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Uranium: Undermining Africa

The struggle to resist, reform and rehabilitate the mining industry and its impacts remains a daily one for communities around the globe, including Africa, writes Dave Sweeney.

Mining has always been a tough trade. The uniform may be highly visible but much of the damage done to people and places remains hidden. The struggle to resist, reform and rehabilitate the mining industry and its impacts remains a daily one for communities around the globe, including Africa. As US oil billionaire J P Getty quipped ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights’.

In late 2013 I was part of an ambitious uranium awareness initiative organised by a group of Tanzanian and European environment, public health and legal rights organisations in response to growing pressure for increased uranium mining in Africa. 

The global uranium sector remains hard hit by the market fallout from the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis, with the uranium price falling more than fifty per cent and severe cuts to the share value and profitability of uranium producers since March of 2011.

Uranium producers around the world are cutting costs, corners and operations. They are increasingly looking to traditional areas of low cost and governance as the place for any new uranium developments. As a result Africa is incredibly appealing and has found itself firmly on the international industry’s atomic agenda. 

We saw the rationale behind the industry push into Africa in stark relief back in 2006 when John Borshoff, the bullish and increasingly embattled CEO of Paladin Energy (an Australian company with highly contested operations in Malawi and Namibia), outlined the corporate philosophy of uranium hopefuls:

“The Australians and the Canadians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining, the future is in Africa.”

The Australians and the Canadians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining, the future is in Africa

The dangers this thinking poses for both people and the environment is clearly highlighted by the Human Rights Law Resource Centre observation: 

“Many Australian companies, particularly mining companies, can have a severe impact on human rights throughout the world, including the right to food, water, health and a clean environment. Despite this, successive governments lack a clear framework of human rights obligations for Australian corporations operating overseas. This is particularly problematic in countries with lax or limited regulations.”

Recent years have seen a marked increase in Australian mining operations and ambitions in Africa. Mid-tier and junior mining companies are highly active with over 300 mining and related corporations involved in mining and exploration in sub-Saharan Africa. After South African and Canadian companies, Australian companies are the third largest explorers in Africa and according to the Lowe Institute uranium is a target mineral, second only to gold in industry and media references.

Along with being an area of increasing interest and importance to Australian resource companies Africa is a complex and often insecure region where plans to expand the uranium industry pose unique risks.

The need to manage radioactive materials over extremely long periods, along with specific security and proliferation concerns make uranium mining fundamentally different from other types of mining. It requires a higher level of assessment, scrutiny and options for redress. The need for particular attention and management strategies in a region with major governance, capacity and transparency challenges is a growing concern for communities and civil society groups, as is the continuing federal government push to link the delivery of Australian development aid to the progress of Australian mining operations.

There is a real concern that in the absence of a robust and resourced regulatory regime Australian companies could adopt practises in Africa that would not be acceptable at home. This concern is heightened given that many of the Australian companies active in the African uranium sector are juniors with limited capacity and little or no operational experience or proven compliance ability.

The African experience with uranium mining to date in Niger, Malawi, Namibia and elsewhere has provided many examples of poor industry culture and practise and the Australian domestic uranium experience also highlights these concerns.

Australia has strong civil society groups, strong Indigenous organisations, free trade unions, an independent media, regulatory and parliamentary scrutiny and access to legal recourse. While many of these checks and balances are constrained and conditional they do exist and can have an important influence on operations.

Despite this a 2003 Senate Inquiry found that the Australian uranium industry was characterised by “a pattern of underperformance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment, an operational culture that gives greater weight to short term considerations than long term environmental protection and which concluded that changes were necessary in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from ‘serious or irreversible damage”.

Research into Native Title and royalty payments and existing mining agreements clearly shows that systemic Aboriginal disadvantage has not been addressed by uranium mining operations and that most mining agreements have failed to deliver lasting economic or social benefits to Indigenous communities. There are clear markers and warnings in the Australian uranium story with the evolving African struggle.

There are clear markers and warnings in the Australian uranium story with the evolving African struggle.

The exploitation of many countries mineral wealth has not led to a commensurate increase in the wealth or well-being of the ordinary citizen and there is no credible reason to think that things would be different if a green light is given to yellowcake. This understanding was reinforced in a recent industry study jointly commissioned by the Christian Council of Tanzania, the Tanzania Episcopal Conference and the National Muslim Council of Tanzania which found that uranium mining would ‘not be the solution to the problems of the people of Tanzania and visitors sojourning here, but rather will amplify them’.

The African uranium awareness initiative began with a field visit to exploration sites around the Dodoma/Bahi region in central Tanzania – the site of extensive, and contested, uranium exploration. 

