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Don't Let Titanium Become The Curse Of Kwale

Opinion by Sam Wainaina, The East African (Nairobi), 18 January 2001

Nairobi - The government is in dire need of foreign funds and the titanium mining venture by Tiomin Kenya Ltd, a subsidiary of Tiomin Resources Inc of Canada, will get government clearance to go on with the project whether environmentalists in Kenya or local people in Kwale District like or not.

But Tiomin Resources and Tiomin Kenya must be aware by now that the dynamics of this issue are constantly changing and they could burn their fingers in this venture. Alternatively, to turn a profit, they may engage in cost cutting that will leave the environment at the Kenya Coast irreparably damaged.

It should be pointed out that contrary to popular belief, titanium is not a rare mineral. Huge amounts of ore (poorer than in Kwale, no doubt) are to be found in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, South America and other parts of Africa.

Recent criticism of a Cabinet Minister, who has consistently supported titanium mining in Kenya, over EATEC land in Eldoret, Kenya, is likely to encourage people in Coast Province to resist high handed measures by the government to force peasants out of the mining areas in Kwale District.

The controversy over whether the depleted uranium in Nato anti-tank shells (used in Kosovo and the Gulf) causes leukaemia or not will accentuate doubts about the wisdom of disturbing radioactive rocks in Kwale.

With these new dynamics in hand, it is important for Tiomin Kenya and its critics to agree to work together to keep the environmental impact of the mining venture at a minimum, while leaving people in the affected area reasonably contented.

By presenting their case through advertising in local newspapers, Tiomin Kenya are serving notice that they have listened to their critics. Some of their answers, though, leave a lot to be desired.

For example, they claim that the entire area that will be under excavation in Kwale will not exceed five square kilometres.

If they will actually invest Ksh10 billion ($125 million) in the venture, it is difficult to see how they can expect to make a profit from this small area, given that as they have already stated, they will not dig more than a metre deep. More likely, the small area they refer to is a "test plot." It will be extended without further comment after the elections in 2002.

They have also promised to reforest the land as the mining progresses. This is an important concession, given that it addresses two critical fears of the environmentalists: (i) that soils from the strip mined area may be washed into rivers and ultimately into Shimoni Marine Park, 20 miles downstream. (ii) That removing vegetative cover in an area so close to Shimba Hills reserve may change the climatological balance, thus harming the reserve through a change in its humidity characteristics.

A key plus for Tiomin Kenya is their promise to recycle the ground water extracted for the purpose of pre-treatment of the ore. Still they should demonstrate clearly how they intend to do this.

The company has claimed that Cabinet Ministers and other influential people are not "hidden shareholders" in the venture. This being Kenya, we can let this one pass without much comment; suffice it to say that transnational mining conglomerates tend to prefer working in poor nations with big men playing an anchor role in the background.

Another plus for Tiomin Resources is their categorical denial of any bribery in the venture. They say that if they were to do this, it would be a punishable crime in Canada. By the same token, they should agree to have any environmental pollution arising from the venture in Kenya litigated in Canadian courts.

As for the South African consultants who did the environmental impact assessment studies on behalf on Tiomin Resources, this is really the equivalent of a football team appointing their own referee.

As a rule, notwithstanding the practice being international, mining areas in Africa are so polluted that Africans should resist this practice.

At the height of the criticism of the titanium mining venture a few months ago, an official of the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi made the unfortunate comment that if the titanium venture failed to proceed, it would send negative signals to investors abroad about Kenya.

This comment can safely be ignored. Does it mean also that when the Red Indians who live west of Montreal stop a group of investors putting up a golf course on their reservation, as happened recently, investors will keep away from Canada?

At the same time, the Ministry of Environment said it would commission its own EIA. Any such talk vanished soon after Trade and Tourism Minister Nicholas Biwott said that the government supported the mining venture.

It may be a good idea, though probably impossible, to encourage the South African EIA team who did the studies for Tiomin Resources to work jointly with Kenya environmentalists from Kenyatta University, Nairobi, whose assessment of the project was negative.

Ideally, these teams can travel together to the tropical island nation of Madagascar where titanium mining has been reported to have extensively damaged marine resources. They can then work out recommendations on how to forestall similar mistakes in Kenya.

Many environmental agencies are wary of criticising the Canadian mining venture because the Canadians have been good to environmental NGOs. They are also major supporters of the United Nations Environment Programme.

I believe it is quite possible to strike a middle course so that everybody benefits from the mining of titanium in Kenya while at the same time the environment and the affected communities are not traumatised by the venture.

Unless that happens, titanium will become what oil turned out to be for the Rivers State of Nigeria - a curse.

Copyright 2001 The East African. Distributed by allAfrica.com. For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.