Whose government is it anyway? Uranium extraction in Tanzania

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tanzaniaIn this blog, James Mitchell argues that the CCM government in Tanzania is helping foreign mining companies to systematically exploit their citizens. James is a PhD candidate in Global Political Economy at the University of Bristol.

When communities in Africa find themselves with profitable natural resources under their feet and with foreign mining companies circling, a democratic government is the only regulatory actor that can both protect and empower local communities and also be held to account for any decisions it takes.

In the context of foreign-led mining in Africa, the government’s role is to ensure that displaced communities are catered for in terms of compensation, rehousing and new jobs. Additionally, they must create a legislative framework that protects the environment and the livelihoods of citizens nearby. Finally, they must enact a tax and regulatory regime that ensures the natural custodians of African resources- local citizens – benefit in socio-economic terms. However, when it comes to Tanzania’s latest highly controversial extractable element, uranium, such government actions are currently non-existent and it ultimately this has drastic and damaging consequences for local citizens.

The presence of uranium in Tanzania was identified in colonial times but the exploitation of the mineral has only just started this year with a subsidiary of the Russian state company Atomredmetzoloto (ARMZ), Mantra Tanzania, bring given a highly contested mining license to carry out operations in the Selous Game Reserve. In addition, exploration licenses have been granted to somewhere between 50 and 70 foreign mining companies who will be prospecting in pockets of central (Bahi and Manyoni District) and southern (Namtumbo District) Tanzania.

Bahi Makulo village provides a stark example of the effects of the government’s uranium mining policy, or lack thereof. Actions and, indeed, inactions of the incumbent government Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), have left the traditional farming village, which lies some 70km west of Tanzania’s legislative capital Dodoma,  at the mercy of a foreign company. It is unclear which mining company is exploring in Bahi Makulo. The most likely bet is Mantra Tanzania, who may have included the area as part of their Bahi North Project. What is clear, is that in September last year, a mining company that had been issued with an exploration license in Dar es Salaam, bypassed the Village Committee (a customary process enshrined in Tanzanian law) and began to drill boreholes and dig holes in paddy fields near the village. The company also hired villagers in various capacities, from labourers to security guards, on a strictly informal basis; the villagers were never even informed of the name of the mining company they were working for. The country’s vastly inequitable regulatory frameworks guarantee the confidentiality of mining contracts, and thus the confidentiality of the mining companies who win them.

Whilst in Bahi Makulo, the mining company proceeded to violate the labour and environmental laws of Tanzania and denigrate some of its citizens: Villagers were given nothing more than building site hard hats and latex gloves, even though they were made to use three nameless industrial chemicals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lackadaisical approach of the mining company and the floods of the rainy season, scores of villagers and labourers have complained of debilitating injuries to their skin and eyes.

There are a number of ways in which the villagers’ capacity to hold the company to account and protect their health, environment, livelihoods and way of life have been systematically compromised. Two key obstacles they face are the country’s land laws and their government’s apparent indifference.

Despite being a relic of Tanzania’s socialist past, the nation’s land laws are unfairly skewed towards government elites and, by extension, to private mining companies. This is because all land in Tanzania belongs to the state. Farmers can only lease land from the government on rolling contracts of 33 or 99 years, although most villagers in Bahi Makulo never knew this, having inherited the land from friends and relatives. If natural resources are discovered underneath a person’s estate, then the government can evict them to make way for extraction. Whilst it is possible to mount a legal defense against such eviction, this would depend upon a sophisticated knowledge of the country’s labyrinthine land laws and enough resources to take on both international corporations and the state officials who support them. It is not difficult to see whose interests the law is likely to protect in this scenario.

Meanwhile, the government appears intent on burying its head in the sand and denying that there are problems afoot in Bahi Makulo. It has categorically refused to believe that the villagers’ health problems have been caused by the contamination of the paddy fields. And their display of studied disbelief was ably assisted by the police who blocked around 30 villagers from gaining access to a local state hospital where doctors might have verified there claims and treated their afflictions. More broadly, the government’s lack of a specific uranium policy is negligent in the extreme. This is despite evidence of the monumental economic, environmental and health problems caused by uranium mining in African states like Niger. Policy gaps are dangerous in this field, particularly because ruthless uranium-mining companies are specifically looking to escape the more stringent environmental and social regulations of established uranium producing host states like Australia and Canada. The Executive Director of Paladin Energy, Australia, put the matter succinctly, stating, ‘The Australians and the Canadians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining. The future is in Africa’.

Meanwhile it is far from clear that uranium mining will bring any substantive financial benefits. Indeed, a 2010 report estimated that over a 13-year period the economic activities surrounding another uranium exploration site in Bahi Swamp  – including farming, fishing, cattle-herding and salt production – far exceeded the potential economic benefits – such as taxation, employment and investment in infrastructure -that a uranium mine could bring.

All in all, the government seems determined to create as favourable an investment climate as possible for extractive companies, despite the negative cumulative effects such extraction has upon the very people they are obliged to represent. Even the governmental agency the Geological Survey of Tanzania acts as a private exploration company seeking out deposits for foreign extraction. Revealingly, it is partly funded by foreign mining major BHP Billiton. But whilst such data flows freely to foreign corporations, Tanzania’s citizens are systematically denied the information they need to secure their own protection in the face of predatory extractive companies and their allies in government who see them as a resources or nuisances, not as citizens.

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