The Dark Side of Mining: Foreign mining corporations aiding environmental destruction


Most mining communities in the Southern African region and the African continent at large are characterised by poor environmental and social conditions, according to research.

A number of African countries depend on extracting resources for revenue and export earnings. While mining is the cornerstone of many African economies, the industry has a dark side across the continent.

In one of his writings author Michael McCarthy once wrote “It was long shrouded in mystery, called ‘the Dark Continent’ by Europeans in awe of its massive size and impenetrable depths. Then its wondrous natural riches were revealed to the world. Now a third image of Africa and its environment is being laid before us one of destruction on a vast and disturbing scale.”

There is growing concern about the extent to which foreign mining corporations have an obligation to the development of local communities and their environment particularly in African countries with weak regulatory frameworks and enforcement capabilities.

Mining has often been associated with deforestation, land degradation, air pollution, and disruption of the ecosystem.

Mining companies in Africa are so used to operate in secret and keep local communities in the dark about their activities.

Most mining contracts in Africa were negotiated in the 1980s and 1990s when low world mineral prices and high political risks discouraged foreign investments in the continent’s mining sector, once observed Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana

These companies have caused massive siltation of the local dams, therefore depriving local people of water for their livestock, farming, domestic and other uses.

Mining activities by foreign companies have raked in millions, but communities living in the areas where these activities are taking place have not benefited.

The extraction of water leads to a reduction of ground water table and desertification.

“A lot of companies don’t simply comply with the law. We know of 84 mining firms in South Africa that operate without water usage licenses. This means that it is impossible to know how much water they use and what they discard,” said Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) in South Africa, at a mining indaba held in that country last year.

According to the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), granite mining in Mutoko in Mashonaland East Province, has caused great environmental degradation.

The miners blast mountains to extract the granite rocks and leave huge pits that result in deaths of people and livestock, ZELA said in its report for 2013.

“Furthermore, the haulage trucks that carry granite from Mutoko to Harare leave behind dust and make noise, while the blasting causes vibrations that have been reported to be causing houses and school buildings to crack, especially those along the road,” reads the ZELA report.

Also in 2013, the Environmental Management Agency of Zimbabwe (EMAZ) reported that most of the companies working in the country were not complying with the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessments as prescribed by law.

“Cultural sites like graves and sacred places have not been spared. The miners reportedly blast sacred mountains where traditional rituals used to be practiced by the local population. 

There are also cases of families being relocated, losing their pastures and agricultural land to mining operations,” said the EMAZ report.

In a research by Bench Marks Foundation, it concluded that mining communities throughout the SADC region are characterised by poor environmental as well as social conditions.

 Sound eco-systems in most mining environments are seriously threatened by mining houses’ poor management of the environment.

The foreign corporations have their eyes fixed only on maximising profits and pay little attention on ensuring safety when investing in infrastructure.

In Africa, mining contracts are confidential and most people are unaware of the exact terms and conditions under which these foreign companies operate.

In many cases in African countries, it has been noted that information about the companies’ environmental management, assessments and policies is not readily available in the public domain.

This makes it a complex issue for local communities and other stakeholders to hold the mining companies accountable and monitor their activities as they are only made to government institutions.

South African opposition leader and businesswoman, Mamphela Ramphele, revealed that some of South Africa’s mineral-rich areas are home to the country’s most vulnerable communities.

“As a general rule, large-scale mining is an enclave activity that operates on a national level and is detached from the local level. As a result, it often marginalises local communities,” she said while addressing the mining indaba in South Africa.

“Mineral resources have the potential for social and economic development of African countries. However, the main beneficiaries of the vast mineral resources of the continent have been private corporations and economies other than Africa, while the cost is externalised to local communities and the environment,” said one of the participants making a presentation at the 13th Annual Strategy Meeting of The African Initiative On Mining, Environment And Society held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2011.

The environment is a vital component of Africa’s quest to achieve sustainable development.

Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, states that “all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development”.

African nations have recognised that the right so protected must contribute to the promotion of socio- economic development in the region.

 For example, Section 73 of the Zimbabwean Constitution not only provides that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well- being’, but also, “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable and other measures that … secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development”.

Marion Cheatle, former chief of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Early Warning Branch, once noted that it was for African governments themselves to address the problem

“In many places you have a problem of policies being enforced. Not that policies and legislative instruments [to protect the African environment] are not in place, but very often they're only on paper, and they don't have the management to follow what really should be in place,” said Cheatle

Lolwane Matonga, a Malawian national, with an interest on environment issues warned that: “The new wave of economic exploitation of rich African resources is through neo-colonialism with its language of globalisation, foreign investment, private sector development and liberalisation. Governments should therefore be very careful of the way they negotiate these mining agreements and other foreign investment initiatives. They should avoid negotiating out of desperation as if minerals are going to run away.”

Africa is a continent that is endowed with rich resources especially valuable minerals. The continent carries about 30 percent of the world’s total mineral reserves and an even a higher share of deposits of diamonds, vanadium, manganese, platinum, cobalt and gold.

The SADC region is one of the world’s most mineral-rich regions. Mining and its associated industries currently form the cornerstone of economies in most southern African countries.

According to Bench Marks Foundation, the unique characteristics of the mining environment in the SADC are that mining communities are mainly isolated, originally rural with high illiteracy rates and very dependent on the mining companies for their livelihood and development.

The rural environment often becomes barren and is associated with ugly landscapes caused by large-scale excavations. In addition, communities are often exposed to toxic environmental hazards from mining operations. 

Most African countries have not updated the regulations and procedures that govern the environmental accountability in the mining sector for a long time.

For instance, mineral activities in Malawi are covered by the Mines and Minerals Act, 1981, the Mines and Minerals (Mineral Rights) Regulations, 1981 and the Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act of 1983.

Bench Marks Foundation also discovered that in Malawi, mining and environmental legislation requires consultation with communities, but does not require agreement with or even consideration of the opinions, fears or wishes of such communities.

African communities are completely disempowered and marginalised when it comes to mining.

Mining corporations are not held accountable for many of the costs that their operations inflicted on society especially land destruction. Those costs are borne by the government and by tax payers.

According to the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) the mines in Zambia are mostly working with sulphide copper. 

 As a result of the mining process there is a lot of air pollution in the form of sulphur dioxide which consequently also leads to acid rain.

 There are many areas in Zambia where vegetation has stopped growing as a result of the pollution.  People also complain of respiratory and other health problems that are caused by the pollution. 

Experts agree that land degradation causes huge losses to the economies of some countries as well as escalating poverty for the majority of southern Africa’s population through declining agricultural production, a loss of food security, mass migrations, rapid urbanisation and an increased need for governments to import food.

Pressure must be put on these multinationals to ensure socially and environmentally sound investment because a clean environment is the foundation of a healthy society.

Africa should benefit from transparent, accountable mining operations so as to inspire African governments to improve their records as environmental custodians.

The continent through its Africa Mining Vision (AMV) which was adopted by the African Union in 2008 has an ultimate goal of using Africa’s mining potential to meet the Millennium Development Goals by achieving rapid and inclusive socio-economic development.

February 2014
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