Disunited civil society interventions are partly to blame for the hardship of people affected by investments in mining. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
In the hills of Karonga North West, Village Head Sele likens civil society organisations (CSOs) to an undertaker.
“The non-governmental organisations are here because things are already out of hand. They often come in multitudes when things go wrong,” says Sele.
The chief, whose village lies between Kayerekera Uranium Mine (KUM) and MalCoal coal mine, lamented how the CSOs’ eye-opening work in the mining community often comes too late.
He says the CSOs were in town when he and other community leaders met with Paladin Africa officials, nodded to the firm’s promise to start constructing a healthcare as soon as mining began in the nearby hills.
“Mining began in 2009, but we are still waiting for the clinic and tap water,” he explained.
Resident Gerald Ng’ambi weighs in: “We feel cheated, but the problem is that the agreement was verbal. Had we had the awareness provided by the CSOs, we would have insisted on a written pact.”
Kayerekera Village has remained more or less the same cluster of grass-thatched huts as it was before 2009 when uranium mining began in the nearby hills—except that thousands of migrant workers came, colonised it, increased business and departed as soon as mining was suspended in February last year.
Nowadays, the locals no longer endure dust and noise generated by heavy trucks carrying ‘yellow cakes’ that used to speed past the remote settlement.
Instead, they are being frequented by four-wheel-drive vehicles bringing forth non-state actors who offer the locals awakening lessons about things to do and not to when confronted by rights abuses, pollution, land-grabbing and other side-effects of mining.
As the country is rising to its mining potential, the civil society is not sleeping on its laurels. They are all over in mining areas providing checks and balances to government and investors while empowering community members to speak up against the ills of the industry.
Populations around mineral-rich hotspots credit the CSOs for opening their eyes to claim their rights and demand transparency and accountability from various players in the country’s highly secretive extractive sector.
Despite their good works, some locals say the watchdogs need to be watched. They feel the groups’ uncoordinated inroads into the mining sector could be a minefield of unnecessary confusion.
In March, activists and chiefs met in Karonga—Malawi’s largest mining district—to strengthen their ties and fine-tune a Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) initiative, the ongoing Transparency Initiative Within the Extractive Industry (Tiwone).
“We have failed!” That was the chorus from the conference at Sumuka Inn.
Fr Denis Chitete, who heads Karonga Diocese’s CCJP, led the confessions.
He stated: “We have been advocating responsible mining for years, but some noise has not been fruitful.
“Why don’t we come together to re-examine our efforts and refocus our strategies for the good of the communities we serve? Let’s come up with one game plan to avoid confusing communities and eroding their confidence in us.”
He likened the CSOs to hunters who may “end up shooting each other” unless they settle for a shared approach to kill the animal they want.
According to Chitete, cracks, personal interests and competition in the civil society could be to blame for continued suffering and human rights violations in communities surrounding mining sites in the country.
But Group Village Head Mesiya, whose village lies on the edge of Mwaulambo Coalmine’s gaping pits, feels the competing voices for good governance are disadvantaging the very people they are meant to serve.
When we met, Mesiya said meetings on mining issues are becoming “so frequent and confusing.”
“This week alone, this is my third time I have been invited to Karonga to discuss the topic. The message is more or less the same, but what differs are the organisers of the meeting, allowances and speakers,” said the traditional leader.
Equally frequent are NGOs making inroads into his area, he said.
But Mesiya says the influx of the non-state actors is beneficial, noting: “They have helped to awaken powerless villagers to start standing up against ruinous and impoverishing mining practices by big companies that come with government consent.”
Presently, the people of Mwaulambo are not only rising to challenge Eland Mining’s poor compensation and resettlement plan but also wanton dumping of coal waste which is gradually polluting rivers, wells, rice fields and air.
Despite the success story, communities surrounding the mining sites decried the numerous groups working in the area of working like political parties.
“To some extent, they are splitting villagers into factions,” said Shubert Mweso, a facilitator of reflection circles that discuss issues concerning communities surrounding KUM.
