Mining remains a critical component of the country’s socio-economic development. Through the sector, touted as a possible substitute for the troubled tobacco industry, jobs can be created and education revamped.
Taxes collected from mining firms can also significantly improve Malawi’s poor road network.
But what happens when the same mining is believed to be worsening poverty of the people around where it is taking place?
In Machinjiri’s Area 10, in Blantyre, some houses have developed cracks apparently due to a mining activity which Mota Engil is conducting nearby.
Donata Besten Mathowa is among those whose houses have been affected. The house is a death trap. It has cracks which would cost lives if they further zipped through the walls and brought the house down.
One of the walls actually collapsed, fortunately, no life was lost.
Mathowa and several other people in her area blame the cracks on their houses, threatening their lives, on quarry mining operations Mota- Engil is conducting in the area.
“By the time the house collapsed, we had already reported our concerns to Mota Engil. I went their again to say my house has fallen but they did not even bother to come and see the damage.
“I lost a lot of stuff in the accident but did not get any assistance. I have no choice but to sleep in this death trap. The cracks inside pose a great danger; the walls can fall on me or my children anytime,” Mathowa said.
Hertherwick Ntandika’s house, few metres from Mathowa’s, is not perhaps as extensively damaged.
The house has visible cracks both in and outside and Ntandika, too, blames everything on Mota Engil.
“For us to connect the blasts with the cracks you see, it happened that we were sitting here when a blast occurred and we immediately saw a crack there. We saw it happening,” he said, pointing at one of the cracks inside the house.
Ntandika said the affected people want compensation so that they can renovate their houses.
“The damages were not caused by natural disasters and we are not asking the Department of Disaster Management Affairs to help us using government resources. We constructed or bought the houses using our own money.
“The mine is important because government is getting money to develop the country but what does it mean to develop roads and destroy houses of people who are supposed to be using the roads?” he queried.
Joylet Malikebu was home when a blast from Mota Engil’s quarry mine erupted.
Malikebu said she saw window panes shaking and what followed was a terrifying crack on her house.
The issues have been in court since 2016 but there is no date for commencement of trial yet.
The claimants’ lawyer Wellingtone Kazembe said the case is at scheduling stage where parties discuss logistical arrangements of the matter but could not say when this will be done.
In the claim, there were two sets of claimants; the Area 10 ones and the ones at Laiti Village in the same area.
Kazembe said Mota Engil opted to settle the grievances of the people of Laiti Village, an offer the people accepted and the matter was resolved.
He, however, said the firm opted to go for litigation in the case of the Machinjiri grievances.
Mota Engil spokesperson Thomas Chafunya declined to say much on the issue, saying it would be prejudicial as the matter is still in court.
He said a team comprising Mota Engil, Blantyre District Commissioners’ Office and officials from the Department of Geological Survey assessed the situation at Laiti Village, agreed with the locals on their claims and came up with recommendations.
Chafunya, however, said Mota Engil could not do this with the people of Machinjiri because the matter is in court and that they will have to wait for the court’s determination on the matter.
Ministry of Mining spokesperson Sangwani Phiri also declined to comment much, saying the issue is in court.
“The matter is between the concerned people of Machinjiri and Mota Engil. Why it is taking long for the hearing to start? We also don’t know why. You can ask their lawyers or Registrar of the Judiciary,” Phiri said.
Ntandika, who is chairperson of the concerned group, said he has been knocking on many doors including Parliament for assistance, but there has been no response.
Chairperson of Parliamentary Committee on Environment Werani Chilenga confirmed receiving a letter from the people, saying the issue in question would be discussed by the committee when meetings resume on April 26.
“By the time we received the letter, committee meetings had been suspended due to the escalation of Covid-19 cases,” Chilenga said.
While this is the case, the Mining Policy of 2013, notes that mining can be associated with a number of social issues that need to be taken into consideration such as child labour, occupational health, HIV and Aids, gender issues and other social injustices.
The other injustices, according to the policy, include inadequate empowerment of local people, lack of articulated social responsibilities for mining companies and compensation and resettlement of land owners and communities affected by mining.
Chapter Six of the policy ends with a statement: Government will ensure that mining related social issues are adequately addressed.
But when will this happen?
During one of the scheduled State House briefings in Lilongwe, Presidential Press Secretary Brian Banda said President Lazarus Chakwera would tackle issues surrounding the mining industry in his next address.
Perhaps, the people of Machinjiri’s Area 10, will see light at the end of the struggle after Chakwera’s address.