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Australian uranium miner goes bust ‒ so who cleans up its mess in Africa?

By Morgan Somerville and Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2017


Paladin has ignored our requests to provide its estimate of the cost of rehabilitating Kayelekera, but we can safely say that the figure will be multiples of the US$10 million bond. Just keeping Kayelekera in care-and-maintenance costs US$10-12million annually.

As things stand, if Paladin goes bankrupt and fails to rehabilitate Kayelekera, either rehabilitation will be coordinated and funded by the Malawian government (with a small fraction of the cost coming from Paladin's bond) or the mine-site will not be rehabilitated at all.

Is it reasonable for Australia, a relatively wealthy country, to leave it to the overstretched, under-resourced government of an impoverished African nation to clean up the mess left behind by an Australian mining company? If the Malawian government cleans up Paladin's mess, that will necessarily come at the expense of other priorities. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to a 2013 U.N. report, more than half the population live below the poverty line, and about half of all children under the age of five show signs of chronic malnutrition.

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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should intervene to sort out the situation at Kayelekera and to prevent a repetition of this fiasco. We imagine that the Minister's eyes might glaze over in response to a moral argument about the importance of Australia being a good global citizen. But there is also a hard-headed commercial argument for intervention to clean up Kayelekera.

It does Australian companies investing in mining ventures abroad no good whatsoever to leave Kayelekera unrehabilitated, a permanent reminder of the untrustworthiness and unfulfilled promises of an Australian miner and the indifference of the Australian government. Australia is set to become the biggest international miner on the African continent, perhaps as early as this year, according to the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group. But Australian companies can't expect to be welcomed if travesties such as Kayelekera remain resolved.

'Overly sophisticated'

Back in 2006, John Borshoff told ABC television that Australia and Canada have become "overly sophisticated" with their thinking about environmental and social issues associated with the mining industry. Hence Paladin's focus on projects in Africa.

One advantage ‒ if that's the word ‒ of mining in Africa is that Paladin hasn't had to set aside sufficient funds to rehabilitate Kayelekera. The company's environmental and social record has also been the source of ongoing controversy and the subject of countless critical reports.

Paladin has lost money on Kayelekera, and the economic benefits for Malawi have been pitiful. Paladin has exploited the country's poverty to secure numerous reductions and exemptions from payments normally required by foreign investors. United Nations' Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter noted in a 2013 report that "revenue losses from special incentives given to Australian mining company Paladin Energy, which manages the Kayelekera uranium mine, are estimated to amount to at least US$205 million (MWK 67 billion), and could be up to US$281 million (MWK 92 billion) over the 13 year lifespan of the mine."

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The official line from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is that "mining offers African countries an unparalleled opportunity to stimulate growth and reduce poverty. If well managed, the extractives sector can drive innovation, generate revenue to fund critical social services and upgrade productive physical infrastructure, and directly and indirectly create jobs."

The reality at Kayelekera is starkly different from the picture painted by the bureaucrats in Canberra.

Two years ago, then WA Premier Colin Barnett told a mining conference in South Africa that Australian mining companies have "brought both expertise and ethical standards. It is a matter of pride for many companies that the standards applied in Australia are also applied in Africa."

But standards at Kayelekera fall a long way short of Australian standards. Moreover, Barnett's claims sit uncomfortably with the highly critical findings arising from a detailed investigation by the International Consortium of Independent Journalists. The Consortium noted in its 2015 report that since 2004, more than 380 people have died in mining accidents or in off-site skirmishes connected to Australian mining companies in Africa (there have been six deaths at Kayelekera). The report further stated: "Multiple Australian mining companies are accused of negligence, unfair dismissal, violence and environmental law-breaking across Africa, according to legal filings and community petitions gathered from South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana."

Not even Collin Barnett would argue that Paladin is a source of pride for Australia. Quite the opposite. Likewise, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop surely didn't have Paladin's open-cut mine in mind when she toldthe Africa Down Under mining conference in Perth in September that many Australian mining projects in Africa are outposts of good governance and that the "Australian Government encourages the people of Africa to see us as an open-cut mine for lessons-learned, for skills, for innovation and, I would like to think, inspiration."

Julie Bishop, the WA government, Paladin and its administrators from KPMG need to liaise with the Malawian government and Malawian civil society to sort the rehabilitation of Kayelekera. An obvious starting point would be to prioritise the rehabilitation of Kayelekera if and when Paladin goes bankrupt and its carcass is being divided up. Surely Kayelekera should take precedence over debtors such as French state-owned utility EDF, which is owed US$277 million by Paladin - all the more so since the French state has its own sordid history of uranium mining in Africa.

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About the Authors

Morgan Somerville is an International Relations student at La Trobe University.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Morgan Somerville
All articles by Jim Green

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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