By Chiku Jere
Communities from one of Malawi’s major mining districts, Karonga, are demanding that government involves them in decision making on mining projects in their locality in order to do away with infringements on people’s rights that have been synonymous with the projects.

This call resonated loud and clear during a political debate on mining held on March 20, 2019 in the district which was organized by Natural Resources Justice Network (NRJN) and Catholic Commission for Justice Peace (CCJP) Karonga Diocese with financial support from Oxfam Malawi.

The debate which was aired live on Tuntufye Community Radio Station saw members of the community engaging aspiring parliamentarians and ward councilors on how they will uphold good mining governance principles which include transparency, accountability and inclusiveness if elected on May 21, 2019 Elections.
Ten parliamentary hopefuls were present at the debate including Frank Mwenefumbo of Alliance for Democracy (Aford), Mary Nthakomwa for UTM Party, Bahat Kishombe from the Democratic Progressive Party and Cornelius Mwalwanda for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), all vying for Karonga Central constituency seat.

hose present from Karonga North West Constituency were Sam Chisambi for MCP, Fwake Mwakitalu for PP as well as Felix Kayira for UTM while Karonga North had PP’s Daniel Mwanyongo, Gerald Mwakaswaya for UDF and MCP’s James Mwayisemba.
The debate dwelled much on issues such as mining contracts, community development agreements, community involvement as well as local content, among other important subjects.
One community member, Petros Mfwara from Uwembe Village, said what Karonga communities have been subjected to in relation to mining activities in their respective areas is really painful.

“It really mocks our dignity and pride as Karonga appears on the map as a district endowed with many mineral resources but we do not benefit from this mineral wealth,” he said.
Mfwara refused to blame mining companies on the community’s misery but took a swipe at government for not engaging the community when negotiating mining deals.
“These investors come here and follow the rules set in place by our government and policy flamers. So it will be unwise to blame the former but government which claims to manage these resources on our behalf,” he said.
The consensus reached during the debate is that authorities should engage the communities at each and every stage of the mining project starting from the onset so that the local community is kept ablest of the developments in order to make informed and realistic demands.

“We are always left in the dark which leads to speculation and tension that creates an atmosphere not conducive for an investment which could benefit the area,” said another debate attendee Kisha Sichinga, who hails from Mwenechanga Village in the area of Group Village Headman Kayelekera.

Sichinga suggested that when an investor is coming to conduct mining operations in an area, Mines Department officials should first inform the district council which will in turn inform traditional leaders to facilitate engagement with grassroots structures such as Area Development Committees (ADC) and Village Development Committees (VDC) that will inform the community about the pending mining investment.
“This should be done before the arrival of an investor at the site. People should be taken through the whole process of what will take place – from awarding of license, exploration, extraction to mine closure,” narrated Sichinga in an exclusive interview with Mining & Trade Review on the sidelines of the debate.

He said the government and investors also need to inform the communities about the latter’s expected benefits from the mining venture to enable them embrace the development and feel part of it.

Mercy Mwenelupembe, who said was representing the interests of women at the debate, raised the issue of local content, saying that mining companies should prioritize local businesses when sourcing locally available supplies.

“Within the contract agreement, there should be a stipulation that the investor should source locally available goods or services within the parametersof the mining operations or district, to allow maximized benefit for the people who will be directly impacted by the mining activities,” she said.
In their response, a number of aspirants displayed ignorance on mining issues as they repeatedly talked of the need to initiate revision of the Mines and Minerals Act of 1981 despite that the law has been enacted recently.

However, Mwenefumbo, a parliamentarian for Karonga Central, schooled fellow contestants that there is already a new Act in place which the government is in the process of operationalizing.

The contestants then agreed to ensure enforcement of the new law, which has a provision for mining companies to sign community development agreements, when elected.

There was also a call from the contestants to civic educate communities about the legal framework that governs the extractives sector to allow them ably demand accountability through noting, exposing and fighting before harm is caused.

In the end, the candidates made binding commitments to promote sustainable large-scale as well as artisanal and small scale mining once ushered into their respective elected positions.

The aspirants also pledged to lobby for decentralization in the sector as one way of enabling local councils and citizens have access to information related to extractive industry in their area.

At the end of the four and half hours debate, all the ten contestants signed up to their commitments as part of social accountability after the elections.

After the deliberations, Chairperson for NRJN Kossam Munthali expressed satisfaction with citizen turnout, participation and the zeal to hold leaders accountable as shown at the event.

“We have seen that people needed such a platform to voice out their demands and what they expect from duty bearers. As we have witnessed, those who will be elected, will have to answer to the electorates,” said Munthali.

He also expressed concern over the issue of the knowledge gap that was exposed among the aspirants saying there is need for stakeholders to continue engaging in order to build a coordinated effort to achieve common good for the country through the mining sector.

Chief Kilipula, who represented Paramount Chief Kyungu at the event, hailed the organisers for providing people of Karonga with a podium to voice their concerns, demands and aspirations on mining governance.

“These individuals vying for elected positions are now aware of community expectations on mining issues and they will not have excuses once they fail to fulfill these expectations after assuming office. Our district has suffered a lot of injustices when it comes to mining and we hope that this will mark a new beginning in terms of dealing with these problems once and for all,” Chief Kilipula said.

In his remarks Oxfam Malawi Coordinator for Extractives, Elyvin Nkhonjera Chawinga, said the debate was important as it offered the contestants an opportunity to get unfiltered demands from people on mining governance issues.

She said Oxfam Malawi has been involved in organizing national level debates and thought it wise to go local and convene a district level debate on extractives, particularly in Karonga, because the district hosts Malawi’s biggest mining investment, Paladin Africa’s Kayelekera Uranium Mine.

National Statistics Office economic data indicates that when it was in operation, Kayelekera mine raised mining sector’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contribution to Malawi economy from 0.9% to 10%, but the people in the area have nothing to show in relation to benefits from the extraction of the precious mineral from their ancestral land.

“This contribution that Kayelekera, a single mine, made to the economy of the country reflects the potential that the mining sector has in Malawi.

However, the question that remains is unleashing and utilizing that potential for the equal benefit of all,” said Chawinga.

According to Malawi’s Department of Mines, apart from Kayelekera Uranium Mine, Karonga has several mining licences.

With the support of its partners, Oxfam Malawi plans to convene similar debates in several mining districts and constituencies across the country in the run-up to May 21 elections as one way of facilitating citizens power and voices to shape development issues that affect them.