Malawi is a landlocked country with an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and tobacco as the main foreign export earner. With climate change and poor tobacco prices at the auction floors coupled with a worldwide campaign against tobacco, Malawi is desperately looking for alternatives for forex generation.
About six years ago Malawi issued a uranium-mining licence to Australian company Paladin Africa, currently mining uranium at Kayerekela in Karonga in the north of the country. In October last year the government gave Surestream Petroleum, a British firm, licence to explore in Lake Malawi oil and gas. With the country now in forex and fuel crisis, the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika believes that the drilling of oil in Lake Malawi will ease the problem of fuel shortage.
However, local fishermen and other environmentalists are not happy with government issuing such a licence because they fear it will interfere with the ecosystem. Environmentalists believe that the local communities especially fishermen will lose out on the deal because oil spills will affect their fishing in the lake.
“The problem we have in Malawi is that law enforcement is a problem and this is the reason why environmental problems are on the increase,” sys Reginald Mumba from Coordination unit for local NGO Rehabilitation of the Environment. “If we can only empower the local communities to manage their resources then they will benefit. But in this situation the communities have no say and the politicians just impose issues on them.”
Mumba says politicians don’t think about their people and they are only interested in money without considering people’s lives. He says that while oil and gas drilling will be good for the people, there is a need to protect them.
Jonas Manjanja, a fisherman from Karonga where the oil and gas exploration is currently taking place, has accused the government and companies of being secretive with information to local communities.
“Uranium mining is taking place in Karonga and the people here are not benefiting from it,” said Manjanja. “Some people say uranium dust and other wastes are damped in our rivers but there is no information. This is the same with this new oil and gas company. We need to know the dangers we will be subjected to.”
According to Sam Kamoto, acting executive director of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, it is important to empower the communities economically.
“Many people rely on these natural resources for their survival and protecting them [resources] will help them improve on their lives,” he said.
Isaac Katopola, director of tourism in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture, has expressed regret at the venture, saying it will affect the Lake Malawi ecosystem and deprive local communities, especially fishermen, their livelihoods.
However, Goodall Gondwe, Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Energy, maintains that the government had not erred in granting the licence to Surestream Petroleum, arguing that the oil and gas will benefit the country. Surestream Petroleum general manager for Malawi Keith Robinson said his company will carry out an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to ensure that no damage is done to the environment.
“This is a highly technical process and as a company we will use different techniques, including an aerial-magnetic survey involving a helicopter with sensitive instruments to fly onto the lake,” said Robinson.
He said oil exploration in Lake Malawi will take between four and seven years and will involve local biologists, scientists, zoologists and petroleum geologists, international and local independent economists who will carry out the EIA.
Lake Malawi is Africa’s third-largest fresh-water lake with over 800 fish species and supports close a million fishermen either directly or indirectly. The Malawi government has always been open in its dealings with companies and there are still problems with Paladin Africa and the local communities regarding promises made by the government and the company when it started its mining activities. The EIA report and other activities at the mining site remain very secretive and this makes communities to believe that such companies are endangering them.