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Australian niobium mining project instills 16 years of anxiety for Malawi communities

Village Headman Kawale.

Village Headman Kawale says he is puzzled how the officials worked out the figures on advance payments for their compensations. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

  • In 2006, Australian mining firm Globe Metals & Mining began exploring for rare earth metals niobium and tantalum in Malawi’s Kanyika hills, confirming in 2012 its intention to begin commercial mining.
  • The metals will be used in the manufacture of high-tech equipment like electric vehicle batteries and gas and wind turbines.
  • For villagers being relocated for the mine, these high-tech goods hold little appeal when compared with the loss of their land, and with the 16 years they have been living in limbo while awaiting relocation.

MZIMBA DISTRICT, Malawi — For 16 years, people in villages around the Kanyika hills in Mzimba district in northern Malawi have lived with uncertainty and anxiety.

In 2006, an Australian firm, Globe Metals & Mining, began exploration for rare earth metals niobium and tantalum in the Kanyika hills. By 2012, the firm had confirmed enough deposits to make extraction viable. A mining agreement between the company and government, still to be completed, will set the terms under which the planned mine can operate.

According to the Perth-headquartered company, the mine will be the first-ever niobium mine in Africa (Brazil currently supplies almost 90% of the world’s supply), producing what it describes as a “strategic metal” and “a key part of the green revolution,” which will profit from a “predicted global supply shortfall for super alloy metals.”

The project targets superpower markets such as the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and China, with the metals to be used in the manufacture of high-tech equipment like gas and wind turbines, medical imaging, space travel equipment and fast-charge batteries for electric vehicles.

Group village headman Mberewere, recognized as the chief of several villages around Kanyika, says he and his constituents have no idea what the niobium and tantalum from the hills will be used for. Nor, says Mberewere, do they much care, because they do not see how the products thereof will address their immediate survival needs, now or in the future.

After all, he says, the mine is dispossessing them of what they value most: their land.

Group Village Headman Mberewere.
Group Village Headman Mberewere and his subjects are worried about how they will live normal and productive lives once they are moved out of their mining project area. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

“Our concern is that this mining project is uprooting us from the soils we have lived on all our lives, across generations,” Mberewere says. “Our parents are buried here; our grandparents are buried here. We have not known any other land in our lives except this one. That it is being taken away from us is very sad.”

He is worried whether they will live normal and productive lives again in a “foreign land” to which the government will relocate them.

“Will we get enough and fertile land for cultivation and for us to graze our animals like we have now?” he wonders. “Will we be in a place where there are schools for our children, where there is water, where health centers are close?”

“We have been asking ourselves this question: What is the price of being uprooted like this? Who benefits from our dislocation?” he says.

Mberewere is also concerned that he may not retain his traditional leadership in their new settlement. “They will relocate us to a place that is already under a chieftaincy, so what will become of my chieftaincy?” he tells Mongabay at his home, his two assistants nodding in agreement.

Cattle in Kanyika.
People facing relocation from Kanyika are worried about whether they will have land to graze cattle and carry out other economic activities in their new settlement. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

The next big thing

Since Malawi’s independence from British rule in 1964, tobacco has been the country’s economic mainstay and the biggest foreign exchange earner, accounting for 60% of the total domestic export revenue. However, the crop has floundered on the global market in recent years largely due to anti-smoking campaigns around the world.

In response, the government has touted mining as the next big thing for the economy, inviting investors into the sector. The Kanyika mining project falls into this campaign.

The company estimates it will pay the central government $86.5 million royalties over the 23-year projected life of the operation, as well as a total of $225 million taxes on profits. It also expects to make about $10 million in direct cash contributions to communities, the exact details of which will be formalized as part of the company’s Mining Development Agreement.

Neville Huxham, chairman of Globe Metals & Mining in Africa, says in an email that the project will also create employment and business opportunities for the local population and invest in improvement of education, health, sports and road infrastructure.

However, people who will be affected by the project tell Mongabay they are not swayed by the promised benefits. This, they note, is not the first mine in the region: There is a uranium mine in Karonga district, operated by another Australian firm, and several coal mines as well.

“In every one of these mining projects, both workers and surrounding communities are suffering multiple injustices every day,” says Chimwemwe Mvula, whose house is among those slated for demolition for Globe’s mine. “Their lives have not improved as promised while the mining firms and government officials reap the benefits. There is no reason for us to believe in these promises.”

The villagers’ suffering over the past 16 years is living evidence of the ominous future ahead of them, Mvula says. One of their most serious concerns is how the project has already disrupted their lives.

In 2012, after the mine was determined to be commercially viable, government officials warned villagers not to cultivate land or build houses in the area, as they would be moved out within six months. Six months turned into a year; a year into two. They were not moved.

In that limbo, awaiting relocation at any moment, they could not risk cultivating their fields; they suffered hunger. They could not fix their houses, and people like Monica Moyo paid a dear price.

A rebuilt house.
Following the government’s advice, people in the Kanyika area are rebuilding their houses as they await government announcement of new dates of relocation. Repairs were delayed for years because residents anticipated being relocated at short notice. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

Moyo had purchased iron sheets to fix her house, but she could not proceed with her plan following the government’s warning that they would be moved “soon.” Then, during the rainy season, one wall of her house collapsed on her 12-year-old daughter in the night, injuring her. The girl, already living with physical disabilities since infancy, now bears scars of the injuries on the back of her neck.

“So, for the rest of my life, I will be living with these scars on my daughter,” Moyo says. “These scars will be reminding me how I nearly lost her because of a mining project. How do you handle such kind of memory? What will I be thinking about mining projects?”

In 2014, after pressure from the community, government reversed its earlier advice and told them they could lead their normal lives again until further communication. However, it offered no support to help people restart their lives after almost two years of disruption.

