As Brazilian mining giant Vale prepares to quit Mozambique almost two decades after it won the right to dig for coal in Moatize, Tete province, the local community is counting the cost in terms of the pollution and disruption the project has brought.
More than a decade after Vale started mining, people living on the concession area are still waiting to be resettled. Meanwhile, the local population and civil society groups monitoring the mining company’s operations question pollution tests carried out by Vale in Moatize.
The tests are carried out by Vale itself or by companies it contracts to do them, without community involvement, several Moatize-based sources told Zitamar News and Danwatch, a Danish investigative journalism organisation that recently visited Moatize with Zitamar.
“Basically they are players and referees at the same time,” Alberto Estevene of the Moatize-based environmental NGO Kubecera told Zitamar and Danwatch.
“What they publish as test results is obviously what favours them,” he said.
The only tests of pollution in the area are carried out by Vale itself, who then presents its conclusions to civil society and the government, confirmed Stela Malola of the Association of Support and Legal Assistance to Communities (AAAJC).
“They talk about acceptable standards, but if you go out into the community you will see that the environment is not bearable,” she said. “What they say is simply belied by reality.”
The impact of Vale’s activities on the environment should be assessed by independent organisations, said Erika Mendes of Mozambican environmental NGO Justiça Ambiental.
Furthermore, Estevene said, Vale does not conduct tests in the worst-hit areas, but rather in distant locations, pointing to tests the company did in 2020 at places around 3.5km from the mines.
“And those people who are 1m from the mine fence, how are they?” he asked. “They are the ones who feel the impact of Vale’s irresponsible mining the most.”
Day to day pollution
Zitamar travelled through much of the Moatize district and with the naked eye it was possible to see a layer of coal dust on everything from dishes to textiles, even on tree leaves, some of which have turned from green to almost black.
“Even this here is nothing,” said Alice Tsico*, showing her dirty finger after passing over the bookcase of her house. “I have been writing my name on a plate for days, and it’s been very visible because of the coal dust.”
The impact of the mining operations has even hit the personal preferences of Moatize residents, including their diet.
“We are forbidden to like white clothes because we will have nowhere to wash and hang them out,” she said. “We could wash and dry inside the house, but dust gets in here too” she added, saying that she must clean the dishes practically every 2 hours.
The water from the taps, as Zitamar witnessed in Moatize, also comes out with a black coloration.
“We drink it just like that,” she said. “’Sometimes we disinfect it or boil it, but it still has this colour.”
Vale told Zitamar that the current levels of environmental pollution caused by the company’s activities in Moatize are within the standards set by Mozambican environmental legislation.
The long wait for resettlement
Osvaldo Sales, 33, was born and lives in Ntchenga, about 100m from the fence of one of Vale’s first mines in Moatize. He is a peasant farmer and says that in the past he was able to plant and harvest good produce, but since Vale started operating things have changed drastically.
“The land is no longer the same,” he said. “The soil no longer has the same properties because when Vale washes its machines, the water is evacuated into this community, infecting the fields.”
The local river whose water was used by the community for different purposes, Sales said, no longer exists because its source is located where Vale has installed its coal mine.
“Life has changed a lot here,” he said. “Since 2010 we have been suffering because of Vale and it only got worse when in 2011 the company closed the river.”
The community of Ntchenga lies within Vale’s concession area, but has not been resettled because the houses are not directly on a space where coal is being mined.
Nevertheless, Sales, his wife, their four children, and 68 other families, live surrounded by mining and its effects.
“We get sick here with coal dust, with rumbling, with particles from the rocks and other things resulting from these operations,” he said. “The animals no longer have anywhere to eat and even the water we drink is not drinkable.”
With the end of the rivers, Vale has been providing water since 2012 to the community of Ntchenga through tanker trucks. However, according to Sales, the tanks the water is put in have not been cleaned. ”It’s dirt everywhere … it’s harmful to health, and there is no medical assistance here,” he said.
“When they blow up the mines all the dust comes here,” added 21-year-old Farida Domingos. “The food is no longer the same because we no longer spread flour to dry it because it will be all full of coal dust,” she added, saying that coughing illnesses are common, especially in children.
Julia Madzemusse, 57, another resident of Ntchenga, told Zitamar that Vale has made life in the communities a “nightmare” because “everything has become more difficult.” They used to walk about 9km to access health and education in Chipanga, she said, but since that infrastructure was destroyed to make way for coal mining, the population is now forced to walk 28km to the town of Moatize.
”And note that there is no decent transportation … it has to be by bike or on foot,” she said. ”It becomes much more difficult for us women and children.”
According to Sales, Vale first surveyed houses in the Ntchenga community in 2010, promising resettlement soon, but has not yet done so. It recently started another process that is still continuing.
”Everyone’s wish is that this resettlement takes place as soon as possible because we are not managing with the pollution. We can feel the slow death,” he said.
Vale told Zitamar that the water distributed by the company to the communities is of good quality and that it is the same water that Vale uses every day for consumption by its employees. Asked when was the last time Vale cleaned the tanks, the company said “the tanks are cleaned routinely.”
As for the resettlement process, Vale told Zitamar that it completed the construction of the model house last year, and that the goal is to transfer the families to a new area in the next two to three years.
Vale blocks civil society involvement in pollution measurement
Alberto Estevene told Zitamar that his organisation has asked Vale several times to be included in the impact studies of the mining operations, but the requests have been rejected.
“They don’t even bother to respond,” he said. “They tell you to write a letter, but you’ll never get a response.”
Vale told Zitamar that an initiative to involve communities to measure pollution levels is on the “right track” and that the activity is done daily at five stations.
More on this story: Vale and government hide dangerous pollution levels from Moatize community
However, Estevene said that that project was nothing more than a “farce” supposedly because it was only operational for a short time and then was aborted.
A resident of the Carbomoc area, which Zitamar visited, said that the station in that area is closed and he never heard about the project again.
When asked about this, Vale told Zitamar that in 2021, the station suffered “‘successive vandalisms”, which forced the company to relocate the station to another measuring point with better security conditions. The company did not say where it now is.
“We as a community were never invited to be part of the measurement,” said a resident of the Bagamoyo neighbourhood. “These reports from Vale are all adulterated,” he said.
Raul Pensado of AAAJC said that complaints about Vale’s pollution reach the government every day, but they prefer to ignore it, showing themselves to be on Vale’s side.
It’s clear that there is complicity,” he said. ”The one who should be a watchdog is the one who is turning a blind eye and letting evil happen,” he lamented. ”If the government did its part there wouldn’t be these complaints.”
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