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ECONOMY-MALAWI: Uranium Mining Sparks Controversy

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - Malawi will have its first-ever modern mining project located in the northern town of Kayelekera in Karonga by early next year if plans by an Australian mining company, Paladin (Africa) Limited, are successful. In April this year, the Malawi government granted the mining company a licence to exploit up to 34,5 million tons of uranium.

One would have taken it for granted that there would be immense enthusiasm over the introduction of this mining project in a country where the economy has over the years been solely dependent on agriculture.

This is especially so since the mining company has promised that the project will generate an annual income of over 100 million US dollars, which is about five percent of Malawi’s annual gross domestic product and 20 percent of the country’s total export income.

The revenue for the uranium is projected to exceed tobacco’s annual proceeds of 19 million US dollars. Tobacco is currently Malawi’s main foreign exchange earner.

The uranium project also promises to transform the under-developed Kayelekera into a prosperous town and create jobs for 800 people during the construction phase and 280 people during the operational phase.

It also promises to indirectly support more than 1,000 additional jobs, build a modern primary school, a secondary school and a health facility near the project area.

However, controversy has been dogging the project since its hatching stages with fears from the public that the mining of uranium poses serious health hazards, such as cancer and disability in infants due to radiation.

A warning signal was first sent by a 2006 paper published by researcher Martin Mkandawire. He argues that scientific evidence shows that uranium mining is implicated in most cancers, especially those of the lung, blood and bone and that it also leads to disability in infants.

In the paper, titled ‘‘The Kayelekera uranium mining activity: Economic benefit and environmental dangers’’, Mkandawire argues that the project will lead to the loss of social goods which do not have market value, such as human health in the surrounding community.

‘‘As someone who has been conducting research on uranium deposits, mining and cleaning of uranium sites for more than ten years now, I would caution government, the politicians and all Malawians to weigh carefully the pros and cons of the project,’’ states Mkandawire.

Then came an environmental impact assessment (EIA), also conducted last year by an international consulting firm, Knight Piesold Consulting. Among others, it indicated that the project could increase social problems in the Karonga area in the form of increased cases of HIV/AIDS due to the migration of sex workers to the area.

‘‘There will be an increase in the existing commercial sex industry and risks of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS,’’ says the EIA.

A group of six influential civil society organizations in Malawi said the company has neither complied with the Environmental Management Act nor with international uranium mining standards which underscore the importance of ensuring health and environmental protection for people.

These organisations were the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Focus on Karonga, Citizens for Justice, the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI), the Uraha Foundation and the Foundation for Community Services.

They have since obtained a court injunction stopping the project from proceeding. It is unlikely that the issue will be resolved soon since court processes in Malawi usually take a long time due to case backlogs.

CHRR executive director Undule Mwakasungura argues that local people are being taken for a ride as they were not given information on the dangers of the uranium project. Mwakasungura says that the mining project should be handled responsibly with adequate information being supplied by environmentalists and radiation experts.

A lawyer representing the organizations, Titus Mvalo, says uranium is radioactive and that with open-pit mining, like the one to be conducted at Kayelekera, the soil drains into rivers and contaminates the water. When humans drink the water, it damages kidneys and causes cancer.

In Malawi, according to the 2006 Human Development Report (HDR), up to 33 percent of the population of 12 million people do not have access to safe water. They depend on water from rivers and lakes. Mvalo says there is a need for measures that will mitigate the damage that could arise from radiation.

‘‘There are examples in Mexico and Ghana where people suffered irreparable damage to kidneys because of such mining,’’ Mvalo cautions.

The NGOs are demanding that legislation regulating radioactive materials is put in place and that government should invite comments from the public. They want the project to be redesigned following the input from the public and that government should make public the EIA report.

Furthermore, Paladin should enter into a separate legally binding agreement with the local community to ensure ‘‘meaningful’’ social investment and that the mining company should provide a guarantee to the public regarding their well-being, health and environmental conditions.

The controversy surrounding the uranium project also came up during parliamentary proceedings in March this year, when government described some of the contents of the agreement with Paladin as classified. The government refused to make it available after opposition parliamentarians demanded a copy of the agreement.

The chairperson of the parliamentary legal affairs committee, opposition member of parliament Atupele Muluzi, took the government on, saying it was important for people who would be affected by the project to have a copy of the agreement.

But Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe stressed that ‘‘certain details of the agreement have to be kept secret’’.

Minister of Energy and Mining Henry Chimunthu-Banda only reported that the Malawi government awarded Paladin a 15-year license over 55,5 square kilometres with a possibility to renew the license for another ten years.

Moreover, Paladin will only transfer a 15 percent stake in the uranium project to the Malawian government but get a corporate tax reduction from 30 percent to 27.5 percent. Paladin will also not pay a 10 percent resource rent tax.

Both the government and Paladin have defended the project and denied that uranium mining could pose health and environmental problems.

Chimunthu-Banda says that the Malawi government believes that Paladin has met all the requirements and that all environmental issues have been tackled in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s prescriptions.

‘‘We believe all necessary consultations have taken place. As government we have been shocked that some stakeholders are presenting this issue as if government did not want to take care of environmental issues,’’ says the minister.

An information brochure from the mining company says Paladin will ‘‘carefully’’ monitor the radiation which people at the mine will be exposed to and will ensure that levels are always as low as can be achieved reasonably.

‘‘People not working at the mine will receive far less than that level. Like the heat from a fire, the radiation level drops the further you move away from the source,’’ says the brochure.

Paladin also says that the radon gas, one of the natural decay products of uranium which is radio-active, will not harm people. The company admits that the gas can be carried by wind but insists that it quickly disperses after being released from the ground.

The country’s president Bingu wa Mutharika has since said that Malawi will in the next ten years be one of the largest producers of uranium in Africa. Another Australian-based company, Globe Uranium, has since been carrying out search activities since January 2006, also in the northern part of Malawi.

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