Niger’s new development strategy, the Economic and Social Development Plan, is also intended to guide international development cooperation. Environmental governance of uranium mining, the country’s by far largest single economic activity, appears hitherto to have constituted a ‘blind spot’ for environmentally oriented development cooperation. It is now time to remove the blinkers and include support to strengthen environmental governance of the mining sector in new programmes to assist Niger in meeting its development challenges
Niger is well known in international media as one of the world’s poorest countries, struggling with chronic structural hunger and malnutrition. UNDP ranks Niger 186 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, and in 2011, five million people (33% of Niger’s population) were at ‘high risk’ to food insecurity.
What is less well known is that Niger also hosts the fourth largest uranium production in the world. Export values totalled over EUR 348 million in 2010, representing more than twice the total development assistance finance received during the same year. However, the state retains less than one fifth of the value of the uranium ore that is exported. The exploitation of the mineral wealth by international investors is expanding, with granted and requested mining concessions comprising close to 10% of the national territory.
When uranium deposits are located between two permeable layers of sediment, the ore may be obtained through the controlled leaching of acidic substances (so-called lixiviation), which inevitably leads to contamination of sediments and ground and surface water.
Development cooperation: progress with blind spots
In recent years, Niger has elaborated a considerable legislative and administrative framework for environmental governance. These advances are noteworthy and can be credited to the substantial efforts of committed people within and outside Government. Development cooperation has contributed to fostering many of these advances, including the decentralisation and land tenure reform and the legal recognition of pastoral rights.
However, development cooperation interventions in the past decades have been largely based in a ‘crisis orthodoxy’, evoking climatic change and population growth as key causes of hunger and poverty. Over time, this has stimulated projects and programmes with an emphasis on food aid and anti-desertification strategies.
In the period 1964-2010, close to USD 11.3 billions were committed from development cooperation to Niger. Emergency relief and disaster risk reduction received close to 13% of the funding, only surpassed by macro-economic support. Meanwhile, general environmental protection received less than 2%. Donor funded programmes in the mining sector are principally aimed at diversification and expansion of the sector, with little emphasis on the environmental and social safeguards.
In fact, attention to environmental impacts or risks associated with the mining sector goes seemingly without mention in the guiding documents of the principal development partners, including the EU, the World Bank, the UNDP, and the African Development Bank.
Severe environmental governance issues
This is in stark contrast to the grievances expressed by representatives of local populations in the mining zones and pastoral peoples as well as government representatives. Concerns relate to radioactive pollution, water resource depletion, work-related diseases for mine workers, and the appropriation of land and water resources, including legally enshrined common property regimes and pastoral territories, without required compensation. It is widely acknowledged among government staff that the Nigerien government is not able to properly implement its environmental legislation and monitor the uranium mining industry. The Environmental Impact Assessment Bureau has only one person in place to verify all mining project applications in the country and, although legally required, not all verification missions are undertaken. The same applies to the National Centre for Radioprotection, which lacks the necessary capacity e.g. to undertake surprise inspections. The impacts and risks highlighted by civil society must be taken seriously. Due to deficiencies in the public administration, there are considerable constraints in enforcing and implementing the legislative and administrative framework – the very same framework, which development cooperation has helped to put in place.
A legitimate task for development cooperation
Any mining activity will carry with it an environmental toll. The decision to sacrifice natural resources and human health, and ultimately lives of citizens, for economic gain will be the executive decision of the mandated political authority – in this case the Nigerien government. However, development cooperation has a legitimate role to provide support to more sustainable governance of the sector. EU member states have, under various international conventions and political agreements, committed to support developing countries towards sustainable and responsible use of their resources. In fact, development cooperation has already provided much support to improved financial revenue generation through the international Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This work has been warmly welcomed by Nigerien actors and provides a show-case for what could be done for environmental governance of the sector.
The Nigerien uranium mining sector is also intricately linked to the geopolitical energy security interests of some donor countries. The mines are operated by foreign companies (the French AREVA Group and Chinese investors). EU countries such as France, which has been involved in uranium mining since Niger gained independence, remain some of the largest buyers of the uranium ore – thus directly stimulating the mining activities and their detrimental impacts. This raises the question how donor countries could better supervise the behaviour of corporations incorporated within their own territories, thus implementing the recent UN guidelines for the supervision of multinational corporations (in “Protect, Respect and Remedy: a Framework for Business and Human Rights”). Indeed, when transparent and comprehensive problem identification is missing as the basis for donor support, then it opens for speculation that the ignorance of mining-related environmental issues and the crisis discourse on desertification and food insecurity are mobilized as instruments to divert attention from geopolitical interests in the country’s mineral wealth.
With its new development strategy, the Nigerien government emphasises the urgency of increasing mining fees and extraction tariffs to raise the state revenue and strengthen oversight with mining corporations. Importantly, specific attention is also directed at the need to improve the coordination between the mining and environmental sectors and their limited human and institutional capacities. This should be interpreted as an invitation from the Nigerien government to its development partners to proactively support enforcement of the existing environmental regulations of the mining sector. This could, among other things, form a response to the capacity gaps articulated by government agencies, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Bureau and the National Centre for Radioprotection.
Hopefully, the concerns expressed by people experiencing the impacts of the uranium mining industry first hand will be included in the list of priorities for the on-going negotiation between the Nigerien government and its development partners, among them the European Commission and Danida, on how to spend the EUR 3.7 billions.
For additional reading on this topic please see:
Does Uranium Mining Increase Civil Conflict Risk?
Uranium Mining in Africa: A Continent at the Center of a Global Nuclear Renaissance
Pauvreté chronique au Niger