Yemi Oke of the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada, writes to us and the Toronto Star on the Congo's Radioactive Zone, poisoned water, and poisoned air
The sight of a "destitute" Congolese miner on the cover page of the story on radioactive contamination in Congo's cobalt mining areas in the Sunday, November 21 edition of the Toronto Star is a reflection of the overbearing global pressures and international meddling in the socio-political and economic configurations of mineral rich countries in Africa. On the other hand, the story further amplifies the increasingly perilous situations in Africa aside from the familiar HIV/AIDS, poverty and civil war conundrums.
Attracting global attention to the danger of informal cobalt and uranium mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of attempts "to fill the world's massive demand for cobalt" might not be sufficient. The issues involved are convoluted and multifaceted. If cobalt and uranium mining in Congo (and elsewhere) were formal and regulated, would that make mining of these substances less poisonous? Are there examples (from Africa, Canada or elsewhere) of near-perfect mining laws and regulations that have reversed these dangerous trends of environmental, water and atmospheric contamination due to mining?
In my graduate research at Osgoode Hall Law School, I have been studying the South African Mining and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) of 2002 as a model of (environmentally) sustainable regulation of mining in Africa. This law reflects the sociopolitical antecedents of the Republic of South Africa as it brings to the fore the interplay of political, economic, social, cultural and other factors underpinning the country's mining sector and its environmental sustainability. The MPRDA clearly departs from the old divisive regime of exclusivity of mining benefits to the minority whites by providing for mining development in a way that expands opportunities for the previously disadvantaged black majority. It sets to bring about equitable access to South Africa's mineral resources by eradicating all forms of discriminatory practices in the mineral industries and taking specific measures to redress the effects of past racial discrimination in the sector.
The provisions of the new law also speak volumes on the importance accorded to the principle of environmentally sustainable development and equitable resource utilization. It specifically aims at achieving exploitation of mineral resources in an ecologically sustainable manner as provided under section 24 of the South African Constitution. To further strengthen the above provisions, it incorporates by adoption, the provisions of the National Environmental Management Act as guiding principles. Social plans and social-equity sustainability issues are also carefully reflected in the MPRDA. More significantly, the fundamental principle guiding bodies, organs, procedures and other mechanisms put in place under the law is the principle of (environmentally) sustainable development.
The MPRDA also entrenches institutionalized devices to ensure sustainability of actual mining operations and effective rehabilitation of the mining sites through the integration of environmental management as part of environmental responsibility. Issuance of Exoneration Certificates is a phenomenal tool for ensuring post mining environmental rehabilitation in South Africa. Under this procedure, holders of the various categories of mineral titles granted by the South African government remain responsible for any environmental liability, pollution or ecological degradation, and management until the Minister has issued an exoneration certificate to the holder(s).
Notwithstanding the landmark provisions of the MPRDA, the South African mineral sector is not wholly sustainable; not only due to declining employment rates in the sector but also because HIV/AIDS is ravaging mineworkers as well as the whole social and environmental milieu. The Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and numerous other mineral-rich countries in Africa also have different forms of laws and regulations on mining. Regrettably, however, in Africa (as elsewhere) law has not proved to be the magic wand for attaining automatic (environmental) sustainability in resource exploitation or utilization even in the formal, regulated mining sector. Conflicting strata of political and economic interests have always shaped both the design and enforcement of (mineral) resources laws and actual operations in the extractive sectors in Africa, which reflect global forces and other transnational pressures similar to the demand for minerals in China cited in the "Congo's Radioactive Zone" article.
The above scenarios and many others have created an unstable, dangerous paradigm in Africa where a development strategy anchored on exploitation or utilization of natural resources is virtually guaranteed to fail due to the current "political economy of impunity" which frequently results in egregious violations of human and environmental rights that continually pitch the mineral-communities against the operators, especially multinational corporations.
Paradoxically, the informal or illegal mining of resources also has another social and sustainability dimension. It has been argued that informal mining is a by-product of reactions to the insensitive and un-sustainable patterns of governance, resource mis-management and lack of concern for the interests of the local owners of these resources. As a natural consequence, the so-called "destitute" Congolese (and their illegal mineworker counterparts in Nigeria, Sierra Leone or "galamsy" as it is popularly called in Ghana) resort to informal mining as an inevitable alternative for survival once their farming, fishing, and other means of livelihood have been made impracticable by pollution resulting from the activities of the mining companies.
Effects of Global Bureaucratic Trends on (Mineral) Resources Extraction in Africa:
A number of factors pose both actual and potential hindrances to mining and environmental sustainability in Africa. Pressures from the international economic spheres such as free trade, globalization and other externalizations appear to have worsened the situation. Mineral producing countries in Africa are in precarious positions in terms of economic development, responsible resource use and the struggle to support their populations. As a result, both natural resources and environment are exploited leading to a deplorable situation at the mercy of global economic trends in the developed nations.
A critical look at the socio-economic trends in several (mining) countries in Africa shows that the options of liberalization, privatization, commercialization, diversification and other "sweet" economic jargon are not voluntary. They become inevitable in view of overburdening debts and other externalizations including globalization and economic liberalization (free trade). The "one-world" economic alliance called globalization, advocates "global neighborhood" but is devoid of an objective and practical "global neighborliness".
As far as mining is concerned, at the moment, the global playing field is lopsided against mineral producing countries in Africa. Quite realistically, when these countries struggle economically, invariably, the environment bears much of the strain. By implication, they are continually enmeshed in a game of development they cannot win. And this leaves open the reality of whether or not attempts by African countries to attain environmentally friendly and socially responsible (sustainable) utilization of mineral resources in the wake of present global sustainability disequilibria is wishful thinking- notwithstanding their respective mining legislation, as some of the inhibiting factors make application or implementation of these laws practically impossible.