The Human Rights Watch, the Malawi’s Natural Resources Justice Network and the Centre for Law and Democracy have asked President Peter Mutharika to assent to Access to Information Bill to help communities affected by the extractive industries get information about environmental, health, and safety risks.
This comes after the Human Rights Watch documented that families living near coal and uranium mining operations face serious problems with water, food, and housing, and that the families in the area have been left in the dark about health and other risks from nearby mining operations.
Human Rights Watch researcher, Katharina Rall, said the new law means that people in mining communities should be able to get vital information they need to protect their lives and livelihoods.
“The president should sign the law, and the government should act quickly to put it into effect to protect mining communities,” she said.
Residents and non-governmental organisations said that they could not get sufficient information about planned mining operations and any associated risks, fueling concerns about serious respiratory diseases, and other health and environmental impacts.
Capital Hill told Human Rights Watch that it monitors the impact of mining but that it does not release the results to affected communities.
“Mining communities, we work with, applaud parliamentarians for passing the Access to Information Bill, which could also help push the government to release information about the oil and gas exploration around Lake Malawi,” said Kossam Munthali, Chairman of the Natural Resources Justice Network.
“Without information on the government’s position, civil society groups are unable to assess the potential risk that oil exploration poses to the lake and land or to engage on this issue.”
Since 2011, Malawi has awarded six petroleum exploration licenses, three of which cover the lake.
Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale expressed concerns over irregularities in the licensing and contracting process. Malawian non-governmental organisations have repeatedly asked the government for information about the status of the exploration and contracts but have not received a response.
Rall said in November, the Natural Resources Justice Network and Publish What You Pay Malawi—which represent the overwhelming majority of civil society organisations working on the extractives in Malawi—wrote to the Unesco’s World Heritage Committee asking it to press the Malawi government to provide information to the public about the planned oil exploration in Lake Malawi National Park.
The World Heritage Committee notified Capital Hill that it should comply with its obligation to submit its overdue progress report to Unesco, that should include this information, by February 1, 2017.
Human rights activists say the provisions of the new information bill, if adequately implemented, could ensure that Malawians would be able to request and obtain the information they need from all government authorities as guaranteed by the Constitution.
An analysis by the Centre for Law and Democracy from February 2016 using the RTI Rating, a comparative tool for assessing the strength of right to information legislation found that, if passed, the law would be the 15th strongest in the world.
The bill states that the information law will prevail in cases of conflict with other legislation, preventing the government from citing other laws that prohibit disclosure of information, such as any current or future mining-related legislation.
Parliament adopted the bill with amendments on December 14, 2016 and it was sent to Mutharika the week of January 16, 2017. It will enter into force once signed by the president and published in the official Gazette.