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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Divisions impact coverage of mining project

Salcito argues that national divisions are causing Malawian journalists to under-represent locals in their coverage of a major mining project in the less developed north.

Last month production began in Malawi’s first ever foreign-developed mining venture. The Kayelekera Uranium Project, owned by Australian uranium miner Paladin Energy, is in Malawi’s northernmost district, Karonga. It has the potential to enrich the region – with jobs, skills training, and income – or launch locals into a health crisis.

You wouldn’t know it from the press coverage, though. In fact, you would hardly know there were locals in the region at all.

As a result of decades-old divides between the north and south, Malawi’s southern-based media is overlooking the people most directly impacted by the new mine. Instead of addressing the pressing concerns the mine presents to northerners, southern journalists are waging philosophical battles over the “Right to Development.”

The Right to Development has been hotly argued since the mid- 20th century, and its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1986 has not resolved the disagreement. The debate hinges on whether the benefits to beneficiaries outweigh the risks to victims of development.

At its surface, this is precisely the discussion needed. Development helps countries and communities that require foreign capital to improve infrastructure, and it has lasting, sustainable positive roles to play. But it can be risky for the local communities whose back yards become project sites while weak governments lack resources such as environmental legislation and adequate tax revenues to remedy problems if the project goes awry.

Malawi fits both descriptions, yet locals are not considered among the relevant winners or losers in the project’s development – benefits and risks are only discussed in terms of national, not regional, gain.

The people are getting lost amid discussion of their rights.

Geography and visibility

How have the communities most directly affected by the mine and the national quest for development disappeared from this public debate? The answer is in the geography: the mine is in the north, while every newspaper is based in and distributed in the south.

In Malawi, latitude matters. 

For the three decades of dictatorial rule between colonial times and Malawi’s first democratic election in 1994, Northern Malawi was known as “The Dead North.” Northern teachers were exiled from southern schools; northern laborers were passed over for work. Southerners were taught that their northern neighbors were “backwards,” and northerners were taught that nothing could grow, thrive, or prosper in their region.

Until the late 1990s not a single highway linked the north and the south. Northerners were accorded no voice, so, unsurprisingly, they produced no newspapers.

Reversal of this policy has not reversed the southern mentality. In fact, laws created to protect northern rights are now being used against them. A March 2009 editorial evoked the constitutional nondiscrimination clause to argue that northerners should not be given first priority in hiring at the project site. The government had informed Paladin Energy of such a policy two years prior.

It is traditionally accepted that a mine’s social and environmental damage to local populations is offset by economic gain. But “nondiscrimination” means that southerners, who had training opportunities and developed industrial experience, actually stand a better chance of gaining from the project’s largesse than the local northerners.

Also, economic gains from taxation and royalties will go to the national capital in Lilongwe, and there is no public agreement that a percentage of that income should return to Karonga. This issue has not hit the presses.

Bypassing risks

Not only are local benefits being bypassed in favor of southern interests, so are the local risks. If the newspapers are to be believed, the mine’s biggest threats are uranium content in water and corruption.

These arguments have little bearing on the reality up north. Extensive environmental assessment by renowned consulting group Knight Piesold details the radiation risk in air, water, and food supplies. Given the natural, extreme quantities of uranium in the soil, locals are already consuming high quantities of the radioactive mineral, and the watersheds are already inundated with it. Risks of radon gas are addressed in Paladin’s globally accepted policies, and monitoring is ongoing. A mine that will finally monitor water and air quality could actually improve public radiation levels

Newspapers, however, report the risk of uranium pollution killing fish in Lake Malawi, 50 kilometers east of the project site. Vigilance regarding monitoring is vital, but concerns far more pressing, if mundane, should be raised, if local health is really at interest to reporters. 

People living within a 15-kilometer radius of the project, when asked in the course of a Human Rights Impact Assessment what worried them, expressed fear of the arrival of outsiders and the increase in food prices. The implications of in-migration and food inflation are serious cause for concern, but their only victims are northerners.

Development and HIV

The influx of foreign populations means a dilution of local culture and increased stress on food supply. Food price spikes hit close to home in a region with a history of drought-induced famine. The most recent food crisis occurred between 2002 and 2004, setting 80 percent of the population at risk for starvation, according to government estimates.

The secondary impacts of in-migration are even more pressing. When Kayelekera was located off a pot-holed, rarely used road, HIV was slow to arrive. But the importation of miners and truck drivers (two of the world’s highest HIV-carrying populations), coupled with the significant improvement to that road, which now connects Kayelekera to Zambia and Tanzania, means that the HIV rates are almost certain to explode. 

Not only is there global documentation that mines, transportation routes, and sudden changes in population types and density put communities and significantly greater risk for HIV transmission, there is a health surveillance project less than 100 km from the mine site that has been tracking HIV rates in the region since the first case was found in the 1980s, verifying that this is the case in North Malawi.

Is there a journalistic responsibility to report on the indirect links between economic development and health deterioration? Should journalists have such specialized information about mine sites and HIV rates?

In Malawi, where HIV rates increase annually, the causes and repercussions of HIV transmission are matters of national importance.   HIV strikes the young and able-bodied — the mothers and the breadwinners. It leaves children orphaned and elderly grandparents unemployed and unsupported. Families crumble, schools lose teachers, students lose the cash for school fees, over-extended hospitals lose the ability to cope with increasing health demands from increasingly sick populations. Ignoring the fears of locals in favor of having a national debate over development ignores the heart of the development issue itself: improvement of life for citizens.

The ultimate irony is that, by failing to consider northerners, the nation could be struck with an HIV epidemic of proportions that would stagger national development for decades.

Kendyl Salcito is the director of the Nomogaia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that conducts Human Rights Impact Assessments for transnational corporations erecting new projects in developing countries. Salcito is the past editor of JournalismEthics.ca. She has been writing and editing for Journalism Ethics since the fall of 2005. Salcito is a 2007 graduate of the UBC School of Journalism, where she specialized in international reporting in the era of global capitalism. Her BA in History from Princeton University piqued her curiosity in global events, but work in Southeast Asia led her into journalism. Since the spring of 2006, Salcito has worked as an editor and writer for the Canadian Journalism Project, as a writer for The Tyee, and has provided stories to CKNW and CBC.

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