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Malawi’s fast-fading hopes on coal

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CHILIPAPO—We are satisfied with such interventions

When Senior Group Village Head (GVH) Mbelewere of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwankhunikira in the Northern Region district of Rumphi heard that his area had coal deposits and that some mining companies were interested in them, he felt the pangs of poverty people in the area were trapped in loosening.

He now thinks otherwise.

Then, before the mining activities had commenced, Mbelewere thought of all the good things the mining companies could bring to the community through Corporate Social Responsibility where companies construct schools, health facilities and water points for the benefit of members of the community.

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The schools, health centres, water taps and boreholes came.

But coal business is dirty and dusty business.

Sooner than later, the dust from the mines began to prove a serious health hazard for the communities in the area.

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Apart from that, at Mchenga Coal Mine, for example, where mining activities could be traced back to 1997, the effects of the mining activities to the environment are there for all to see.

“The mining activities have damaged our land and everything including the road has been damaged. Things are not as they used to be. We are even worse now than before so we urge the government to stop this. We want all these mining activities to stop,” Mbelewere says.

But while Mbelewere complains of the dust which, he says, is placing the lives of his subjects at risk, Principal Group Village Head Chilipapo in the same area says he appreciates the support Mchenga Coal Mine brings to the people of his area.

“In this area, we have Jalawe, Chiweta and Mchenga coal mines, but out of these it is Mchenga Coal Mine which has been supporting various developmental initiatives in this area. It was difficult for them to do this at the start but now, they do support us in health, education and water and sanitation, so we are satisfied with such interventions,” Chilipapo says.

Chilipapo, however, has his own share of problems brought about by mining activities in his area.

He says apart from the dust, the heavy machinery the coal mining companies are using, have damaged part of the M1 Road which connects Karonga to Mzuzu—200 kilometres from one of the mines being operated by Mchenga.

According to Chilipapo, there are heavy cracks on the road which also puts the lives of motorists at risk.

However, this is the least of Chilipapo’s problems, atleast for now.

According to Chilipapo, lack of knowledge by rural communities on the laws that govern the mining sector in the country is one of the challenges.

“Most of us in rural areas do not know how these things work, because even the way these companies started operating here is problematic. For example in 1997, chiefs just received visitors who explained that they wanted to start mining operations at Mchenga. Looking at the benefits this area could accrue from such an enterprise, we thought we should give them the go ahead; a thing which is haunting us now because most of us, including our subjects, do not know how to hold them accountable as regards environmental conservation issues,” Chilipapo says.

Elsewhere in areas surrounding Jalawe Coal Mine in Rumphi District, members of the communities have little or nothing at all to smile about.

The people say the job opportunities brought about by the mining companies have made it possible for them to earn a living and pay school fees for their children apart from meeting other household needs.

“But despite the job opportunities for our men here, the activities have caused massive deforestation and created huge gullies in areas where the coal is being removed.

“This is causing many challenges to us as farming communities because the land we used to farm on is no longer conducive for such activities,” says Oliver Harawa, coordinator of women miners at Jalawe Coal Mine.

According to Harawa, there has been less commitment from the mining companies to conserve the environment or to replant trees where they were cut down to pave the way for the mining activities.

“There are times when companies change ownership without the knowledge of the members of the community, and when we try to engage the new owners on conservation of the environment, they will blatantly tell us that they are not the ones who made the gullies or indeed cut down the trees, only to have them cut trees and dig gullies in new places in search of coal. As a result, we are neither replanting any trees nor refilling the gullies with soil, a development which has displaced some Malawians in their own country” Harawa says.

Malawi consumes about 120,000 tonnes of coal per annum.

Most of the coal is used in the local cement manufacturing and steam generation industries, although recently, Malawi’s Electricity Generation Company announced plans to revive the use of coal to boost electricity generation in the country.

Experts say coal mining has helped a lot with import substitution.

MALUNGA—Malawi coal has less than 1 percent sulphur content

But on the fears of pollution, former minister of Energy and Mining, Grain Malunga, says pollution from coal is very minimal in Malawi.

“Malawi coal has less than 1 percent sulphur content so environmental pollution from the natural resource is very minimal. It also must be noted that local production of coal has saved about $12, 000,000 per annum,” Malunga says.

Mchenga and Jalawe coal mine officials refused to grant The Daily Times an interview on what they were doing to conserve the environment.

Natural Resources Justice Network Chairperson, Kossam Munthali, says mining companies take advantage of the government’s laxity on mining regulations to exploit the environment.

“The situation in these communities is just too bad. Apart from air pollution, most of the mining companies dig deep pits and leave without filling them up and they are now turning into death traps. All this is simply because the government is not serious,” Munthali says.

“We need to start being serious, as a country, if we are to stop the complete destruction of the environment and the pollution that is happening in these areas.”

While acknowledging the situation, Energy and Mining Ministry spokesperson, Sangwani Phiri, blamed communities for not taking an active role in ensuring that their environment is taken care of.

“Yes, the companies are culprits when it comes to pollution and environmental degradation, but you must know that they do that in selected areas where the members of the community are also involved in clearing huge parts of forest, so we must all take responsibility in taking care of our environment,” Phiri says.

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