As Malawi’s government promotes investment in mining and resource extraction, ordinary Malawians have been struggling to access information on the impact of mining operations on their lives: Is mining polluting their drinking water? Their fields? Last week, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika took a positive step by signing into law a bill that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results.
Malawi’s civil society organizations have advocated for such a law for many years. Last September, Human Rights Watch released a report showing how Malawians have been left in the dark about the risks mining activities pose to their daily lives.
For example, Rosbelle, a mother of seven children, told us that a couple of years ago, the Eland Coal Mining company started mining coal near her village in rural northern Malawi. The company promised villagers a new school and jobs, and Rosbelle had high hopes for her children’s future. But in 2015, Eland Coal Mining – a subsidiary of a Norwegian-owned company – ended its operations and abandoned the mine. There was no rehabilitation of the mine site, and left behind were piles of coal and open mining pits filled with water. Since then, Rosbelle has worried that the water that she and her children drink might be polluted by toxic substances often found at improperly cleaned-up mining sites. Eland Coal Mining did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.
When I spoke with Rosbelle last year, she said that, at a minimum, the “government should come and talk to the community about mining” and “educate us including about the risks.” But the authorities have never told them about the dangers of mining and whether the water from the local river and boreholes is safe to drink. Her village and other mining communities, as well as local organizations, have repeatedly asked the government to release the results of water testing, without avail.
For the new law to make a meaningful difference, Malawians need to know how they can use it. Accessing information under the law should be a simple process for everyone – including for people who cannot read or write. Training sessions for communities and government officials will also be important. Civil society organizations and journalists can play an important role by raising awareness about the right to information and holding the government and mining companies to account. The new law, if carried out effectively, could be a boon to mining communities like Rosbelle’s that have long sought answers to questions literally of life and death