The extraction and export of fossil deposits from the Mozambican province has grown in recent years. The benefits go into the pockets of Indian and Maputo companies. The local population not only does not see the fruits but is exploited and removed from their land.
The bulldozers dig into the earth, lift tons of coal and deposit them on large trucks. On the edge of a leaden crater an engineer recounts his day: “We never stop, now I’m going to sleep for a few hours then the night shift awaits me, from 10pm to 6am”. The 25-year-old man moved from Maputo to the Chirodzi mine to work with the multinational that holds the concession, the Indian Jindal. Until fifteen years ago, where the chasms of the quarries are now sinking, there lived a community of small farmers that the government has relocated elsewhere.
And similar transfers also befell other rural communities in the area to make way for mining companies.
This is the province of Tete, northern Mozambique, a territory that holds reserves of coal estimated at 23 billion tons. The fuel that has returned to the centre of world interests with the energy hunger triggered by the post-pandemic recovery and the Russian gas crisis, which have directed conversion policies towards more sustainable sources. Thus, for the large companies that preside over it, the mining area of Tete has once again become an Eldorado of coal. This is confirmed by what was declared to the local media by the director of infrastructure in Tete, Grácio Cune: in the past year the sector has had a growth of 47%. Business is booming for the groups present today, all Indian, Jindal, Vulcan, and ICVL, which sell the extracted fossil mainly to buyers on the Asian market and to the blast furnaces of China and India, insatiable for coke. Among the compounds of the gigantic Moatize site, a Portuguese operator comments: “Coal is easy to transport and continues to prove to be irreplaceable. Pollution? It’s not a problem, just plant trees”.
Pollution? It’s not a problem…
The man works for Mota Engil Africa, a company that controls the maintenance of the mine under contract. But it is enough to set foot beyond the fence of the plant to understand how his optimism is unjustified. The mining sites have eviscerated the horizon and clouds of dust rise from the craters, a membrane of soot cloaks the houses
and streets around.
The inhabitants speak of diseases attributable to pollution, pneumonia and tumours, which are increasingly widespread. The drama finds its confirmation in the analyses carried out by the NGO Source International around the mining town of Moatize, inhabited by 40 thousand people. Here the density of fine dust in the air turned out to be more than double the daily limits indicated by the WHO, and that of very fine dust is more than quadruple. While local communities suffer the side effects of the mining business, coal travels quickly to the global market. From Moatize, a special railway corridor branches off to reach the ports of Nacala and Beira, on the Indian Ocean, where the hydrocarbon is transported by ship.
During the decline in demand for coal, with the crisis in the sector induced by the first signs of energy conversion, the completion of the 912 km long railway section towards Nacala had slowed down. But then it was completed in 2016 with the eviction of entire villages, amid beatings by government forces and the protests of the reassentados, the people relocated elsewhere. The railway now runs several trains
per day, up to 3 km long.
The owner of it all is now Vulcan, a subsidiary of the Indian Jindal company, a multinational listed at 18 billion dollars, which in April 2022 acquired the Moatize mine and its infrastructure from the Brazilian giant Vale. Cost: 270 million. For the 5,300 workers employed in the quarry, the transfer meant a real leap in the dark, accompanied by spontaneous strikes in the streets of Moatize and in front of the mine gates protected by contractors equipped with shields and batons. “Vulcan’s new management group has already emphasised the downside. There have been layoffs, the budget for subcontracting services has decreased and now many miners are forced to sleep in the quarry, because there is no means of transport to get them to and from home and work. We have brought the issues to the attention of the government, without receiving a response. If this continues, there will be an indefinite strike”, says the provincial secretary of the Consilmo trade union federation, Fernando Raice Jorge who, in the course of endless negotiations, tries on the one hand to build dialogue with the companies and, on the other, to inform workers regarding their rights.
Maputo is negotiating directly
In a context where there is not yet a national contract for miners and agreements are made at the time of hiring, the companies do not communicate anything about their industrial plans, and even the government officials of the province of Tete themselves do not understand what is happening regarding mining concessions because the central government of Maputo deals directly with the companies.
Money and raw materials immediately flow elsewhere and the accumulation of money is in the hands of very few.
In the area, there is not even a shadow of the economic well-being that the flywheel of the mining activity should have brought, according to what was promised. “Thanks to my work as an employee, I was able to help my brother to study and bring the money home”, testifies a confident young miner on the streets around the mine. But his is a rare, lucky case. The skilled workers all come from outside, from the capital Maputo and even from neighbouring Zambia and Zimbabwe. For those who have not trained in technical schools, the jobs of janitor, guardian, canteen or cleaner remain, with salaries of 190 euros a month, while a basic worker earns 270.
Today the extractive industry absorbs 0.5% of the population, in a context of strong demographic development, where nine out of ten people earn their living from small agricultural activities.
Tete is dilapidated, communities cleared
The flexible representation of how development was a phase of exhilaration that soon evaporated can be seen in Tete, a city on the placid banks of the Zambezi River, which twenty years ago experienced a surge in population as a result of internal immigration from the countryside, increasing by 50%. Its skyscrapers in the centre tell the tale; they were built upon the arrival of the large mining companies to house banks and provide services to expatriate technicians. Today, however, those high-rise buildings are dilapidated, Tete is dilapidated and does not look at all like the capital of a province that produces between 10 and 15% of the national GDP.
Meanwhile, once an extraction site is exhausted, the companies cover the crater and dig at a spot a little farther away, one area after another, wiping out entire communities that have been relocated to the new settlements of Cateme, 25 de Setembro, and Mwaladzi, Mboza. Soon two other communities in the district of Moatize and Chiúta will be cleared and moved elsewhere, to villages such as Mboza, a grid of pastel-coloured buildings designed to accommodate 272 families, but still partially uninhabited. Here we meet Bonga, a 60-year-old former farmer and a community leader, who now works at the Moatize mine as a gardener. His native village of Kapanga no longer exists: “Three years ago the government first warned us, then compensated us with a small sum and finally told us to leave. The new settlement is isolated and many families have preferred to disperse elsewhere instead of moving”, he says from his house. Meanwhile, on the street, a group of unemployed young people, without dreams or hopes, spend the day listening to the radio.
“Robbed of everything”
Cateme, on the other hand, is the first of the villages for reassentados to be built. Now two thousand people live there. The buildings rest on concrete platforms without foundations and are unsafe. The water drawn from the well is salty and dirty and causes bladder pain; the place is very far from everything and there is no connection with hospitals. No one likes to talk to outsiders, especially if they are white.
The fear of being spied on and punished is perceptible. Nobody works in the mines, despite the promises of the big mining companies. Ignazio, the local leader and judge, recounts: “They took us away from our fields, from our dead. Our cemetery has remained near the old village, we have not had the opportunity to transfer our ancestors respecting the funeral rites”. An exasperated man steps up beside him: “Everyone here has got rich, except us poor people from the villages. The big companies have made fun of us, we just have to rebel. We must do as in Cabo Delgado!”. He is referring to the province of Mozambique where for five years the Islamist guerrilla warfare that has caused almost a million refugees has not subsided and where international investments have concentrated around deposits of gas and precious minerals.