The long wait for Kanyika Niobium Mine is a tale of hunger and poverty, a tragedy symptomatic of how giant investments sometimes crash powerless impoverished populations. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Get into the villages surrounding Kanyika Mine, a mineral-rich hotspot in rural parts of Mzimba, any time and you will hear villagers saying they are almost dead and buried. Some call themselves ‘walking skeletons’.
“We are starving to death because government is dying for mining,” says village head Yose Nhlane whose people are among those earmarked for relocation to pave the way for the prospective niobium mine in the vicinity.
This is a household cry as the locals’ livelihoods are being disrupted by uncertainty surrounding compensations and resettlement of those sitting in the way for extraction of niobium by Global Metals and Mining Africa (GMMA).
A census conducted by Mzimba District Council in June 2012 shows about 125 homesteads are in the frame for relocation, leaving nearly 750 people waiting as long as it takes government and the Australian mining company to finally sign a development agreement (DA) that has been under negotiation for nearly five years.
“We have been living in despair for a decade,” says area development committee (ADC) chairperson Chipele Jere.
Kanyika was a “food basket” when government offered Globe an exclusive prospecting licence, Jere recalls. Exploration started a year later, leading to the discovery of niobium ores as well as uranium and tantalum. The rural setting was earmarked for “the most advanced project” involving extraction of three million tons of mineral ores every year to produce 4 000 tons of niobium. The company estimated the life of the planned open-pit mine exceeds 20 years—employing up to 2 000 workers during construction and 500 with the commencement of mining which was slated for 2013/2015.
There are no jobs yet. Not the upliftment either. The locals’ lives have been getting poorer since 2012. Some of the villagers who reside or own assets in the project area remember being advised by council officials to stop developing their ancestral land and get ready for relocation or continue investing at their own risk.
The company’s Resettlement Framework Policy stipulates: “Any person that suffers disturbances or loss as a result of the land acquisition shall be compensated and it is GMMA’s intention that no person shall be worse off as a consequence of the relocation.”
But the affected population has not shifted. Only deadlines of compensation and relocation keep shifting.
As life comes to a standstill, Nhlane decries: “They promised to pay out compensation before long, but we are still here. We cannot farm or build on our ancestral land.”
The climate of uncertainty, hunger and poverty seems relentless.
At Kanyika, building brick houses with iron sheets is almost history. The newly constructed buildings are largely thatched huts. The temporary shelters are typically surrounded by uncultivated fields. No maize, millet, cassava, tobacco and groundnuts. Goats, cows and pigs are becoming rare and locals admittedly compelled to sell the animals at giveaway prices so as to buy food and shed the burden of investing in livestock or housing which fall outside the long-awaited compensation estimates.
Death of cassava
Community members are reluctant to put their money, time and effort in things that will end the day the DA talks are over and mining begins. The one-time traditional food basket is becoming a haven of beggars relying on relief foodstuffs to survive chronic hunger, says Nhlane.
“We are almost dead and buried,” says the leader whose village is among the worst hit by diminishing economic activities.
Wallowing in the overgrown fields, cassava growing is almost dead. The sporadic maize crop looks scorched by prevailing dry spells and the one-time hardworking farmers are leading a hand-to-mouth life.
This puts into question Globe’s claims.
“The project will have discernible benefits including job creation and upliftment of the impoverished community,” reads the resettlement policy fashioned after the census marked the official cut-off date of development in homesteads and croplands to be vacated.
A decade ago, the affected villagers thought as much. They saw the promise coming true with sights of explorers drilling holes in their backyards, diggers excavating pits in the settlement and trucks hauling samples.
Depressingly, it has been eclipsed by the lingering shadows of hunger and poverty.
“We do not know anything about the talks between government and Globe, but we are the ultimate losers. Now, we grow crops and engage in activities that conform to the tough times we are living in,” says Nhlane’s villager Monica Moyo.
Like many, she stopped growing cassava in preference for fast-maturing crops such as maize and millet, saying the tubers may not be ready when the day for relocation finally dawns.
The situation is worsening food insecurity in the face of harsh effects of climate change. The area used to receive good rainfall from November to March. For the past three years, the rains have been erratic, often beginning as late as the final week of December and ending as early as March. Neighbouring weather stations record about 400mm a year, an amount of rainfall Mzimba district agricultural development officer Charles Munthali finds “scarcely adequate” for maize but cassava. The cries for dying cassava are rising due to ongoing drought in the country.