In August 2017, Moyo and 242 others filed a legal challenge against the government and Globe Metals for disrupting their livelihoods. They demanded compensation for that disturbance.

In November 2017, Globe Metals and the government filed a counter-challenge, rejecting every claim made in the community lawsuit. Faced with a lengthy court battle, and following an unsuccessful mediation attempt, the villagers lost momentum and stopped pursuing the case.

Monica Moyo's daughter.
Monica Moyo’s daughter has scars on her neck from injuries she suffered after a house wall collapsed on her. Moyo did not maintain the house because the government had told the communities they would leave soon. Moyo says the people are tired of being treated like refugees on their own land. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

As Globe Metals waits on the justice ministry to finalize the Mining Development Agreement, officials from the firm and the government have held several meetings with the community to apprise them of the project’s progress and hear their concerns.

At one such meeting in 2021, and in a move viewed as a response to pressure from the communities, officials hinted that partial payouts of compensation funds would be offered to the affected people for their immediate survival needs.

“We asked them what formula they would be using since none of us was ever told how much they would be compensated, despite that they had marked our houses for demolition,” village headman Kawale says.

“Besides, why did they mark only our houses for compensation when we have other property such as land and fruit trees, which we will also lose in the process?”

Kawale says that months later, after failing to convince the people as a group on the payouts, the officials “sneaked” into the area, visited individual households and dished out 220,000 kwacha ($215 at current exchange rates) each.

“After failing to convince us as a group, they decided to adopt divide and rule. Some people accepted the money, but they still ask whether it is part of the compensation packages, which have not been worked out yet,” he says.

A Globe Metals’ proof of payment agreement, dated Dec. 17, 2021 and signed by the recipients, describes the 220,000 kwacha as an advance payment of compensation to the affected persons.

It says the amount will be deducted from the total compensation payment and that Globe Metals made the payment, not the government, which is supposed to pay the compensation packages.

Brick kilns.
People are building brick kilns to rebuild their houses as they face a prolonged wait for a clear relocation plan and schedule. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

Huxham confirms Globe Metals had made these payments, saying, after many years of negotiation on the Mining Development Agreement, it was inevitable the Kanyika community would become frustrated and upset by the lack of progress considering they were aware of their impending relocation.

He says Globe Metals offered the advance cash payment to 235 families in appreciation of that frustration and to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the project. He says the firm communicated the concept of the “advance cash payment” to the affected persons through meetings with them and their local representatives.

“It was agreed and understood that the ‘advance payment’ would be deducted from the ultimate total compensation amount,” he says.

According to minutes of a meeting held in September 2022, officials assured the affected persons that the government would undertake another property valuation to determine new compensation packages. They further promised that compensation would be worked out fairly, taking into account not just houses but also trees and land.

The minutes, viewed by Mongabay, further show that the mine boundary will be extended, meaning more people will be affected.

Officials evaded queries on the 220,000 kwacha payout, referring them instead to local government authorities and chiefs for clarification. However, traditional leaders Kawale and Mberewere have no explanation either.

“I, too, need an explanation — from them — so that I can tell these people what this money means, how and why,” Kawale says.

Spokesperson for the mining ministry, Andrew Mkonda Banda, says the advance payment figures were an estimate based on previous property valuations conducted by the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.

He says the whole exercise was done in “a transparent and accountable manner” and with the consensus of everyone involved.

Mkonda Banda further says that the next property assessment will also involve all concerned government departments, and it will be handled according to existing guidelines on compensations.

The hill seen behind a house.
This house and the hill behind it are part of the mining project area, where an open cast mine will be implemented. Image by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

Kossam Munthali, national coordinator for the Natural Resources Justice Network, a coalition of Malawian civil society organizations, says that events around the Kanyika mining project have so far demonstrated the government’s failure to protect its citizens’ interests.

For 16 years, he says, these people have been hanging in the balance, their lives turned upside down.

“I wish government officials one day cared to stand in the shoes of these people and see the world from those shoes,” Munthali says. “These people have suffered severe social and economic disruption such that not even the compensation for the property they will lose can restore their lives, their crime being that they are sitting on a land that has minerals, which the government is desperate to exploit. This is gross injustice.”

Munthali calls on the government to live up to its constitutional mandate to protect the rights of citizens, even as it seeks to bolster Malawi’s troubled economy by pursuing investment in mineral resource exploitation.

In the case of the Kanyika community, he says, that should start with ensuring compensation packages take into account not only the property the people will lose, but also the trauma they have gone through in the past 16 years.

Huxham says mining projects anywhere in the world usually involve relocation of individuals affected, describing it as “an unavoidable consequence.”

“However, there are global protocols in place to ensure the well-being and interests of affected communities are monitored and safeguarded,” he says, giving the example of the Equator Principles, a set of voluntary guidelines adopted by private financial institutions to “identify, assess and manage environmental and social risks” of projects.

With the government as the monitoring agency, Huxham says Globe Metals will ensure that mining project proceeds are handled according to the laws of the country and established global protocols.

On relocation, Mkonda Banda of the mining ministry says dislocated people will live proper lives again. He says traditional leaders who hold customary land in Malawi will lead in distributing pieces of land to the affected families.

“There is no need for panicking among those who will be affected by the project,” he says.

But while government takes its time poring over the fine print of the Mining Development Agreement and assuring the people that all will be well, nothing seems to soothe their anxiety.

It has been one story after another story all along, Moyo says.

“We are now stretched. We are being treated like refugees on our own land. We did not steal this land. Our parents were born here. Their parents were born here. This is our land. We are tired of the way we are being treated with regard to this project,” she says.

Banner image: Village Headman Kawale, by Charles Mpaka for Mongabay.

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