Politics of Poverty

The dark side of celebrated mineral deposits in Africa: Rising risk for activists

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Rio Tinto’s “Benga” coal mining operation in Tete province in central Mozambique. Arid, coal-rich Tete has been at the epicenter of a coal mining boom that has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment. Photo: Human Rights Watch

Advocating for transparency and accountability in the extractives sector is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Titus Gwemende is Oxfam’s Southern Africa Program Advisor on Extractive Industries.

The discovery of vast natural gas deposits in the Rovuma Basin in northern Mozambique has opened the door for a much needed economic turnaround in Mozambique. I recently went to the resource-rich Palma district in Cabo Delgabo province. The paradox is that the inhabitants of Palma itself remain very poor, unsure of what the future holds.

The trip gave me a firsthand experience of what communities go through in areas that are undergoing exploration or extraction of natural resources. Houston-based oil company Anadarko is the operator of the offshore area Block 1 in Palma that we visited.

What I found was that, in some cases, everyday citizens are frightened to express any opposing views.

Denied permission to meet with communities in Palma district

As is protocol, we had planned as a courtesy call to the government office at the start of our trip. I was accompanied by staff from a prominent environmental rights and advocacy organization working in the Palma region, Centro Terra Viva (CTV) and two others from a leading international development partner in Mozambique. What was supposed to be a routine visit became a rather tense conversation, resulting in the government officials at the district office denying us entry into the area. I was stunned.

It soon emerged that key community leaders had been harassed and threatened with unspecified action if they continued to attend meetings hosted by NGOs like CTV that were working on resettlement issues. I soon learned that while this standoff with district government officials was the first time this was happening to me, it was certainly not the first time environmental NGOs were harassed in Palma. Harassment tends to precede violence, so threats against community activists must be taken seriously.

Part of global threat to activists

This all looked familiar to me. I have seen far worse challenges for activists working on the diamond fields of Chiadzwa in Zimbabwe and Ken Saro Wiwa’s fight with the Nigerian government and Royal Dutch Shell.  According to CIVICUS, there have been 413 threats to civil society across 87 countries in the past two years. My Oxfam colleagues in Guatemala and Peru have also seen violence in response to peaceful protests against mining.

Potential revenues = risk in extractives sector

Indeed the dark side to the celebrated discovery of massive mineral deposits across Africa is the increasing vulnerability of communities near mines. Apart from being resettled to areas that may be worse than they used to live in, communities tend to lose their livelihoods, and some are harassed or even killed for voicing their disapproval for mining or resettlement. The same applies to staff members, journalists, and activists who are exercising their rights.

What Mozambique can do

While Mozambique has been relatively peaceful and on a positive growth trajectory since the 1992 peace agreement, the discovery of vast natural resources in Mozambique presents a massive test to the leadership with respect to rule of law and respect for community and land rights. Mozambique became EITI compliant in October 2012, a positive step. Yet transparency alone does not automatically lead to accountability. Protection of civil liberties – combined with transparency – can.

Mozambique still needs to do more in increasing space for alternative and dissenting voices in the community. Barring NGOs from strengthening the capacity of communities to negotiate meaningfully with petroleum companies is concerning.

Why would a government shield a foreign company from informed and robust debate with the communities where it operates?

How do communities negotiate from an informed perspective without technical support on what their rights are and what they mean in practice?

The security and freedom of communities must not be sacrificed on the altar of foreign direct investment.

What companies, development partners, and government can do together

  • It is important for the government to foster improved dialogue with civil society organizations as captured in the EITI implementation requirements. In addition, the anti-corruption framework in general needs strengthening, particularly protection for whistleblowers.
  • A robust risk mitigation strategy must be a built-in component of any extractive industries funding program.
  • Global mining and petroleum companies must develop meaningful participation processes with communities to reduce the chance of harassment or abuse cases in the first place. The IFC Performance Standard 5 explains the steps to follow.

In a nutshell, subjecting the extractive industries sector to democratic accountability could disrupt the patronage infrastructure of resource-rich countries like Mozambique. But protection of civil liberties sets the stage for meaningful participation of citizens and dialogue with civil society, which could also result in optimization of natural resources in Mozambique and the region. Consequently, improving governance of extractive industries will have a positive effect on revenue flows and potentially on political governance in general.

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