Malcoal mine in Kayelekera. Picture: LAUREN CLIFFORD-HOLMES/HRW

Malcoal mine in Kayelekera. Picture: LAUREN CLIFFORD-HOLMES/HRW

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Weak government oversight and lack of information are leaving communities in Malawi defenceless against the risks associated with mining operations in their midst.

"When the coal flows into the fields the rice and maize look like they have been burnt. The crops don’t grow well," a woman in Mwabulambo told Human Rights Watch (HRW), which interviewed 78 residents of Karonga in northwestern Malawi in a study of what is happening to people living around the country’s mines.

Its report "‘They Destroyed Everything’: Mining & Human Rights in Malawi" highlights that mines have been springing up with little or no consultation with affected communities. Water resources are being diverted for mining, crops and health are being affected by lack of water and by dust blow-off, and villagers are being relocated with minimal or no compensation. When mines closed, no rehabilitation was done.

Malawi is rich in coal, uranium, gemstones, rare earths, oil and gas resources. Coal and uranium in particular pose significant health risks if not managed properly, and contamination can affect the source of livelihood for poor communities: fishing from Lake Malawi.

"More than 10 existing and potential future extraction sites are located on the shores and tributaries of Lake Malawi, a fragile ecosystem and a key source of livelihood for over 1.5m Malawians," HRW says.

In a country with a long-established mining industry like SA, there are stringent regulations requiring public consultation prior to mining, as well as compliance with laws and agreed targets on local employment, health and safety, and post-closure rehabilitation. Enforcement is generally tight, and since most mining companies are multinational and listed, there is public scrutiny.

The companies mentioned in HRW’s report are two single-asset operations, Eland Coal Mining (owned by Cyprus-based Independent Oil & Resources) and Malcoal Mining (a joint venture between a Malawian entity and Australia’s Intra Energy Corp). The third is uranium miner Paladin Energy, which is listed in Sydney and Toronto. Paladin’s uranium mine in Karonga is Kayelekera, at present on care and maintenance.

A woman in Mwabulambo, where Eland started operations in 2007, told HRW she "didn’t know about the mining before the machines came in. They didn’t give us any information, they just started digging."

Another resident said: "They first came in March 2012 and said we needed to move in April. But they waited only one week and then came back to say that it was time to move. We didn’t know where to go. We had to sleep outside for a couple of days."

Paladin told HRW it maintained safety, health, radiation and environment management programmes but did not make its reports public. Malcoal said in an e-mail to HRW it provided employment and took care of communities, while Eland said it had suspended operations, and did not respond to the issues raised in the report. Eland has left behind open pits and mining equipment.

HRW says Malawi’s mining legislation is outdated and its regulatory framework for environmental impact assessments is incomplete.

There is a Mines & Minerals Bill in draft form, but it does not address the lack of access to proper information — in fact, it contains broad confidentiality clauses. There is an Access to Information Bill, also in draft form, which is limited in its scope and allows the minister to set fees for gaining access to documents, which is a deterrent for poor communities.

Malawi’s ministries of health and mining acknowledged the shortcomings in meetings with HRW and described capacity problems as well as a lack of co-ordination among different government departments. They announced plans to visit mines once a month and to implement a new communications strategy, as well as to draw up a rehabilitation plan for the Eland mine site.

"However, at the time of writing the situation at the Eland coal mine site has not changed," the report reads.