July 17, 2007

Uranium mining sparks controversy

Malawi will have its first-ever modern mining project located in the northern town of Kayelekera in Karonga by early 2008 if plans by an Australian mining company, Paladin (Africa) Limited, are successful. In April 2007, the Malawi government granted the mining company a licence to exploit up to 34,5 million tons of uranium. The company has promised that the project would generate an annual income of over 100 million US dollars, which is about five percent of Malawi's annual gross domestic product and 20 percent of the country's total export income. The revenue for the uranium is projected to exceed tobacco's annual proceeds of 19 million US dollars. Tobacco is currently Malawi's main foreign exchange earner. The uranium project also promises to transform the under-developed Kayelekera into a prosperous town and create jobs for 800 people during the construction phase and 280 people during the operational phase. It also assures to indirectly support more than 1.000 additional jobs, build a modern primary school, a secondary school and a health facility near the project area.
However, controversy has been dogging the project since its hatching stages with fears from the public that the mining of uranium poses serious health hazards, such as cancer and disability in infants due to radiation. A warning signal was first sent by a 2006 paper published by researcher Martin Mkandawire. He argues that scientific evidence shows that uranium mining is implicated in most cancers, especially those of the lung, blood and bone and that it also leads to disability in infants. In the paper, titled "The Kayelekera uranium mining activity: Economic benefit and environmental dangers", Mkandawire argues that the project will lead to the loss of social goods which do not have market value, such as human health in the surrounding community. "As someone who has been conducting research on uranium deposits, mining and cleaning of uranium sites for more than ten years now, I would caution government, the politicians and all Malawians to weigh carefully the pros and cons of the project," states Mkandawire.
Then came an environmental impact assessment (EIA), conducted in 2007 by an international consulting firm, Knight Piesold Consulting. Among others, it indicated that the project could increase social problems in the Karonga area in the form of increased cases of HIV/AIDS due to the migration of sex workers to the area. "There will be an increase in the existing commercial sex industry and risks of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS," says the EIA. A group of six civil society organizations in Malawi furthermore said that the company had neither complied with the Environmental Management Act nor with international uranium mining standards which underscored the importance of ensuring health and environmental protection for people. They have since obtained a court injunction stopping the project from proceeding. (IPS)

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