National

Government, village tussle over land

NDANGA— It is a clear example of why we advocate access to
information

There is fear, tension and confusion in Group Village Head Manesi Kapeni in Lunzu, Blantyre, amid plans by the government to, through a Chinese company, start mining quarry stones in the area. The government says the quarry stones would be used for constructing Blantyre bypass road in another area in the district but members of the community are suspicious. They fear precious stones are at stake in the area and reports that they would be relocated have heightened the tension. STEVIE CHAULUKA, in this Friday Shaker, delves deeper into the wrangle that, over and above mining and relocation, hinges on access to information, transparency and accountability.

Some 30 households from two villages accuse the government of planning to relocate them to an unknown destination.

One of the concerned people in Group Village Head Manesi Kapeni’s area, Clement Jere, said it is surprising that some China nationals from the company reportedly constructing the road are coming to the village to ask them to leave and pave the way for mining activities.

“We are just hearing that we have to relocate but we have no idea about where we are going. We first got information from the DC [District Commissioner]’s office on July 11 2019. Now we are also hearing that they will start actual mining on September 10 [2019], meaning that we have to leave as soon as possible,” Jere said.

Another concerned member of the community, China Manja said he felt betrayed by the government, which also relocated them from Soche to the current site in 1958.

“We were relocated to this village because there was a project in Soche at a place where our village was and now they also want us to move to another area. We are hearing that they will move us to Neno District. Why is it always us? Is this the only place they can get quarry stones from?” he said.

The people accuse their chiefs, including Senior Chief Kapeni, of conniving with the authorities to sell their land to the Chinese.

Senior Chief Kapeni declined to comment on the matter, referred us to Blantyre DC Bennett Nkasala.

Nkasala yesterday said that he could not comment on the matter unless the concerned people came forward to attend a meeting after his office summoned them on the matter.

However, Nkasala wrote the Concerned Citizens on August 13 2019—and copied the letter to Senior Chief Kapeni, Group Village Head Manesi Kapeni and Member of Parliament for Blantyre North East Constituency—accusing members of the community of shunning a meeting his office summoned to address the issue.

Among other things, the letter says the hill that was identified for quarry mining is public land and no individual has authority to decide otherwise.

It also says “all the people and houses that will be affected by the quarry mining process have been assessed and discussions have been made for the people to be compensated accordingly by the Malawi government through the contractor to do the road project”.

The let ter also advises the concerned people that the government, through the contractor, would proceed with mining works.

“It is [the] expectation that no individual will bring in funny issues and excuses to derail implementation of the bypass road project,” the letter reads.

Nkasala wrote to the concerned people assures the concerned parties that environmental and social impact assessment was conducted.

“On the issue of dust/noise pollution that you fear might rise due to the mining and drilling at the quarry site, I would like to assure you that due diligence has been undertaken to address all these through Environmental and Social Impact Assessment that has been done by the contractor. Enforcement of the assessment findings will be adequately handled by relevant government agencies entrusted with this responsibility,” the letter reads.

But the people are adamant, saying they would not leave the village.

They further accuse the government of violating their rights.

“As the situation stands, we don’t know our future in our own country.

We have children who have no other place to go. They grew up knowing that this is their village. We are not even doing our farm work now for fear of labouring in vain. [The] government is expecting us to relocate between this month and September 10, how is that possible?

How can the government do this to its own people? I do not understand this,” said Joyce Magwa of the area.

Chinese firm, China Civil Engineering Construction Company, is constructing the road.

Lunzu Ward Councillor, Margret Mitola, said she was officially told of the project on Wednesday by Senior Chief Kapeni.

“All along, I was just hearing rumours until yesterday when the Senior Chief told me about a meeting that will be held in the area of Group Village Head Manesi Kapeni on Friday [today]. I also got a call from an official from the office of the DC informing me about the same meeting that, I am told, will bring together all concerned parties,” she said.

Meanwhile, the concerned people have also engaged the Institute of Sustainable Development to help them in the matter.

The organisation’s executive director, Godfrey Mfiti, said they had been asking for an audience with all parties involved but were yet to get feedback.

Among other things, Mfiti said their preliminary investigations into the matter show that Blantyre DC’s office and other stakeholders in the matter did not conduct community sensitisation meetings to address the people on the matter.

“It is unfortunate that in such a project, where local leaders such as chiefs are supposed to be informed, chiefs in the area were not informed. They are all professing ignorance on the matter so we don’t expect them to communicate anything to their subjects. In such projects, community members have what we call ‘a right to free-prior-informed-consent’ as enshrined in the United Nations Charter on human rights. This was not done as well. There are a number of issues to look into in this case,” Mfiti said.

Mfiti said members of the community were, based on geo-physical mapping exercise which they witnessed, suspicious of the Chinese contractor, as they believe that the area has precious stones.

Mfiti faulted the authorities for being secretive. Mfiti, on the other hand, said there are questions to be answered as to whether there was a geophysical survey and the environmental and social impact assessment.

Mfiti said, if the mining were not about quarry as the concerned people suspect, there was also need for the people and the contractor to sign a production-sharing agreement so that they could benefit from the activity.

Food and Agriculture Organisation indicates on its website that “free, prior and informed consent is a specific right that pertains to indigenous peoples and is recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It allows them to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territories. Once they have given their consent, they can withdraw it at any stage. Furthermore, FPIC enables them to negotiate the conditions under which the project will be designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated. This is also embedded within the universal right to self-determination”.

Village Head Wadi agreed that he was not aware of the quarry mining project that would also affect his village.

Transport and Public Works Minister, Ralph Jooma, Thursday said it was impossible for the government to arrive at a compensation package for the people affected by the project before sensitising them to issues such as relocation.

“I am aware that there would be compensation money which the government has given the contractor so that they can compensate the people,” Jooma said.

Despite that Blantyre DC is at the centre of the wrangle, Local Government Ministry officials refused to comment on the matter. They referred The Daily Times to Blantyre City Council.

The council’s public relations manager, Anthony Kasunda, said they were not aware of the tension in Manesi area, saying National Roads Authority was in charge of the bypass project.

On lack of flow of information in Kapeni area, Media Institute of Southern Africa-Malawi Chairperson, Tereza Ndanga, said the wrangle proves that it is important for public officers to be transparent to members of the communities.

“It is a clear example of why we advocate access to information.

“Public officials are encouraged to provide the public with information. If that did not happen in this project, it explains why there is suspicion even when the issue at hand might be straight-forward. ATI [Access to Information] is not only in ATI Act but also in the Local Government Act which encourages district and city council officials to develop a culture of providing information to the public,” Ndanga said.

Sadly, the government is yet to operationalise ATI despite that Parliament passed the ATI in December 2016 and President Peter Mutharika assented to the law in February last year.

And unless that happens, some development projects that concern sensitive industries such as that of mining might be affected.

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