Moatize, Mozambique– Earlier this summer, Hussene Antonio used to walk his herd from a small Mozambican village to some graze-friendly grassland. This no longer happens.
The land he was heading to once belonged to his community until several mining companies including Brazilian Vale S.A. and Indian giant Jindal Steel and Power Limited swarmed to the place with investments worth billions of dollars. Their extensive concession rights cover half the province. The more than 6 million hectares they claim includes nearly all the grasslands that herdsmen from the region need. Apart from the grazing land, locals used to collect firewood in the area, fundamental for cooking and washing.
The Tete province, where these mines are located, is very rich in coal which is expected to become the region’s energy power house. An estimated 23 billion tons of mostly untapped coal lies beneath Tete.
Local farmer communities have been on the losing side of the coal boom so far, especially since large scale resettlements forced them out from 2009 onwards. Communities faced problems accessing food and water, as documented by Human Rights Watch.
Relying upon promises of Vale that access to grazing lands would be maintained, most self-sufficient communities in Moatize, where open-pits are operated, ceded their fertile lands. They were relocated to distant villages, at times even 40 km away from the markets in Moatize, with an agricultural land of uneven quality and unreliable access to water.
Displaced or murdered
On July 13th, 2017, a passage through the fences surrounding a large land leased by Vale was blocked by a construction machine digging trenches. Villagers were using the passage to reach the grass- and bushlands, where they herded the livestock to graze and gathered firewood.
Although many locals were offered housing and resettled kilometres away from this operation area, remnants still live no more than 5 meters far from Vale’s open pits designated by fences.
After the third time locals were denied access to the land, tension escalated. A previous agreement with the local government stated that the gates would remain open for locals to pass and pursue their only means of living.
Knowing that the agreement prevails and having no other choice than reaching the grassland, Hussene Antonio stayed at the gate protesting the closure. The response was as rapid as it was brutal.
When locals from Moatize gathered with sticks in their hands, Vale called for police intervention. As the tension grew, police suddenly opened fire. Hussene Antonio was first shot in the arm. Allegedly, as he was running away from the police, he was shot in the back, this time lethally.
Community members say: “The first two times Vale tried to close the gate without police but they didn’t manage because the population resisted. But this time they came back with a big machine to work on closing the fence definitively.”
After Hussene Antonio died on the spot, the population vandalized the construction machine, a generator and some equipment owned by the company. Following the incident, the secretary of local government made a statement, reflecting his despair over the actions from Vale that day.
“[Vale Mining Company] They called me in the morning to tell they are going to close the entrances. I said I was not aware they were going to do that, so they could not do it. Otherwise, they would cause unrest in the neighbourhood. But they didn’t listen to me, and all of a sudden I heard shots.”
In an interview with local newspaper Malacha, a resident from Moatize, Diolinda Morais Jorge, backed her fellow townsman, who has left a widow and two children behind. She said: “We live off this wood, we come here to the woods to get it to cook, and to sell; if they close this gate, how are we going to live?”
Corporate impunity persists
The company supported the funeral ceremonies by providing bags of food, pulse and grain after which a community meeting was held in the presence of Wilco Uys, Vale’s head of operations in Moatize. Uys asked the locals to respect the boundaries of the concession area pointing out some accidents, which caused great casualty to the kids playing around the pits.
However, he commented neither on the Vale’s ignorance of local communities nor on the breach of agreement regarding the passage. Instead, he blamed the locals for being opportunists and trying to take advantage of the gate to steal from the company “Why are they building their houses next to the forbidden zone?” he asked.
Another community member commented: “The authorities must take account of these incidents and take action. If the town goes on strike, it is because we are sick of it. All grazing areas have been closed. The population has no place to pick up the wood because everything is closed. Also, there is so much coal dust that goes into our homes.”
This is not the first time that Vale has requested police intervention in conflicts with local communities, with sometimes dire consequences. Hundreds of small farmers are still at odds with Vale and other coal extraction companies, as well as the Moatize local government.
Against the backdrop of the so-called gate conflict in Moatize, local pressure over the international companies’ reluctance to cooperate grows. On July 26th, The Cassoca community, another community in Tete Province, stopped the Indian Jindal mining company’s coal trucks from entering the Jindal’s mining site for two days. The reason was lack of progress on their resettlements away from the mine, where 289 families look forward to finding new homes.
The community members told the local newspaper Zitamar that they are fed up with the company not fulfilling its promises. Along with serious air pollution and lack of access to their livelihood, locals are now facing a water crisis after the breakdown of community’s only water pump.
The company is said to be negotiating both with the community leaders and the local government at the district level to overcome the dispute.