BY CECILIA JAMASMIE | MINING.COM
Demonstrators have blockaded roads in Ethiopia’s unruly Oromia region pressing the government to revoke the renewal of a mining license for a company owned by Saudi billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi because of alleged pollution and health risks to locals.
Protesters have blockaded local roads since April 30, preventing people from going to work and forcing schools to cancel classes, and have said they won’t go anywhere until the 10-year permit for Mohammed International Development Research and Organization Cos (MIDROC) is rescinded, Voice of America reported.
They claim chemicals used to process gold at the open pit mine near Shakiso, 358 kilometers (222 miles) south of the capital, Addis Ababa, have polluted water streams and the air, causing humans and animals respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, birth defects, and disabilities.
The mine’s license, first awarded in 1997, was renewed in April for a decade and includes a provision to give 2% percent of profit to the local community, according to the company’s website.
Al-Amoudi, the second richest man in the Gulf and who is of Ethiopian-Saudi origin, was one of the Saudi billionaires and royals who was placed under house arrest in Riyadh late last year after Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman took swift measures to crackdown on corruption. In January, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison, according to ESAT.
Chemicals blamed for ailments
Protesters contend that chemicals used at the mine contaminate the water and air, sickening humans and animals with everything from respiratory illnesses to miscarriages, birth defects, and disabilities.
“Mothers are having miscarriages every single day,” Abebech Elias, a health care provider from the Shakiso area, told state-owned Oromia Broadcasting Network in a report that aired Tuesday. “I am not seeing this in other places, only around the mining site.”
Also in that report, MIDROC’s environmental protection expert, Ahmed Mohammed, said the company used chemicals including hydrogen cyanide. “[E]ven a small amount” of hydrogen cyanide “can contaminate water and can cause serious consequences,” he said. He did not specify the amounts used in MIDROC’s operations, nor what safety precautions, if any, the company had taken.
MIDROC did not respond to VOA’s attempts to reach it by phone and via its website.
The website MiningFacts.org explains that cyanide, “in the form of a very dilute sodium cyanide solution, is used to dissolve and separate gold from ore. … Cyanide is toxic in large doses and is strictly regulated in most jurisdictions worldwide to protect people, animals, and the aquatic environment.”
Local residents are concerned not only about health but also economics, said Galchu Halake, a community leader and one of the protesters in Arkalo town.
“They want the license to be revoked since the company has been mining gold for export without contributing to the local economy or the society’s well-being,” Galchu said.
Bacha Faji, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines, Petroleum and Natural Gas, said the renewed contract’s terms direct a share of the company’s earnings to local communities.
“Two percent of the income the company generates will go to locals,” Bacha said in an interview with the BBC this week. He said that decision followed a government investigation “into what the company was doing for the past 20 years” and factored in local grievances.
Those include concerns about mining-related environmental degradation, health risks, displacement of housing and “the failure to hire local labor,” the international organization Human Rights Watch noted in a 2016 report.That report focused on Ethiopian security forces’ crackdowns, including “the killings and mass arrest of protesters” over gold mining and other issues.
In April 2016, Badada Gelchu was shot and killed at his home in Shakiso after participating in demonstrations against the gold mine. His family told VOA then that security agents “went to his house and killed him, accusing him of organizing the protests in our area.”
Skeptical of deal
Addisu Bulala, a leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party, expressed skepticism about MIDROC’s renewed license. Speaking with VOA by phone, he mentioned televised reports showing children with deformities allegedly linked to contaminants from mining.
“Until today, there’s been no compensation, no change. … No one is charged for crimes committed” involving environmental pollution, Addisu said. “This is basically selling the community for dollars. Our party is concerned deeply, and no responsible government would allow this.”
Oromia regional officials are “not accepting” the federal mining ministry’s licensing decision, said Negeri Lencho, spokesman for the regional government. “Even if the [ministry] says it conducted an investigation, we have no idea of the findings. They did not share the results. It is disrespectful to us and our people. … They admitted the lack of transparency and agreed to figure this out together.”
Negeri said the regional government was conducting its own investigation into MIDROC’s mining practices and environmental impact.
“We want our people to understand that, as a regional government, their concerns and questions are ours, too,” he added.
Ethiopia still is under a state of emergency imposed in February after the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. His successor, Abiy Ahmed, confirmed in April, is the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, which has long sought equal representation in government.