The country is dry with low rocky ranges, lots of scrubby plains and clay pans and a key feature is an intermittent wetland basin known as the Bahi swamp that supports lots of community and economic activity and food production including cattle herding, fishing and rice.

Much of the exploration is being undertaken by the Australian company Uranex and there is a high level of community concern over possible future impacts on land access and use and water concerns.

Despite being both lawful and widely supported by the local community the field trip attracted the attention of the local authorities with police arriving and arresting a key community organiser from CESOPE, a Tanzanian environmental organisation that has been leading much grass roots work aimed at increasing awareness of the impacts of uranium mining.

Through a combination of group solidarity, with 50 visiting delegates and participants refusing to leave the local police station and the intervention of a national parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, all was resolved this time. But the incident was a direct and potent insight into the everyday difficulties faced by local organisers and communities.

The site visit was followed by a major community meeting on the health and environmental impacts of uranium mining. Because of a directive from the local authorities this had to be relocated at short notice from the affected village area to the nearby town of Dodoma, the Tanzanian national capital. Despite this attempt to derail the event the meeting was strong and positive with over 500 people attending and actively engaging. 

Tanzania’s existing gold sector is a clear example of the so called ‘resource curse’, where natural resources either don’t help or else actively hinder a developing nation’s economic growth

Keynote presentations were interspersed with songs, chants, enthusiastic Swahili campaign exhortations and theatre pieces and the day generated considerable energy, media and community attention.

Following this meeting the initiative returned to Tanzania’s principal city, Dar Es Salaam, for a major international conference exploring the health and environmental impacts of uranium mining. The event attracted national media, industry and government attention. It also attracted the attention of the Tanzanian national security service – another reminder the uranium issue is very sensitive one. 

Conference delegates also met with and briefed a range of Tanzanian-based parties including the Mines Commissioner, industry regulators, journalists, diplomats and civil society representatives to raise concerns and experiences in relation to the uranium and nuclear industries in their home countries and any lessons and implications that these may have for African nations and communities.

The conference was followed by a positive meeting of the African Uranium Alliance, a continent wide group of nuclear free activists who meet annually to share stories and strategies to strengthen effective opposition to the uranium and wider nuclear sector across Africa and to promote the vision of a secure energy future for the continent that is renewable, not radioactive.

Leaving Dar Es Salaam, I joined with some Swiss, French, German and Tanzanian civil society representatives on a journey to Songea in the far south of the country to meet with people affected by Tanzania’s most advanced uranium project, Mantra Resources Mkuju River project. Despite long hours of road travel and earlier assurances, a combination of major bureaucracy and miner trickery meant the delegation was unable to actually visit the site – further highlighting the disturbing lack of transparency surrounding the uranium sector in Tanzania.

A combination of major bureaucracy and miner trickery meant the delegation was unable to visit the site – further highlighting the lack of transparency surrounding the uranium sector in Tanzania

The mine, reminiscent of uranium mining in Kakadu, poses a direct threat to the environmental integrity of the massive World Heritage listed Selous Game Reserve – Africa’s largest reserved area. 

The last two days of the initiative were spent travelling some pretty remote and dusty southern Tanzanian roads that are slated for a major infrastructure upgrade to facilitate the development of the extractives industry, including multiple planned uranium projects. All the signs are there – road camps, clearing for electricity transmission lines, new signage and planned regional port upgrades to handle hazardous materials, including uranium.

Those working for a nuclear free future in Tanzania – and elsewhere – face challenging times. But if the road ahead for the miners is half as bumpy as the ones we travelled then they too face some real hurdles. Some projects have already been deferred or derailed due to poor economics and there is a growing continent-wide scepticism about the claimed benefits of the extractives sector.

Transplanting the Australian uranium industry’s culture of under-performance and limited transparency to Africa, where many countries suffer from chronic poor governance and low levels of transparency and accountability, is inconsistent with building sustainable development. It is a recipe for radioactive risk and permanent pollution.

The Tanzanian uranium initiative was an important, well-grounded and positive contribution to charting a course to a nuclear free future in this country and across Africa.

The initiative grew from the vision and hard work of Tanzanian civil society groups including the grass roots CESOPE, NaCUM (the National Coalition on Uranium Mining Tanzania) and the LHRC (Legal Aid Human Rights Centre), supported by the European based chapters of the Uranium Network and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and facilitated by donors including the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

The many people working daily for a cleaner and safer future deserve our recognition and respect. And the industry that fuels their concern and global radioactive risk demands our resistance.

  • Dave Sweeney is ACF's nuclear free campaigner
  • Find out more about ACF's nuclear free campaign
  • Take action to keep uranium mining from threatening the Kintyre National Park in Western Australia

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