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Mining practice and promises: The case of Malawi

On Tuesday, the Human Rights Watch released a report on mining and human rights in Malawi. We republish a section of the report

Global industry standards have evolved to recognize that unless mine operators exercise caution and vigilance, it is likely that mining will harm surrounding communities. In Malawi and globally, there is evidence that without effective government regulation, not all companies behave responsibly.

Even companies that make serious efforts to do so often fall short without proper government oversight. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide basic steps companies should take to respect human rights, including conducting due diligence to avoid causing or contributing to human rights abuses through their operations; avoiding complicity in abuses; and taking steps to mitigate them if they occur.

Several extractive companies have come to Karonga district in the past 10 years seeking to exploit natural resources, particularly uranium and coal. Communities do not often have prior knowledge of proposed mining operations since consultation is either insufficient or nonexistent. This is especially worrying as mining operations have had a major impact on the daily functioning of these communities, often complicating access to water, health, cropland, and food, and forcing relocations of community members.

At the same time, companies operating in the district, including Paladin Africa Limited (Paladin), Eland Coal Mining Company, and Malcoal, have largely failed to deliver on promises to build schools, health centers or clinics, and boreholes, and to create employment opportunities for community members.

None of the communities in Karonga or civil society organizations interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated they opposed, in principle, exploration or mining activities on their lands. However, community members repeatedly stressed inadequate information about mining-related health risks; inadequate participation in decision-making about the relocation process; a lack of proper notification before resettlement; inadequate compensation for losses from mining; a lack of government oversight to help mitigate current and future risks to health, water, food security, land and livelihoods; and a lack of awareness of their rights or companies’ responsibilities under national laws and international standards.

For example, in the coal and uranium mining areas in Karonga district that Human Rights Watch visited, residents said that they face health and livelihood risks due to the mining and suffer from increasing rates of illnesses that could be mining-related.

Some complained that trucks pass along narrow village roads, coating homes and local schoolhouses in dust, and worried about the potential for serious respiratory diseases and other health impacts that scientific studies have associated with exposure to mining related pollution.

Several villagers also claimed that mining had destroyed water pipes or contaminated other water sources such as boreholes they depend on for drinking and irrigation.

Farmers complained that dust in the air, coal on the road, and poor water quality impacted their crops and decreased the harvest of their fields, threatening economic ruin.

Mining in Karonga district has also resulted in some families being resettled, often without adequate warning, decent resettlement conditions, or compensation.

In some cases, the harm that communities have suffered due to nearby mining operations is reported by the media or documented in studies conducted by international and civil society organizations.

But in many other instances, the data simply does not exist to confirm or refute alleged negative impacts or their links to mining operations. Some community activists may wrongly attribute health or environmental problems to nearby mining operations. Others may fail to perceive a link that does in fact exist.

The lack of healthcare infrastructure in these communities makes monitoring and addressing the health impacts of mining operations nearly impossible. This uncertainty is part of the problem. Government regulators repeatedly fail to determine whether companies are complying with their legal responsibilities, or whether they are causing harm to nearby communities. Out of three companies featured in this report and contacted by Human Rights Watch, only one company, Paladin, said that they are monitoring the environmental impact of their mining activities in Malawi and are sharing these reports with the government. But they have never published their results, leaving communities unable to properly assess the risks associated with mining or mitigate the impacts that it can have on livelihoods.

None of the companies contacted made any monitoring results available to Human Rights Watch.

Impact on women

Human Rights Watch found that when mining has negative consequences for communities, women are disproportionately impacted. Malawi’s Constitution and policies recognize women’s right to full and equal protection in the law as well as their right to non-discrimination on the basis of their gender or marital status. However, in practice, their rights are largely curtailed by socio-cultural gender norms and patriarchal beliefs and attitudes.

It has often been particularly difficult for women to access information about mining and its risks— important to them as family caregivers—because their participation in meetings with companies or the government was limited. Women could be directly or indirectly excluded from such meetings.

For example, if and when meetings were called by companies or the government they were not typically announced ahead of time, and women would often be busy working on their fields or at home at the time of such meetings. As a result of the short notice, they would not have the time to make the necessary arrangements to be able to attend.

Even when women were present, they were sometimes unable to engage due to gender norms that restrict women participation in public gatherings or because of language issues. That is, meetings were sometimes conducted in English or Chichewa, which rural women in Karonga district typically do not speak.

In Malawi, women, both young and old, are often the primary caregivers at home and are also largely responsible for growing crops on the fields that feed the family. Therefore, when mining and climate change impacted crop productivity and contributed to food shortages, women have had to work long hours to make up for the shortfall and sustain the family.

Also, concerns about water pollution compelled many women and girls to walk longer distances to fetch water from what they believed was a less contaminated source, further away from the mines. This exposed them to dangers and left them with less time to attend school, earn money, and rest.

The communities in Karonga district follow largely patrilineal systems of land inheritance, and men tend to have more decision-making power concerning land transfers. As a result, women have little say in how compensation is spent.

Government role

Many human rights abuses described in this report result from the government’s failure to effectively monitor, let alone systematically address, the impacts of mining operations. International and regional human rights law obliges Malawi’s government to protect the rights of its citizens from potential harmful impacts of mining operations and to ensure that communities have access to information about these impacts and risks before, during, and after operations. Malawi’s current regulatory framework for mining and the environment is outdated.

The laws were passed long before current mining operations started and afford communities little protection from environmental pollution and harmful social impacts.

While impact assessments should be mandatory for all projects that potentially affect the environment and community health, Malawi’s regulatory framework regarding Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for mining operations remains unclear and incomplete as it does not require the assessments of social impacts.

Malawi’s mining law also provides little guidance with regard to environmental impacts of mining, leaving the scope and cycle of environmental monitoring at the discretion of government officials. It also largely fails to make information about mining and related risks available and accessible to affected communities.

Land laws establish a variety of forms of land tenure and set out standards for land transfers or compulsory acquisitions. However, there is no national resettlement policy, and, in practice, land rights for individuals and communities near mining sites are highly insecure.

The draft MM Bill the government is developing does not address the core problem described in this report: access to adequate information. Quite the contrary, one of its major weaknesses is a broad confidentiality provision that would essentially prevent communities from accessing information about the risks related to mining. This is happening at a time when Malawi has just joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—a global network aimed at improving transparency in mining governance— as a candidate country and is preparing and negotiating an ATI Bill.

Even though the draft ATI Bill from November 2015 appeared to be acceptable to most relevant stakeholders, the government revised the bill again in February 2016. Unlike the 2015 draft, the revised bill does not provide for the establishment of an independent oversight body; it limits the principle of maximum disclosure to documents created after the adoption of the law; and it gives the minister of information the power to determine “fees payable for processing requests for information,” which can discourage poor people from requesting information.

The government should dramatically improve the process for considering mining project proposals to ensure that it assesses and addresses possible environmental and social impacts in a comprehensive and credible manner. This means mandating a greater and more explicit focus on environmental risks and human rights in the licensing and monitoring process in the proposed Mines and Minerals bill.

Implementation will also require adequate numbers and capacity of regulators so new proposals can be evaluated properly, including through site visits wherever appropriate. The government should also ensure that communities are properly informed about the potential benefits and risks of mining and are involved in developing mitigation strategies to address any adverse impacts.

Moreover, the government should require compensation for loss of land and other resources and ensure that effective and accessible grievance mechanisms provide redress to those who suffer harm.

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