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Rights Groups Press New Mining Code in West Africa

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Throughout West Africa gold, bauxite, uranium and other lucrative minerals are being extracted from the land, but local communities benefit little or in many cases lose out. Human-rights and development experts at a recent meeting in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, say governments and mining companies share a responsibility to ensure that people are helped not harmed by mining. Nancy Palus reports from Dakar.

Citizens who live near mining sites participated in last week's meeting in Dakar - the first in a series of consultations on a new mining code for the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS.

ECOWAS led the April 17 to 19 meeting, in collaboration with Oxfam America. Eleven West and Central African countries were represented.

Joana Manu is a farmer who was once arrested for tilling a parcel of family land in western Ghana. A mining company said it owned the land.

"Farming is our only source of income. In our community our level of education is very low so we only rely on our farming. So when these mining companies come and then the government leases land for them it means we have to stop farming and if we stop farming activities how can we take care of our children and siblings and dependents? So I think there should be a law that protects our water bodies and there should be a law that the government should seek the consent of the community, of whether they like mining or they do not," said Manu.

After defending herself in court, Manu was eventually able to return to farming her land. But members of the Ghanaian delegation at the conference said that is not the case for many. Mining operations often displace families and hurt agricultural production.

Recent riots throughout West Africa over food price hikes have underscored the need to build up local production and safeguard rural communities' livelihoods.

"There is a big competition between mining operations and other socio-economic activities particularly agricultural ones," said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam America's regional director for West Africa.

He says both governments and mining companies must be accountable.

"Communities have the right to a harmonious and sustainable development, they have a right to a secure livelihood, they have a right to a clean environment - all of that is the responsibility of the state but also of non-state actors, to protect and fulfill those rights," added Biteye.

Helene Cisse, a Dakar-based lawyer and a legal consultant on the mining code, says meaningful partnership among all concerned is the only way mining can be profitable in the long run.

"We need productive investment. But it must be for the sake of everybody, for the interest of everybody," said Cisse. "And this is the basic idea of this mining code, to convince the people that there is no durable development, human development, if there is no partnership."

Cisse says governments and civil society must put practical measures in place so the reality on the ground matches human-rights conventions that exist on paper.

"What is really urgently needed in Africa, especially in the zones where mining resources are exploited, is to effectively implement social, economic and cultural human rights of the local population and the workers, if you want peace and stability and justice in this space," continued Cisse. "So this is the gap between international norms in terms of human rights and the regression in terms of effective implementation."

A number of further consultations are planned with the private sector and other groups during the coming months before the West Africa mining code is finalized and comes before member states for a vote.

 

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