You can’t eat stones in the land of the goat

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases, Mining, News article written on the 29 Aug 2013

In the central north of Mozambique, there is a province known as the land of the goat, so called because of the animal’s significance for farmers and their families.

But Tete province is not just full of goats. It also possesses huge reserves of coal and iron ore deposits, and it’s where multinationals like Rio Tinto are doing business.

An estimated 70 per cent of the land in Tete is already under concession for mining and exploration, an area of about 3.4 million hectares.

While some people are benefiting from the extraction of these resources, poverty prevails for the majority, with people’s ability to feed themselves under threat.

This week’s Africa Down Under conference in Perth (27 – 30 August) will focus on Australian access to Africa’s ‘treasure trove’ of minerals and metals, particularly in countries previously considered too risky for investment, including Mozambique, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A forum on Tuesday (27 August), ‘Mining, Agriculture and Development: Bread from Stones’, will highlight the growing interest in using mining infrastructure and expertise to help improve communities’ ability to grow food and tackle hunger.

This sounds good in theory, but the reality is often very different. Mining can deliver much needed revenue, opportunities and support for services such as hospitals and schools in resource-rich, poor countries, but only if there is transparency and accountability regarding mining practices and how benefits will be shared.

Without this, communities can lose their land, and their ability to grow food or get food to market. When communities are forced to move and resettle to make way for mining projects, this risk is heightened.

In Mozambique, a country set to become one of the world’s biggest coal and gas producers, thousands of people have been relocated to make way for mega-projects led by Rio Tinto, the Brazilian company Vale, and Indian mining giant Jindal, among others.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Mozambican communities displaced and resettled as a result of coal operations owned by Rio Tinto and Vale have faced huge disruptions in their ability to access water and to grow and buy food.

In short, many have lost the ability to make a living and grow food, there is insufficient water and promised jobs are few now that the construction phase is over.

This report confirms Oxfam’s experience. A visit to Tete province earlier this year found that resettled communities, particularly in Mwaladzi (Rio Tinto) and Cateme (Vale) are facing hardship, loss of livelihoods and a precarious future.

The scale is immense. In Mwaladzi alone, 439 families have been resettled. The Rio Tinto resettlement village has more than 1000 people, all relocated to make way for the Benga mine. The land is infertile and families are not able to grow their traditional crops such as sorghum, maize, sugar cane, peanuts and a variety of vegetables.

When Oxfam visited, there were reports of an erratic and inadequate water supply, land unsuitable for farming, families reliant on food handouts and limited economic opportunity.

While these issues may well be the legacy of Riversdale, which is the former owner of the Benga mine, responsibility for restoring people’s ability to provide for their families and earn an income firmly rests with the current owner, Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto has responded to the many concerns raised. Assurances have been given that a livelihood restoration program is under way, and water is now provided via boreholes, tanks and standpipes for drinking. The bigger issue of adequate water for farming remains. Proposals to pump water from the ZambeziRiver will take years to be realised.

Mwaladzi families receive a monthly basket of basic goods from Rio Tinto, such as dried fish, maize, flour, rice, cooking oil and soap, as assistance until they can again produce their own food and be self sufficient.

The risk of food dependency exists, and there is much anxiety about what happens after the handouts stop next April.

Mining companies should follow international standards when resettling communities, such as those established by the World Bank.  They are meant to improve, or restore, the livelihoods and standard of living of displaced people. Clearly, challenges exisit for companies to implement this standard.

Access to land and water, and food security, have become a global pressure point as competition for natural resources escalates.

Major infrastructure projects such as road and rail can, on the one hand, provide much needed access to markets, (so called agricultural corridors), but do place further pressure on agricultural land used by small-scale producers.

If mining and agricultural development is to contribute to economic prosperity for all citizens in resource rich countries, families need access to land that is fertile so that they can feed their families and make a living.

At the end of the day, you can’t eat coal.

Dr Helen Szoke, Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive

 This opinion editorial was first published in The West Australian on 27 August, 2013.