Continued interest of international uranium mining companies in the possibilities of extracting uranium from African soil has attracted the attention of non-governmental organizations worldwide. Many organizations work both individually and in groups on uranium mining in various African countries. In November 2010, a training week for NGOs was organized on the issue in Tanzania. An extremely diverse group of African and non-African experts and organizations joined and shared their knowledge and strategies in order to obtain information and inspiration for further action on uranium mining in Africa.
Representatives from 21 organizations from 9 African countries were present during the training week. All of them have had experiences with international mining companies working in their countries, whether this be in exploiting or exploring uranium resources. Some, such as a few Namibian and Nigerien NGOs, have been working on the issue for years, whereas others have only recently been confronted with uranium exploration and/or exploitation, as is the case with the Central African NGOs.
The training week was organized and partially paid by WISE Amsterdam, and was co-financed by various international organizations: Cordaid, NIZA, Eirene, SOMO and OxfamNovib. Other organizations, such as CRIIRAD, Greenpeace International and the Australian Conservation Foundation kindly contributed by allowing some of their uranium mining experts to be present as trainers in Tanzania.
Aims and background
The backgrounds of the participating organizations appeared to be remarkably diverse: they work on development issues, poverty alleviation, labor rights, human rights, peacekeeping, nuclear issues, and/or environment. A few of these organizations do not necessarily aim at stopping uranium mining operations, but would rather impose boundary conditions on uranium mining. They wish to ensure that local communities can give consent on whether or not uranium mining should take place on their land, that public participation is taking place during every step of the mining processes, that rights of local communities are respected, and that the communities at the very least gain significant economic benefits.
Most organizations, however, prefer to avoid any kind of uranium exploitation in their countries and keep the standpoint ‘Leave Uranium in the Ground’. Experienced NGOs claim that many years of uranium mining worldwide have shown that the expectations of great economic development and increased welfare do not actually become a reality for local communities. In the long term, uranium mining does not provide a single benefit for communities. The promises often made by governments and companies have proven to be empty. This view was clearly expressed by Australian activist Dave Sweeney when he quoted Aboriginal Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula: “None of the promises last, but the problems always do.“
Tanzania, being one of the countries where international companies are now eagerly exploring uranium resources, proved to be a suitable host for the uranium training week: many Tanzanian NGOs, journalists, and members of parliament showed their interest by attending and actively contributing to the training week. They had mostly been invited by the Foundation for Environmental Management and Campaign Against Poverty (FEMAPO). FEMAPO has already been working in the Bahi district of Tanzania, where currently uranium exploration is taking place. They have worked with the communities of the Bahi district, and has informed them about the environmental hazards of uranium exploration in their region. Like FEMAPO, its sister organization CESOPE is currently working on informing the Tanzanian public and the affected communities. Uranium mining is a substantial threat to the Bahi people, as their livelihoods often entirely depend on their natural environment.
Central African organizations ACAPEE and OCDN, as well as some other Central African NGOs which did not attend the training week, are critically following French multi-billion dollar corporation AREVA. Assisted by several foreign organizations, they put pressure on their government as well as on the company to increase transparency of revenues and mining contracts. Also the necessary Environmental Impact Assessment is critically being followed by ACAPEE.
Central African citizens are not familiar with uranium mining and the public is not informed about its hazards. The capital-based NGOs try to improve their communication with the Bakouma community, in whose region AREVA is exploring uranium. Communication is difficult in the Central African Republic (CAR) due to limited infrastructure, the remoteness of many areas, and differences in languages. Therefore, NGOs in the CAR not only scrutinize the most prominent decision-makers, but also continuously search for the best strategies to inform the public, such as by gathering with other NGOs, trying to find ways to physically reach the remote area of Bakouma, and using radio stations.
Cameroonian organizations CED (Centre for Environment and Development) and RELUFA (Reseau de Lutte contre la Faim, the Network of Poverty Alleviation) showed impressive material on their campaigns in Cameroon. They have provided villagers in exploration areas with GPS devices and training on GPS use. Thus equipped, the villagers can create their own village maps, on which land use is indicated. Sacred sites, agricultural land, rivers: anything can be included in these maps. After mapping the region, the maps can be used as a tool for discussions with the company as the villagers can point out exactly what land is important to them. CED and RELUFA do not only wish to empower the villagers and lobby at government and industry, they also strongly feel the need to do baseline studies on soil, water, and air and will soon start measuring radiation levels with their newly acquired Geiger-Mueller counter.
Several NGOs from Nigers capital Niamey were inexperienced on uranium mining issues and learned much about radiation, company structures, and social issues. They have all decided to start spending more time on the issue and to start informing the public in their country. Niger has seen uranium exploitation for several decades. This has had impacts on the country’s geography, economy, and environment. However, the communities are not well-informed on radiation, and the general public has not benefited from uranium revenues. ROTAB, a network of organizations for transparency and budgetary analysis, is working on the international Publish What You Pay campaign and has lately been paying much attention to the extractive industries in Niger. GREN, which also aims at the extractive industries, also participates in the PWYP campaign. In the past, these organizations focused on gold and oil extraction in Niger. The international peace advocacy organization Eirene is active in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and is now planning to start working on uranium mines with the organization GENOVICO. All have decided to increase their attention for uranium mining.
