Sunday, 23 October 2016

The industrial revolution in Northern Malawi

A stroll along the north west shores of Lake Malawi could almost persuade you that nothing here has changed for centuries.

In Karonga, the dugouts have been pulled up above the waterline, some weighted down with stones, for storms can blow up quite quickly. Fishermen mend their nets. Mothers bathe their children, do the washing and collect water, all from the same stretch of shoreline. Small fish dry on racks in the sun. Small children hold up their catch and the bamboo spears used to impale them. Small boys proudly brandish their homemade banana fibre footballs.

Across the lake to the east, if the weather is good, you can make out the shadowy mountains of Tanzania, one of Malawi's closest neighbours. To the west is Zambia, which stretches all the way down to its southern neighbour Mozambique, which scoops around the south of Malawi and across to the Indian Ocean.

Malawi is landlocked, dependent on its neighbours for the transport of all essential imports: vehicles and oil from Tanzanian ports like Dar es Salaam and, these days, precious maize from Zambia. Lifelines, all of them.

Roads stretch for mile after mile and lorries eat up fuel. Trucks of grain are carried by trains along the northern rail link from Zambia, though nowadays increasingly being held up by gangs who sell their contents to Malawi's hungry population.

Malawi has good relationships with its neighbours, hardly surprising given that the same tribes occupy both sides of the boundaries. Languages are shared. Customs are similar. Borders are artificial, however, imposed by Europe in the 1890s and then again after the First World War, when Germany lost its African colonies.

There are some differences of course, in Mozambique the result of Portuguese colonialism and civil war. Malawi continues to host refugees from Mozambique.  Zambia is more developed than Malawi because of the economic impact of the mining industry. Malawi, however, has until recently been almost entirely dependent on agriculture: not large scale farms but subsistence for immediate local and family use. 80% of the farming is carried out by women, in addition to water-carrying, cleaning, childcare, cooking and numerous other jobs. Where agriculture does contribute to foreign exchange, it is mostly through tobacco which has little long-term future.

However, up here in the north of Malawi, a relatively neglected part of a desperately poor country, things have been looking up. Oil and minerals have been found under the Lake, the cause of some tension between Malawi and Tanzania. Malawi claims that Tanzania has no rights to the Lake, except along its own shoreline, hence it should have no rights to any oil. The country cites the Heligoland Treaty of 1890, signed by the colonial administration of Nyasaland, as Malawi was then called. Tanzania claims that the border runs down the middle of the Lake. Malawi claims that Tanzania is filling the northern stretch of lake with ships and is involved in a 'black market arms trade' with North Korea which threatens Malawi's security. The argument rumbles on.

In the meantime, the mountainous district of Karonga, which extends for miles to the west of the Lake, has become a mining area.  There are uranium mines at Mpata, coal mines at Mwabulambo and plenty of unmined minerals beneath the soil. You pass some well-established mines by the side of the M1 as you drive down the escarpment towards the Lake.

Coal extraction started in 2007. A belated Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2013, under which the Norwegian mining company Eland agreed to compensate the local people by undertaking development projects. Jobs were promised, better schools and improved healthcare. However, coal prices fell, the coal was of poor quality and production cost were high, so Eland started moving out last year.  Some of the mines have closed, leaving pits and trenches. Children and animals fall into them and, once filled with water, they become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace at Karonga Diocese has reported the community's concerns. This is the area in Malawi where the famous Kilombero rice is farmed. There are claims that irrigation pipes have been smashed by bulldozers. Dead fish have been seen floating in the nearby Lufilya River, its water polluted by coal dust. The Natural Resources Justices Network states that activities at Mwabulambo have fallen short of mining standards. In fact, the Director of Mines in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining has complained that the company suspended operations and disappeared back to Norway without notice. Although Eland's Environmental Impact Report of 2007 promised revegetation, tree planting and removal of debris, nothing has been done. Houses which were demolished to make way for the mine have allegedly not been rebuilt.

Other organisations are also concerned. The Malawi Human Rights Commission is investigating the situation, particularly the failure of Eland to backfill the pits. Oxfam Malawi and the Institute for Policy Interaction also claim that the government has been too slow in reacting to the company's failure to clean up. There is a sense that the government is more concerned about revenue than environmental degradation.

The World Bank carried out a Malawi Mineral Sector Review in 2009: Source of Economic Growth and Development. The report notes the lack of capacity in Malawi to enforce the legal and regulatory framework and warns of increasing environmental degradation, social conflict and social marginalisation.

Other industrial developments have also given rise to problems. Effluent from the uranium mine is said to be leaching into the Sere River, a claim denied by Paladin Africa Ltd which opened the mine in 2009. Local people say that villagers are dying of strange illnesses. The impact of both coal and uranium mining on the water supply is serious. Women and girls have to walk further to collect uncontaminated water.

Paramount Chief Kayungu and the Karonga Forum for Oil and Gas are trying to control any further exploration . They say that the national government is siding with Paladin and that when they demonstrate they are just beaten back by the police.

Yet Malawi needs industrial development. It needs mineral extraction. Future mines may not just be in the north. Indeed, Zomba in the south has also been mentioned. Geologists from Exeter University have said that Malawi has the potential to become a new rare earth element producer. Such minerals are in high demand for use by technology firms and Malawi could certainly do with a new source of revenue. It is a stable country and attractive for investors.

I suppose what we are seeing are the kinds of social and environmental impact which our own country experienced during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. And not just our own country, think about the novels of Zola. Similar hazards are present, particularly for children. Malawi Human Rights Commission has already reported on 'rampant' child abuse in the informal mining sector, for example in sand mining by rivers and in quarries. Reports on child labour in mines in neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as DR Congo further away, should ring alarm bells about the potential risks ahead. Managing these risks needs a strong government.

Karonga is changing. Malawi is changing. Change is inevitable and desirable. However, change must be to the benefit of the country's communities, not just the country's coffers.

The information for this blog came from the following newspapers:

The Daily Times 22nd September 2016 The Nation on Sunday 25th September 2016
The Daily Times 3rd October 2016
The Daily Times 6th October 2016
The Nation 6th October 2016

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Independence, federalism and devo-max, Malawi-style (about the politics of the north of Malawi)

Following the Scots to Karonga

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