Concern about Australian uranium miner in Malawi

Friday, November 24, 2006

The role of mining companies overseas is often shrouded in secrecy. Residents of my country Malawi, in the "warm heart" of Africa, are learning first hand about Australian mining companies as four of them are currently exploring for uranium.

Paladin Resources, the most advanced, released a draft environmental impact assessment for the Kayelekera uranium deposit in northern Malawi on October 6, and is finalising its feasibility study. (Paladin also wants to mine uranium near Mt Isa in Queensland.) But concern is growing over the likely impact of Paladin's operations and with irregularities in the community consultation processes and approvals.

The Kayelekera mine is located in the catchment area of a river that flows directly into Lake Malawi, one of the most pristine freshwater bodies remaining in the world and a vital source of food for the Malawian people. Other Australian exploration licenses overlap with the Nyika and Majete National Parks.

There is little capacity in Malawi to address the complex environmental and public health risks associated with uranium mining, but these need to be addressed before any mine proceeds. Citizens for Justice, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, the Uraha Foundation, the Karonga Development Trust, the Foundation for Community Support Services and communities in Malawi want Australian mining companies to abide by the same standards in Malawi as they do in Australia.

But this is obviously not what Paladin's directors have in mind. The Melbourne Herald Sun of April 3 quoted John Borshoff, Paladin's managing director, as saying: "There has been an over compensation in terms of thinking about environmental and social issues in regard to uranium operations in Australia, forcing companies like Paladin into Africa".

Paladin needs to consult with communities in a transparent and accountable manner, yet it is refusing to sign a legal and binding agreement with them. Even while Paladin is finalising its feasibility study, construction of the mine is underway, destroying shrines and angering the locals. We are concerned about adverse social impacts, which have accompanied mining elsewhere, such as an increase in alcoholism, domestic violence and other health problems, including HIV. We also believe that displacing families breaches UN human rights commitments.

Paladin's waste management plan is also of concern. The mine is next to a stream that runs into a major river that provides domestic water and drains into Lake Malawi, Africa's largest lake. The gradual leaching of radioactive tailings waste and the potential impact of floods will destroy our precious water resources.

Paladin Resources talks about corporate social responsibility, but has refused to provide "scoping documents", which, under Malawian environmental law, are supposed to ensure that the community can identify and address key concerns at an early stage.

Paladin is also undermining local decision making by effectively putting local village chiefs on the company payroll, and promising communities new school blocks, roads, internet, an airport and clean water. Paladin has also committed to a new hospital, but only to serve mine staff not the local community.

Paladin's use of water and electricity are also contentious. Its lawyers have drafted a state agreement act that allows it rights to water and electricity that override Malawian's existing rights, and indemnifies the company from compensation for any losses.

We believe this is contrary to the Malawian constitution: water is a scarce resource. Most people do not have access to clean water, and the government does not have programs to make water from the lake available to rural areas. Most Malawians experience acute shortages of electricity, generated by hydroelectric schemes, as droughts are already forcing power rationing to many residential areas. This will worsen when Paladin starts using these much needed resources.

Citizens For Justice (CFJ) would like to collaborate with Australian activists and organisations to ensure that companies such as Paladin are forced to meet social and environmental standards, both in Malawi and in Australia.

[Reinford Mwangonde is the executive director of Citizens For Justice (CFJ), Malawi.]

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