Organisation Aghir-in-Man was also present during the training. This NGO is based in the mining community of Niger and has worked exclusively on uranium mining over the past years. Aghir-in-Man has worked with several international NGOs in the past, whereby the last successful collaboration was with Greenpeace International and CRIIRAD, who published a report on the environmental pollution around Niger’s uranium mines in 2010. Aghir-in-Man draws attention to the issue internationally, but also organizes meetings with local communities on practical issues. As a result of meetings where women were informed about the dangers of washing their husbands’ dirty mineworkers clothes from the mine, women now refuse to wash uranium-contaminated clothes. The dusty clothes, that can contaminate people internally, are now being washed by the company at the mine.
In Malawi, the recently opened mine of Australian firm Paladin Energy has drawn attention of ActionAid Malawi and Citizens For Justice. They are keeping an eye on the developments in their country. Paladin Energy proves to be very non-communicative towards civil society: both the country offices in Malawi and Namibia and the headquarters in Australia have not responded to repeated WISE requests for interviews or email contact. That Paladins first concern is not its corporate social and environmental responsibility is not surprising if one keeps in mind the words of its CEO John Borshoff: “Australia and Canada have become overly sophisticated. They measure progress in other aspects than economic development, and rightly so, but I think there has been a sort of overcompensation in terms of thinking about environmental issues, social issues, way beyond what is necessary to achieve good practice.” Keeping in mind the shocking environmental pollution and neglect of Aboriginal rights in Australia by the uranium mining companies, Borshoff’s explanation that this Australian situation is already beyond ‘good practice’ makes one fear for Paladin’s corporate behavior when working in Africa. Not only has Paladin Energy managed to obtain very favorable contracts in Malawi, so that people’s rights are not guaranteed and the Malawi state does not make much profit from mining, the mine is also based close to Lake Malawi, upon which many people depend for its water and food. Activists fear contamination of the lake. CFJ and ActionAid try to inform and assist local communities and will do more research on a rumor about illegal nuclear transports from Malawi to Namibia. They are also keen on doing more radiological measurements themselves, something they have already done with river water recently.
Meanwhile, Earthlife Africa is working hard in South Africa and Namibia. Both countries have to deal with mine waste from uranium- and other mines, communities that are being exposed to radiation, and authoritarian governments that ignore the concerns of civil society. The limited knowledge of the public on mining hazards, along with a repressive political culture in both countries, proves it difficult for Earthlife and other NGOs to force governments and industry to mitigate environmental and social problems. Other countries can learn from South Africa’s problems when it comes to managing abandoned mines. South Africa has a long mining history: gold, platinum, chrome, manganese, diamonds and other metals were and are being exploited on a large scale. This has left behind a legacy: today, there are over 6000 abandoned mines in South Africa. These are not only dangerous to enter; they also cause great environmental problems. Many of them fill up with extremely acid water which contaminates ground water and river systems, and they have toxic and radioactive mine waste stored next to them. As the mining companies which owned them are no longer existing, the abandoned mines have now become the responsibility of the government. The extent of the problems, the impact on environment and communities, and the associated costs are so high that the government is reluctant to start working on tackling even the most urgent problems. South Africa’s Federation for a Sustainable Environment and Earthlife are continuously battling to hold the authorities accountable. The campaigns of FSE have long been neglected, but the lobbying now seems to have drawn some national and international attention to the issue and the issue is being discussed in parliament – these first steps can provide the South African NGOs with some hope.
Namibian human rights organization NamRights has observed Namibia change from a new and promising independent country, proud of its independence and wealthy with natural and human resources, into a country where government is letting its wealth being exploited to the benefit of a few individuals in the highest ranks of industry and government. A study by Labour Resource and Research Institute LaRRI in 2008 has shown that mineworkers in the Rossing uranium mine are suspecting their illnesses are related to their occupation. However, there is no possibility for them to go see a specialized medical doctor who is independent from the mine, and any claims towards company Rio Tinto are therefore no option. Unfortunately, government lacks the means and the willingness to carry out proper radiological measurements, and does not assist the sick people. There might be a role for NamRights to draw attention to these ill workers and community members, and remind Namibia’s uranium-keen government that they have a greater responsibility than just to attract wealthy international corporations to Namibia.
Inspired by the numerous examples of successful activism the NGOs will continue to work individually and together on uranium mining. Every country needs to find its own solution. Yet international NGOs can support, motivate, and strengthen one another. All NGOs mentioned in this article are more than willing to share their information and thoughts with you. Please contact them if you wish.
For freely available reports on uranium mining in Africa, please contact NIZA, SOMO, and WISE. WISE is preparing a full report of the training week, including all presentations. A copy can be obtained via WISE in January 2011. Also, SOMO and WISE are about to publish a report on revenues for African states, and will distribute an extensive publication on African uranium mines and their social and environmental impacts by February 2011.
Source: Fleur Scheele, WISE Amsterdam
For more information, contact: Marieke van Riet, WISE Amsterdam