The age-old narrative that the extractive industry can significantly raise Malawi’s economic profile means nothing to communities surrounding mining activities that are stuck in abject poverty in the midst of huge wealth, WATIPASO MZUNGU writes.
On the border between Karonga District in Malawi and Mbeya District in Tanzania lies Songwe River, which cuts through the international boundary between the two countries.
The river, which flows southeast to empty into Lake Malawi, passes through Nambatata Hills in Mwanjabala Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwakaboko in Karonga and Umalila Hills in Mbeya in Tanzania.
And it is in Nambatata Hills, the locals assert, where massive coal mining activities have taken place over the past two decades albeit with the consultation and engagement of the communities surrounding the mine.
“The initial coal mining activities in this area started in 2001 by an unknown company. This unknown company mined coal until 2006 and during this period, they took away huge volumes of the coal on the pretext that they were samples,” explains 76-year-old Denis Japhet Kalambo.
Kalambo, a former Ward Councillor for the area, says they suspect that some officials at Capital Hill in Lilongwe had dubiously and fraudulently given the company a go-ahead to mine because the miners claimed they had documents from T/A Mwakaboko and officials at Karonga District Council.
Suspicious, the villagers mobilised themselves and sought an explanation from the council and this led to the seizure of truckloads of coal by the council, Kalambo recalls.
“The council reportedly instituted an inquest into the genesis of the mining activities, but they never returned to us with a report. Up to now, we don’t know what transpired later,” he narrates.
According to the social and development experts, mining offers the opportunity to catalyse broad-based economic development, reduce poverty and assist countries in meeting internationally agreed development goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when managed effectively and properly.
The sector has become a critical resource for healing and enhancing the economic growth and development of global economies.
Hence, mining companies are supposed to be leading partners of governments and states in achieving SDGs, which seek governments’ and states’ commitment to reduce inequalities and ensuring no one is left behind in the development agenda.
“Through their direct operations, mining companies can generate profits, employment and economic growth in low-income countries. And through partnerships with government and civil society, they can ensure that benefits of mining extend beyond the life of the mine itself, so that the mining industry has a positive impact on the natural environment, climate change, and social capital,” the UN says.
UN also states that mining companies committed to the SDGs will benefit from improved relationships with governments and communities and better access to financial resources; those that fail to engage meaningfully with the SDGs will put their operations at risk in the short and long term.
The Malawi Government equally recognizes mining as an important sector for enhancing the social and economic development of the country.
The Minerals and Mines Act of 2019 under Section 169 attempts to legislate Corporate Social Responsibility as Community Development Agreements (CDAs) to achieve adherence to sustainable development principles in order to benefit the economy of Malawi; protect and improve the welfare of the present and future citizens of Malawi; and provide an attractive and conducive environment for investment in the mining sector.
The Act further seeks to minimise or prevent economic declines related to decreased mining activity by creating through training and other means a foundation for the future, social economic empowerment, uplifting and development of local communities and regions affected by mining; and manage environmental impacts for the benefit of all present and future generations of Malawians.
However, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) Project Officer, Tuntufye Simwimba, notes that there are gaps subsisting where this is only mandatory to a holder of large-scale mining license.
“This leaves a tremendous gap, knowing that it is only Kayelekera Coal Mine that holds this license. This leaves small scale miners, despite that they equally affect the eco-system and often leave communities worse-off, unattended.
“There should thus be a deliberate policy and legislative process to effect this. Social Corporate Responsibility is supposed to be a ‘responsibility’ and not to be instituted as a result of merciful effort and goodwill of the miners,” Simwimba says.
CCJP further bemoans lack of popularisation of this Act and the Environmental Management Act.
The commission believes this disempowers the communities around the mining activities to engage soundly with mining companies.
The Mines and Minerals Act further states that a holder of a large-scale mining licence shall assist in the development of qualified communities affected by its operations to promote sustainable development, enhance the general welfare and the quality of life of the inhabitants and shall recognise and respect the rights, customs and traditions of local communities that are consistent with the Constitution.
Simwimba emphasises that this is critical for the realisation of the African Union Agenda 2063.
“The economic progress has the potential to evoke a truly profound positive impact upon the collective achievement of the SDGs. For some this is direct: more economic prosperity would mean better employment opportunities and increased financial stability on an individual level,” he states.
Simwimba says this also implies, however, an increased spending into crucial social needs such as healthcare, education and sustainable agriculture, which will not only have a knock-on effect upon the physical health and education level of citizens, but open up a whole new world of possibility for them.
But in spite of the 20 years of coal mining, the people of Mwakaboko continue to languish in poverty. The villages that surround Nambatata Hills are stuck in abject poverty.
They walk over dozens of kilometres to access essential services at Songwe Border or Karonga. There is no accessible road network in the area.
Furthermore, there are no secondary schools in the area, no hospitals and no phone network. Locals seek refuge from Tanzanian phone networks when they want to communicate with their relatives elsewhere.
Mwakaboko Area Development Committee chairperson, Edward Chitete, says these inequalities have fuelled suspicion among communities that authorities are probably colluding with mining companies to exploit natural resources at the expense of local communities who are usually promised compensations and incentives that rarely come by.
Chitete further states that the communities feel that the government is neglecting them for reasons not known to them.
“Government needs to address this inequality. Sometimes we tend to wonder whether we are Malawians or not because there is nothing we can show as evidence that our government thinks and/or cares about us,” he laments.
Chitete cites lack of awareness and civic empowerment to enable chiefs and community leaders to demand transparency and accountability from duty-bearers on the mining activities taking place in their areas.
CCJP National Coordinator Boniface Chibwana says it is against this background that the commission sourced K455 million funding from the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) to implement a project that aims at enhancing social accountability in local governance to reduce inequalities to achieve an inclusive Malawi.
Chibwana says the project, which targets 1, 500 people in T/As Mwakaboko and Wasambo, answers to the thematic demands of SDG 10, which calls for increased scale-up political commitment to address the rights of the vulnerable through poverty reduction and creation of equality across all fronts.
It also intends to popularise these legislative pieces in the impact areas, but there is a need for a large scale popularisation of the Act. Senior Chief Mwakaboko confirms the existence of illegal mining activities in his area, including Nambatata Hills, and condemns the miners and the responsible ministry for not working with communities on the project.
According to Mwakaboko, the mining companies have been taking advantage of people’s ignorance to exploit the natural resources without any consideration for the communities.
“It could be true that my late father, whom I succeeded, gave permission to the illegal miners, which is very unfortunate. But we have learnt very bitter lessons from other mining projects and we will never let that happen again in Karonga,” he vows.
On the other hand, Chibwana expresses optimism that the gazetting of the Access to Information Act will empower the communities to seek legislation.