashing in greatly at the villagers expense and could pay my wife and her fellow vegetable sellers a meager proportion.
Most suppliers later stopped as they were not benefiting from the sales,” complained Joseph Mkandawire from the same Kayelekera village and once worked as a Boiler Maker before ‘unceremoniously’ being relieved of his duties.
Unseen responsibilities, promises still haunting Julius Fuko of Simoni Village near some kilometers away from the mine was once one of the unskilled workers but was also chucked out of the uranium mining system some time back.
But he recalls that before commercial production commenced at the mine, he was among a few villagers who held a meeting with Paladin chief executive officer John Borshoff who provide them with portable water, a hospital, bridge and a model school.
He said only Borshoff had a writing material during the meeting but no villager was informed prior to have a writing material with them for records, a situation which he said was suspicious A 77 page Development Agreement between Paladin and Malawi government is strong worded and if it could walk its talk, people such as Mweso and Fuko could have seen their lives elevated but that is seemingly not the case.
On social responsibility clause, specifically on page 45, the agreement is sweetens the talk by and says in addition to constructing, upgrading, and maintaining the facilities and infrastructure, the company shall construct at Kayelekera a primary school, housing for four teachers, an office for teachers working at the primary and secondary schools and a clinic to a typical standard for such facilities in Malawi using local labour.
It also promised to spend the sum of $10 million on the construction of education facilities ‘which are likely to include a boarding secondary school with teachers houses,’ among others.
But to date the villagers feel cheated as most people in the area including traditional leaders said last week they are betrayed because Paladin ahs closed the mine without fulfilling such a pledge.
“Until to date, we trek to Wilira Health Centre for medical treatment some four kilometers away from here [Kayelekera village] as we do not have the promised health center yet,” it’s very unfair, fumed another villager Donaldson Mwayange.
It’s pathetic as the village only boasts of an under-five clinic, which is also riddled with shortage of essential pharmaceuticals, according to Business Review observation.
In the village, Paladin has just managed to construct a ‘community hall’ made of iron sheet and some little burnt bricks at the base which many villagers loath, judging by the comments by many over the structure.
Construction of some teachers’ houses has stalled at foundation level and two months ago Paladin also fixed a solar power system at Kayuni Full Primary School, which the villagers say it’s not enough.
The locals are still jostling for water at a borehole earlier meant for pupils, a shame according to Mweso.
Kayelekera plunder is government blunder. The story of Kayelekera Mine is a sad narration, one that is reminiscent to an epoch when Europeans where exploiting illiterate Africans long before the dawn of western civilisation, according to the belief by Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) which organised a media tour at Kayelekera village last week.
That such exploitation can repeat itself in this century, under the watch of erudite Malawians, is simply unbelievable, said CfSC’s Alex Nkosi on Tuesday.
CfSC is playing an advocacy role by carrying out a social audit in Karonga under the basic needs basket project.
“There is literally nothing that the communities, the owners of the land have benefitted from the exploitation of their finite resources. Keyelekera’s levels of poverty remain high, the communities still suffer from severe infrastructural deficits and their livelihoods have actually been compromised a lot,” Nkosi observed.
All this is happening, according to Nkosi, at a time that Malawi is cognisant of the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) which was adopted by the Heads of State and Government in February 2009 adding that CfSC considers the AMV as a feasible vision which actually offers plausible guidance to countries that are endowed with mineral resources.
He added: “Thus as a country, we ought not look at mining as an isolated endeavour, but rather, as a sector that requires to be coherently and firmly integrated into Malawi’s economy and society. We should aspire to enhance the contributions of the mineral resources to the achievement of the MDGs, MGDS, the eradication poverty and the promotion of sustainable economic growth and development.”
Kossam Munthali, executive director for the Karonga-based Foundation for Community Support Services (Focus), whose vision is to ensure a self reliant and healthy community with improved quality of life, is also bitter with Paladin ‘tricks,’ in Karonga.
At the onset, Munthali first describes the whole ‘Kayelekera journey’ as still remains a journey of a raw deal.
He recalls that on April 3, 2006, a publication in Australia quoted Borshoff as saying Canada and Australia were becoming over-sophisticated in forcing companies into Africa which they described as having a weak governance zone.
Munthali clearly noted that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) concept within international development, which refers to right of locals, particularly indigenous people to engaged themselves in decision making about issues impacting them, was violated by Paladin.
“I still believe that the coming of Paladin here in Karonga has contributed to further deterioration of people’s welfare. Yes banks have come to Karonga following the commissioning of the mining but most people still remain very poor,” he said.
Uncertainity hovers, uranium prices tumble surprisingly, most villagers whom business Review talked to in Kayelekera village sounded ignorant that Paladin has suspended its mining activities at Kayelekera and had placed the mine on care and maintenance.
This to CfSC’s Nkosi is also a serious flaw as both government and the miner has failed to effectively communicate to the villagers near the mine who had earlier considered the mine as a solace to their unending unemployment woes.
On February 7, 2014, Paladin announced the suspension of the production at Kum and that the suspension would involve placing the operation on care and maintenance until the price of uranium recovers.
This decision, according to the company, would preserve the remaining ore body until a sustained price recovery occurs and Paladin determines that production may be resumed on a profitable basis.
Business Review understands that uranium prices have tumbled to as low as $28 per pound from a peak of $140 per pound in 2007.
An internet search shows that spot uranium price was reported at $34.50 per pound at the beginning of the 2014 first quarter before rising to $35.75 per pound in mid-February and retreating to $34.00 per pound by the end of March, 2014.
Uranium prices have been whacked by a series of setbacks in recent years, such as the global financial crisis that dented nuclear power demand and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, which led to the shutdown of all that nation’s nuclear power plants and triggered nuclear phase-outs in places such as Germany and Switzerland.
Later on May 27, 2014, Paladin also announced that it has completely stopped uranium production at Kayelekera Uranium Mine (Kum) which meant ceasing supplying uranium to the global market.
But such news is not treated by many as gospel truth as speculation is rife that such a situation might mark the end of the uranium deal between Malawi and the Australian firm saying the greater chunk of ore at Kayelekera village might have been exported already by the company with little ore remaining.