BY NTHEZEMU KAMANGA
It began by days. Then it turned into weeks before months came. Years have gone now since the project of mining uranium began in Karonga. At first we talked about it five times a day, then five times a week, then five times a month, then five times a year, and eventually it became a secret.
The government had always backed the ‘developmental’ project since its inception while the Civil Society organisations across the country were vehemently against the mining. The main bone of contention has been the secret that has been there in handling and publicizing the national project.
By way of history, in the 1980’s Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) a UK company discovered the high grade Kayelekera sandstone uranium deposit. However, the study indicated that the project was uneconomical due to the mining model that CEGB was to adopt and the uranium prices were low at the time. The project was abandoned in 1992.
In 1999 Paladin Resources Limited Inc an Australian company acquired 90% interest in the project through a joint venture from Balmain Resources Limited, who retained 10% of free carried interest until the completion of the Bankable Feasibility Study (BFS).
In 2000, the project was transferred to the Malawian registered company Paladin Africa Limited a wholly owned subsidiary of Paladin Resources Inc.
In May 2005 the BFS commenced to verify new mining/milling concepts that are to be adopted as well as validation (or modification if required) of all other environmental and mine model parameters used in 1991 final feasibility study.
Since then, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation- (CHRR) Citizen for Justice – (CFJ) Foundation for Community Services – (FOCUS) Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace – (CCJP, Mzuzu) Church and Society – Livingstonia Synod, Uraha Foundation- (UF) were some of the voices that worked day and night forcing the government and Paladin Africa to be open in their dealings.
The Government of Malawi’s decision to grant a mining licence to Paladin based on the company’s draft EIA was criticised by civil society groups in the country. Concerns bordered on three issues. The first was secrecy. According to CHRR, Paladin refused to provide information to local communities prior the performance of a substantive EIA. Even when information about the EIA was made available, accessibility was problematic — the document was published in English only, excluding many from the process.
The second cause for concern was a threat to air and water resources surrounding the Kayelekera site, which is located on a tributary river that flows into Lake Malawi
The final concern from civil society, as propagated by Mr. Rafiq Hajat was the divide and rule tactics that Paladin used to manipulate the local community. The company was allegedly making direct payments to traditional leaders, undermining local decision-making processes, and paying improper monthly allowances to government engineers in the Department of Mines and Natural Resources.
The whole process begged a question as to whose interests were being served – Malawi’s or Paladin’s. The secretive approach taken by the government and Paladin Resources Inc in the matter and the denial to the people to access information as enshrined in Section 37 of the country’s Republican Constitution was condemned.
At that time the CSO’s believed that Malawi must work towards a uranium mining free environment and hoped to mobilize the public into action by sensitising them to the risks, facilitate the formation of a network of concerned groups and experts as well as litigating against mining operations.
The organizations that time lobbied with parliamentarians to advocate for a review of the Mining Act to bring it in line with international standards.
Although Malawi could gain much needed revenue from uranium mining, but the fundamental question of whether the possible economic benefits should be allowed to outweigh social concerns, environmental and health hazards – especially considering that the Kayelekera mine will only have a life span of 10-12 years while its negative effects and consequences would continue for over a hundred years – must be given serious consideration.
Paladin Resources came under sustained heat from a coalition of NGOs in Malawi who even brought a court case to halt the company’s proposed Kayelekera mining operation until it addressed alleged unconstitutionality and breaches of environment laws.
The Civil Society Organisations wanted Paladin to address issues surrounding health, safety and welfare concerns arising from the mining of uranium which is a highly radioactive mineral in the interest of the people of Karonga and Chitipa Districts and Malawi as a whole.
Realising that the uranium ore deposits at Kayelekera which Paladin proposed to exploit represented a value of not less than United States Dollars 35 billion, the CSO’s were concerned to ensure that Malawians receive equitable benefit in terms of financial returns and development from the Kayeleraka project.
Yet, behind all this, the issues covered by the Developmental Plan (Agreement) and the agreements on Fiscal were secret and not been disclosed by the signatories to Malawians. Who know how much is realised per year from the project? Who know how much government gets from its natural reserves? Who knows the people ‘benefitting’ from the project?
To many, this is totally incompatible with the transparency and accountability which should prevail in the democratic era when the government in office proclaims its commitment to zero tolerance on corruption and causes one to see shadows of corruption in the handing of the secret agreements and the activities of Paladin.
We totally disagree with Paladin as reportedly stated that the development in Malawi.
Mr. John Borshoff’s remarks reported by FORBES ONLINE and or Miningnews.Net were done as a clear sign of lack of concern by the concerned members. He clearly said at that time that work at Kayelekera will continue even without addressing the concerns that were raised by the civil society in Malawi.
By entering into development agreement on Kayelekera uranium mining with Paladin Africa Ltd, the government of Malawi has on several occasions, left its citizens in the cold while conniving with Paladin Africa Ltd; whose activities at Kayelekera will cause harm than good and cost lives for generations to come.
Whether as individuals, communities, societies or governments, we should know that we do not own creation but we are stewards according to the will of God. God expects us to use this creation in a sustainable way so that future generations should be able to meet their needs also. If as a government we go ahead in allowing Paladin Africa Ltd to its business with the secrecy already displayed, we should know that we are working against the role of stewardship of creation that God assigned us.
It is a fact that as government, you are charged with the responsibility of economic growth for the country and you have hope in the uranium mining that it will boost the economy. Remember the seven fat cows and the seven thin ones in the story of Joseph in Egypt. We may anticipate seven years of economic boom but after seven years and beyond the country may not contain the health and environmental problems that might follow.
At all times, we need to desist from making decisions or rubber stamping decisions because we may not be directly affected by consequences of the decision; but let us make decisions that embraces the principle of intergenerational solidarity and the teaching of God that says love your neighbour as you love yourself.
When things seem to be open, another blur comes in especially with the Kayelekera Uranium mining. Our hope is that a day will come when everything will be put into light and be saved from a public shame of not knowing the very things that are happening within the borders of a country we claim we belong to. How I wish that time began today!