During the visit, the villagers said it had been almost a month without raindrops. The crops were drying and hunger was looming.
“Extension officers promote cassava because it is draught-resistant, but who cares? We may leave tomorrow or next year,” says Moyo.
Tales of hunger and poverty loom large.
Munthali is worried particularly that most gardens have not been cultivated for years and that most farmers are no longer putting effort in agriculture.
“With climate change, most rural areas are relying on cassava. In view of the ongoing dry spells, the situation at Kanyika is tragic. Timely resettlement may help the people get back to farming,” says the agriculture official.
Questions, doubts, ifs
The majority of the locals consider farming and small-scale businesses their main source of livelihood. Before mining weighed in, they were leading a hand-to-mouth life. No bank accounts. No savings. No resilience to tough times.
To lessen the plight of the poor and vulnerable people, the Church and Society of the Livingstonia Synod is spearheading the formation of village savings and lending groups. The approach allows the members surrounding Kanyika to keep part of their meagre earnings, get low-interest loans for emergencies and small-scale business.
Beneficiaries say the approach is empowering them financially, but blurred deadlines for relocation leaves the prevailing insecurity overpowering.
Amid the outcry, Chief Mabulabo and Inkosi ya Makosi M’Mbelwa V want government to clear the mist on the protracted talks with Globe Metals or abandon the mining project at Kanyika.
The traditional leaders’ stance mirrors a consensus gaining sway that “shutting down the projected mine is better than further impoverishing a whole village”, says Mabulabo.
“It is quite unfortunate people are being subjected to degrading treatment. If government is not ready to have mining activities in the area, they should leave affected communities alone,” M’Mbelwa states.
The affected area is an epicentre of faith-based and civil society interventions designed to empower the locals to confront unjust practices.
Will mining ever happen at Kanyika? If yes, when? The Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice (CCJP) and Church and Society (CAS) of the CCAP Livingstonia agents ask these questions.
“The worsening poverty is a call for concrete answers. When people stop producing food crops and making long-term investment, it’s their livelihood that suffers,” says CAS project officer Paul Mvula.
And his CCJP counterpart Felix Manda feels the constrained population waiting for displacement deserve a “disturbance compensation” for “untold hardship” and “wasted years”.
“It’s a raw deal,” says Manda. “If government is going ahead with mining at Kanyika they need to give the locals a deadline and honour it instead of keeping them in the dark. Besides, the people need relief foodstuffs as an interim measure and a disturbance compensation for the wasted years.”
Tananga Harawa, director of planning and development in Mzimba, says Globe will pay out compensation only if it gets government’s nod to start mining.
Why have the DA discussions taken over two years without an end in sight?
When asked, Principal Secretary responsible for mining Ben Botolo explained: “The stickiest issue is that over the years some of the financiers pulled out and the developers are struggling to raise money for the niobium project.
“They need at least $400 million. Unfortunately, prices of niobium on the international market have been falling. That is the honest answer I can give.”
We could not ascertain this with Globe. Its senior geologist Chris Ngwena simply said “we are unable to respond to media queries about our operations at Kanyika” because negotiations are still ongoing.
But Globe’s website offers signposts to Guangzhou Research Institute of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy (GZRINM) in China where the pilot plant and tests of Kanyika bulk samples have been in progress since 2013.
Making reference to a May 2014 meeting, Globe indicates that it was concluded that the negotiations cannot be finalised until Globe has completed the metallurgical test work currently underway in China as this has a major bearing on the chosen process route— smelter or refinery.
“The Government of Malawi requested another meeting in September 2014 when the test work will be complete.”
The PS said the trial was no longer a sticky issue, revealing they were scheduled for April.
“I ask the people of Kanyika to be patient as the company are searching for partners across the globe,” says Botolo.
But patience is waning with time that is reducing Kanyika residents to faces the country’s failure to meet the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG 1) on reducing hunger and poverty by January 1 this year. This is why the New Year cut-off point for MDGs was no cause for merry in Kanyika, but another day of starving with hope for a speedy end to the drawn out dilemma. n