The failed promise of mining embitters Malawians

No one warned villagers about forced relocations or of the risks to their health and water supplies.

COMMENT

Malita had high hopes when she first heard that foreign and domestic companies would start mining in her area of Malawi. The government and the companies promised jobs, better schools and improved access to healthcare in her village. They didn’t tell people about the risks mining can bring.

She only learnt that it can involve relocation when representatives of a coal mining company ordered her to leave her home in Kayelekera, on the northwestern shores of Lake Malawi.

“We just saw the bulldozer coming,” she said. “I did not know anything. They made me move at noon when they came to demolish our houses. They just left me outside.”

They didn’t compensate her. Stories like hers are all too common in Malawi.

Over the past 10 years, the government has promoted private investment in resource extraction as a way to diversify its economy. The Karonga district, in which Kayelekera falls, is the country’s test case. Malawi’s only uranium mine opened there in 2009 and two of the country’s four biggest coal mines are there.

Villagers in Kayelekera say that in September 2013 the coal mining company forced at least 10 other households to move from their homes, which were near the company’s office building.

The mining company disputes this.

Malita is a widow who has five children and people like her were left in particularly difficult circumstances. “I had no husband to build a new house for me [and] all my children were young. I didn’t know what to do. I just built a shack under the tree.”

Today, three years later, her house still doesn’t have a door. “I have no one to make a door for me,” she said.

As multinational companies, including those from Australia and Cyprus, have started to prospect and mine in the Karonga and neighbouring districts around the lake, residents and nongovernmental organisations have voiced serious concerns about potential environmental damage and the effect on their health, water, food and housing.

While Malita spoke about her eviction several trucks from the nearby mines passed by, coating the primary school, children and fields in coal dust. It’s this dust that has fuelled anxiety about health risks such as respiratory diseases.

Another concern is that the coal and uranium mines might have contaminated local drinking water.

Women and girls, who are largely responsible for fetching water, said they often walk longer distances to reach what they believe is a safer water source.

Malawi mining acid water
Open pit filled with water at Eland coal mine, Mwabulambo. After closure in 2015, the company left behind several open pits, piles of coal, and deep holes filled with water. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water, water testing results from 2015 indicated that the water in the open pits is acidic and therefore harmful to human health. (Lauren Clifford-Holmes/Human Rights Watch)

Villagers say they have never seen any results of water testing. And they also do not have the adequate access to healthcare facilities promised to them where they could be assessed and treated for any mining-related health conditions.

The government and companies operating in the Karonga district say they monitor the effects of mining. But they don’t release the results. Last year the government officer in charge of environmental inspections in the district left his post.

Malawi does not have adequate legal standards and safeguards to ensure that the mining industry does not compromise the rights of citizens. Weak government oversight and a lack of information leave people unprotected and uninformed about the risks and opportunities associated with mining.

Malawi shouldn’t repeat the mistakes made by mining in other countries in Southern Africa, including in neighbouring Zambia and Zimbabwe. Malawi is still new to mining. There are opportunities for the government and investors to respect the rights of and minimise the risks for residents and natural ecosystems, even as they push for economic development.

It is not enough to create a fertile investment climate for mining companies. The government urgently needs to protect and respect the rights of people.

Malita’s experience shows how important it is for the government, investors and mining companies to develop their industry in a way that benefits the country and respects the rights of the people.

  Katharina Rall is an environmental health researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report about the effect of mining in Malawi. Go to www.hrw.org/node/294356/ to view the report

Happy Mpho
Fishermen bring in their daily catch of local fish usipa from Lake Malawi, Karonga district. (Lauren Clifford-Holmes for Human Rights Watch)

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