He explained: “They come here and form new committees without regard to existing structures. The result is that we have different committees doing similar tasks, leaving villages and families divided depending on which NGO they work with.”
Such are the side-effects of the campaign for a win-win situation in the country’s mining sector that village heads say they want a united front for people’s good, not anarchy.
The NGO’s actions are contrary to the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action which talks about harmonisation of aid to avoid inefficiencies resulting from duplications and multiple reporting.
Desirous to end duplication and to speak with one voice, 33 organisations have come together under Natural Resource Justice Network (NRJN).
In an interview, NRJN board chairperson Kossam Munthali explained: “The duplicative committees are really sowing seeds of division, but donors are also to blame.
“Most of them do not seem to know where their colleagues work and some of them fund more than one CSOs doing similar projects in one area.”
He says the groups have been talking about strengthening their ties since 2005.
Mapping NGO presence and assigning new-comers to unreached areas and priorities is the duty of the district development committee.
Karonga District Council chairperson, councillor Patrick Kishombe, says when NGOs come, nearly all of them want the committee to allow them to implement the projects in focus areas as spelled out in the proposals approved by donors.
“The civil society has to put their house in order. Otherwise, this chaotic approach in affected populations is slowly pushing people to take the law into their hands,” warns Kishombe.
At Kayerekera and Mwaulambo, a Church of Livingstonia’s Church and Society (CAS) Tilitonse-funded Tiwone in 2013 trained and engaged a different committee from the one CCJP transparency initiative, funded by Catholic Relief Services, had already engaged.
The blurred lines are also clear at Kanyika Nobium Project in Mzimba where the uncertainty surrounding the signing of Globe Metals’ development agreement with government has plunged nearly 250 households in worsening hunger and poverty.
In Karonga, CAS has found itself competing with Uraha Foundation and Action Aid who run reflection circles with Tilitonse Funds in partnership with Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa).
Cynthia Simkonda, Cepa programme officer, said in February this year that the CSOs need to mend their fragile ties for a win-win mining environment.
“The NGOs need to work as partners, not rivals, for the success of the ongoing advocacy for law reforms, responsive policies, humane treatment of affected communities, the desired transparency and accountability as well as meaningful citizen participation,” said Simkonda.
Recently, the power of unity was manifest when NRJN, together with Cepa, CAS and Citizen for Justice, partnered with Europe-based Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity to host French nuclear physicist Bruno Chareyron who reported detecting worrisomely radioactive spots at KUM.
Following the report, Paladin managing director Greg Walker warned the expert and his backers against unnecessarily alarming people.
Kayerekera residents, however, described the findings by the scientist, who was rejected entry to the mine in 2012, as an eye-opener months after a motorcade of government officials sped past the village on their way to the mine to ascertain the gravity of a January spill following a minor damage of a tank there.
Actually, Chareyron’s report moved Senior Chief Karonga to recall an incident in 2006 when he asked activists to kneel before him and apologise for “disgracing the people of Karonga and scaring away investors” by applying for a court order restraining Paladin from commencing mining without a proper waste disposal and environmental management strategy.
Uraha’s board chairperson Archibald Mwakasungula, who refused to bow down, described the humiliating experience as a day to forget “because the court was the best option at that time.”
But after the expert findings, Karonga said: “Even the CSO leaders are to blame. When we stopped the court process, we, the chiefs, did not have any hidden agenda or personal interests. However, we had agreed to go back to court if our agreements were not met.”
Last month, a concerned citizen, Wavisanga Silungwe, used Chareyron’s revelations to ask the High Court in Mzuzu to grant him an injunction stopping Paladin from releasing waste into surrounding rivers which flow into Lake Malawi.
Ahead of the hearing on June 9, Walker told Weekend Nation the water is treated.
Some informed community members say the sooner the civil society mends its fence, the better, for it may find itself ditched by the very people it has been awakening for nearly a decade.
Warns Kayerekera resident Christina Sinyiza: “Chiefs were once influential, but the citizenry got frustrated with their selfish interests. So NGOs must tread carefully to avoid falling into the same pit.”