In Mozambique, emerging coal industry brings modern conveniences, big risks

Living on Earth

In China and India, economies are booming.

Along with booming economies comes a booming demand for energy and, at least in those countries, that means a booming demand for coal. About two-thirds of the energy in those countries come from coal.

Both countries have a lot of coal within their own boundaries, but not enough to fuel their increasing demand. Enter Mozambique.

“They say it’s the world’s largest undeveloped coal basin, and it’s got huge resources of coking and metallurgical coal,” said Gerritt Theron, a geologist with the Ncondezi Coal Company.

Ncondezi is still prospecting the area, but Rio Tinto is preparing to begin exports to China and India.

Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company, will export large amounts of coal from the coountry. In the process, it has bought up large swaths of land, near Tete, that used to be people’s homes.

Coal currently provides 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 20 years, the world is expected to use 50 percent more coal than today.

Tete is one of the driest and least-populated parts of Mozambique, though it’s land has suddenly become quite valuable.

Manuel Maenda, a local villager, said the mining companies arrival hasn’t been all bad. Rio Tinto offered to help develop a water source for his village.

“We were having problems with crocodiles attacking people and so forth, and so, they built it, and nobody goes to the river now or has problems with crocodiles,” he said.

Clothes can be washed in the center of town with water drawn from the same pipe that carries water to the Rio Tinto mine.

Hotels are also going up in the village, Benga, and construction is everywhere. 

“There’s just a huge demand for coal now—with China, and India. Everybody that makes steel will be interested in it,” Theron said.

Prices are already at record levels as demand soars. Experts predict that peak coal, when the world’s maximum coal production rate is reached, will come as early as 2030, or even 2025. In China, it could be 2015.

“With the high prices that the guys are willing to pay now, you can exploit these resources that were uneconomical in the past, for instance Tete, which didn’t have any railways to the ports or infrastructure,” Theron said.

More than 35 companies are currently looking to export coal from Tete. To do that, they’ll need to add railroads and port facilities in order to get all of that coal out. Vale, a Brazilian company, has rebuilt a colonial-era railroad to begin its exports, but that’s only the beginning. Rio Tinto wants to dredge the Zambezi River, the source of water for the mines and the communities, and use barges to transport coal.

More than half the land in Tete Province has ben licensed for prospecting. Even assuming a small fraction of that land becomes actual, working mines, the implications for land-use policy in the province are enormous.

“We all need to understand that mining in Moatize is irreversible. We have to learn to deal with the process because we have no way to stop it,” said Manuel Guimaraes, district administrator in Moatize

With all the activity that’s expected, Guimaraes has high hopes for his community.

“Already, Moatize is advancing. And it’s advancing in big steps,” he said.

Coal projects have already added 1500 jobs and built medical clinics and schools, he said.

But not everyone thinks these new facilities are worth the costs. Locals, even provincial governors, have virtually no say in what land is given over to mining companies, said Lucia Francisco, who has worked on community development projects in Tete for more than a decade.

“There is so little community consultation, because all the licenses, and all the projects are being designed in Maputo. The Governor has no say,” she said. “What he does is to go to the community and say, ‘please, this is not my will, but this part of land has been already allocated to someone. We have to leave’.”

Those who have been forced to leave mostly had lived in villages along the river. They were moved about 20 miles to Cateme, a small town at the end of a bumpy, dusty road. The mining company built the people homes, but already they’re showing signs of how poorly they were made.

“they are really suffering because there are no rivers or streams that they can get water. No shops,” Francisco said.

The real unknown, however, is pollution. New studies indicate that people exposed to open pit mining may suffer from higher rates of cancer, pulmonary diseases and birth defects.

Many people and livestock drink straight from the rivers, which could expose them to high levels of pollutants.

“Nobody speaks about the pollution,” Francisco said. “Everybody says the mining is good, because it’s bringing money to the nation, but they don’t even ask whether this open mining is going to damage their life.”

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