Bleeding the Community Lack of citizen participation and engagement dogs mining sector
Balaka ‑Twenty-seven years ago, Florence Kamvantope was just another young and innocent Standard Five pupil weighed down by Malawi’s socially embedded tradition and culture that demands respect for elders and unquestionable submission to authority.
One fine morning, after dismissing from school, Kamvantope rushed back home with friends and siblings where she looked forward to a hearty meal and some freedom away from the commandeering presence and influence of her school teachers.
When she got home, her grandfather was busy attending to some smartly tailor-clothed men, whom she absent-mindedly assumed to be upper-class urbanites, a rare breed in her homestead of Kanyumbaaka village in Balaka District’s Traditional Authority, Nsamala.
Immediately after this encounter, construction activities begun on a piece of land that used to be part of a large portion of land that her grandfather owned. Eventually, a factory was erected, which was followed by a curtain of a brick fence closing and separating the worlds of the Kamvantope’s from that of the factory.
Now at 38 years of age, Kamvantope has realised that the neatly dressed urban men in her youth and formative years had come to negotiate for the piece of land to establish a cement factory, which still stands to this day.
“One thing I am certain about is that these people got the land without paying any compensation to my grandfather who had nine children then,” said Kamvantope in an interview recently.
She says apart from the nine offspring, the family has a growing population of lineal descendants, who depend on the remaining piece of land for their livelihood.
“To make matters worse, when the factory was opened, the cement company brought in safe piped water which we used for a short while but do not have the chance now after the wall was erected around the industrial plant,” the Form Two school drop-out says.
“Despite getting the land for free and profiteering from it, the company has not provided our community with any social amenities, let alone a school or a hospital,” said Kamvantope.
Away from Kamvantope’s village, another company recently stealthily went to a subject of Group village headman Chanthunya in the same district where it bought a piece of land at an undisclosed amount to start a lime soil extraction factory.
“Nobody in the village, apart from the owner of the land, knows about the transaction to sell the piece of land,” said Chanthunya, adding that the community, which will be impacted by the initiative, does not know what it stands to benefit from the natural resource extractive venture.
These and many other similar stories represent the cloud and fog of secrecy that companies in the extractive industry have for many years held not only in Balaka District, which is said to possess immeasurable amounts of monazite, limestone, podzolana, gemstones, quarry stones and an unquantifiable amount of gold deposits but also across the country where over 100 companies are discovering mineral deposits such as bauxite, uranium, coal, phosphate, corundum, titanium, pyrite and rare earths.
Currently, mining contributes 10 percent to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is expected to surpass the 30-percent agricultural contribution, according to the country’s Mines and Mineral Policy of 2013.
Qadria Muslim Association of Malawi (QMAM) Executive Director, Saiti Jambo, says the potential for discovery of other metallic minerals and high-value minerals such as gold platinum group minerals and diamonds has triggered an influx of local and foreign companies wanting to explore and extract mineral deposits in Malawi.
“But while the sector can bring export earnings and employment opportunities, the country’s legal, institutional and policy frameworks are poor resulting in lack of accountability, transparency and responsiveness, a situation that undermines the sector’s potential benefits,” he says.
Balaka District QMAM Project Officer, Biswas Ishmael, concurs with his boss saying low community involvement in mineral exploration, commissioning, operation and decommissioning have left communities subject to unwarranted displacement and environmental degradation.
Ishmael observes that another problem that is currently dogging the sector is lack of government representation at district level.
“Mining agreements are only made at presidential and ministerial levels without district councils being aware of them,” he says, adding that critical government ministries and departments such as the Department of Mining and that of Environmental Affairs are not represented at district level to ensure that the objectivity and authenticity of Environmental Impact Assessments done by prospecting companies are not questionable.
“The absence of decentralised functions of critical mineral units is a bottleneck to effective service delivery and leads to challenges such as labour abuse, environmental degradation, land displacement with inadequate or no compensation to affected communities as well as laying a fertile ground for tax evasion.”
Balaka District Council Estate Management Assistant, Davie Ziyadi, says the council is handicapped to handle some disputes involving mineral companies and communities because it does not have qualified personnel to handle such issues since powers and functions are held in Lilongwe, the country’s capital city with the president and cabinet pulling the strings without adequate consultation with ground level stakeholders.
“We receive mining complaints from villagers but we are tied because of the information gap that exists between the council and the ministries and line departments as well as between the council and the communities and the investors,” says Ziyadi, calling for the creation of a solid knowledge base for future interventions and innovations.
But during a capacity-building exercise for communities in mining sites in Balaka District organised by QMAM, Kamvantope said as a grown-up she does not want to open old wounds with the company that grabbed part of their ancestral land without compensation but would prefer the company to provide her community with necessary social amenities. Meanwhile, other stakeholders ‑ who included chiefs and religious leaders ‑ have called for a roundtable discussion with mining investors in the district to get clarity on various issues, including explanation on what corporate social responsibilities the mining companies are going to offer the communities in whose areas they are extracting natural resources and causing environmental damage.
Jambo, the QMAM Executive Director, has since assured the community members that it will facilitate the meeting with the investors and government officials.
QMAM is part of the five-member consortium spearheaded by the Norwegian Church Aid under the Tilitonse Fund project, which aims at contributing to a transparent, accountable, and responsive mining regime that benefits Malawians by ensuring that there is improved citizen participation and positive engagement between civil society organisations, citizens, investors and government.
“At the end of the project, we envisage that the consortium is proposing to enact a mining law that is beneficial to the mining investors, the government and the communities where there are mining activities,” says Jambo.
Jambo says the consortium will ensure stakeholder inclusion and responsiveness in environmental protection, transparency, employee welfare, displacement compensation and respect for human rights in 12 targeted districts of Mangochi, Balaka, Chikhwawa, Mwanza, Mulanje, Lilongwe, Dowa, Ntcheu, Mzimba, Rumphi, Karonga and Chitipa.