From Karonga through Mzimba and Ntcheu to Phalombe, there is hardly peace in all mining spots in the country. Communities and mining companies—writes EPHRAIM NYONDO as he begins a four part series on community problems in mining ventures—investors and communities are in arms against each other over how to fairly share mining spoils.
Communities in Karonga and Paladin Africa Limited (PAL), an Australian company mining uranium at Kayelekera in the district, are trapped in a cat and mouse relationship.
It is a relationship that has not started today. It dates back sometime in 2011.
By then, PAL was in its third year mining uranium at Kayelekera. However, when the mine was commissioned in 2009 by former president Bingu wa Mutharika, communities in Karonga had great expectations regarding development in their district.
They viewed the coming of Malawi’s largest mining company in their vicinity as the gold that would, instantly, turn around their fortunes. Of course, in the first three years—the construction phase—the mine was indeed a blessing.
It employed more from the unskilled thousands. Small-scale business people were able to find easy markets for their agricultural produces. School blocks were being rehabilitated. Construction projects, especially the water pumping project, were being seen.
By 2011, unarguably, the general feeling in Karonga was of a district on the rise to stardom. Construction was booming. Commercial banks came with a gold rush. People whom no one could think of owning a car, in a flush, had fleets of them.
However, the end of the construction phase changed the fortunes of many in Karonga. As the mining went more technical, it meant most unskilled labourers being laid off. This had a ripple effect on small-scale businesses. With few workers, it meant reduced purchase of agricultural produces from small-scale business people.
Frustration against Paladin and government began to emerge. Locals in Karonga began to mobilise themselves arguing Paladin was giving them a raw deal. Their mobilisation went national when some parliamentarians and activists started to demand the renegotiation of the Development Agreement Malawi signed with Paladin in 2007.
Their argument stopped at the realisation that Paladin was not committing to the social corporate responsibility (SCR) it promised in the development. Paladin, on the other hand, responded that it was committing to what it promised.
What Malawians have witnessed, since 2011, has been an unwavering waves of tussling on everything between these two blocks—the mark of a cat and mouse relationship between government and Paladin on one hand, and communities and activist, on the other.
This relationship has given birth to deep mistrust between the two groups of people—something that, till date, is failing to tone down.
But it is not just in Karonga between communities and Paladin.
Three weeks ago our sister publication The Nation carried a feature story by James Chavula about residents of Mpata in Karonga, who once blocked the road to Nkhayuti Coal Mine in 2013, staging another shutdown of the mine in October 2015.
“It’s been years of broken promises,” group village head (GVH) Mwenenguwe said in the story.
The story added that villagers want the investors behind the mine to fully honour a community development agreement that entitles the locals to a borehole, teacher’s house and a school block.
It further showed that it had been three years since the signing of the pact facilitated by Karonga district council following the protests, but Malawians surrounding Nkhayuti Coal Mine were yet to draw safe water.
Communities rued seeing the investors draw truckloads of coal leaving behind waste material contaminating the water system.
“They are getting richer while we cannot afford drops of safe water,” Mwenenguwe laments.
The communities’ group leader, Chrispine Mtambo, was quoted in the story saying: “We feel cheated. They just wanted to calm us down. The hilltops lie bare, trees are being uprooted, soil erosion is worsening and coal waste is filling the rivers where people with no access to safe water drink.”
The story also quoted Nkhayuti mine director Dave Nyirenda saying: “There is an uneasy tie with the community and again the harsh business climate has been responsible for the delay in finishing the projects.”
He added: “If people say they are not benefitting, what do they mean? We are building a teacher’s house. They may wish to know that coal is cheap, not profitable.”
He indicated buyers are shunning local coal in preference for truckloads from Mozambique.
“The last time I sold coal was in April and government is doing nothing to protect local investors,” Nyirenda decried.
He reckoned it has been two months since nearly 40 workers at the mine got their pay.
“When I get money, I ask myself whether to invest in the teacher’s house or salaries,” he said.
He asked the villagers to be patient, saying the house mirrors Nkhayuti’s commitment to social responsibility though “we are not mining gold or uranium”.
It is not just in Karonga.
The story is the same in Phalombe and Mzimba where the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), with support from Tilitonse Fund, is, since 2013, implementing a four-year-old project called Strengthening Mining Governance in Malawi with an overall goal of making governance more inclusive and accountable.
In Phalombe—where Cepa is working with ActionAid supported structure called Ufulu Wathu Community-Based Organisation (UWCBO)—the conflict between a mining company, Mkango Resources Limited (MRL) and communities was, once, protracted.
UWCBO project manager Symon Thipa told Weekend Nation that at first Mkango just came to Naomi Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nazombe to start their exploration of rare earths. The company had been awarded a licence by government to explore rare earths at Songwe Hill in Phalombe District.
“The problem is that the company just came to the village without notifying the communities. So people here were surprised with what is happening. The challenge is that the road to the exploration site even passed through people’s gardens.
“This forced people to start asking questions. The Mkango people, most of them whites, could hardly be talked to. Even the few Africans that were with them could only tell us to go to government and find out if they had been given the licence to do what they were doing,” he says.
Thipa adds that this led communities to seek answers from their chiefs who, arrogantly, told them off and warned of expelling anybody who continued asking questions.
“We had to come in because our organisation deals with empowering local communities in human rights issues and governance. We challenged them to demand answers from their leaders regarding what is happening in their communities,” he says.
The training moved locals to mobilise themselves and staged a demonstration to get answers from their leaders—the chiefs.
“It was through the demonstration that chiefs began to open up, something that led to district officials and Mkango to also begin to open up to the communities,” he says.
However, despite such glimmers of hope, the conflict between mining companies and communities in the country represents a war on how natural resources should be fairly shared and distributed in the country. Currently there is a general feeling that mining companies and government are having it all and local communities, where these mineral are, are left with nothing but a scale of environmental damage, pollution and deepening of poverty.
Surely, the war in question is one in which, if not well handled, has the capacity to destroy Malawi’s capacity to effectively exploit its mineral resources and use it for the country’s development. n