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Mining and employment: community struggles in Tunisia and South Africa

Extractivism all-over the African continent is still appropriating and exploiting natural resources and destroying the environment and the livelihood of local communities.

March of community activists and NGO workers on the last day of the Alternative Mining Indaba to Cape Town International Convention Centre where the Africa Mining Indaba is organised, to present a memorandum with lists of demands. Picture by Verena Glass, 2018, courtesy of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Sao Paolo Office. All rights reserved.

“Our land is not for sale. Your mining is not development. It is a destruction of our land.”

Employment and income generated by industrial mining activities are fields of tensions. Mining companies, government representatives or so-called development agencies argue with employment opportunities; surrounding communities are often disrupted and opponents criticise low numbers of new work possibilities. Case studies from South Africa and Tunisia reflect the issue and illustrate the role of community organizing.

For the past 20 years, every year in Cape Town, South Africa, governments, investors, and mining companies meet in the annual Africa Mining Indaba to network and discuss developing mining interests in Africa. The development that is aimed for here is one where African officials meet international investors and work on the development of mining projects. In other words, it is a place to get work done in the extractive sector. This year’s Indaba was held from the 5th to the 8th of February and saw the participation of mining companies’ CEOs, former UN high officials, and ministers. They discussed in an optimist environment as 2017 closed with an increase in the price of almost all minerals.

As an NGO worker, I took part in the Alternative Mining Indaba, a parallel conference held annually since 2010 in Cape Town to counter the exclusion of communities affected by the official Africa Mining Indaba and offer communities the space to voice their concerns and criticism. The tone there was not optimistic, as we were meeting in a time of a severe water crisis in Cape Town and where extractivism all-over the African continent is still appropriating and exploiting natural resources and destroying the environment and the livelihood of local communities.

A view to the South 

During this parallel conference, I was introduced to Nonhle Mbuthuma, a community activist from the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC). The ACC was formed in 2007 and gathers community members in five villages of the Amadiba tribal authority region, in Xolobeni, a village in Pondoland of the Eastern Cape of the Republic of South Africa. ACC fights against a destructive Titanium mining project by an Australian mining company and defends the community’s rights to control their communal land, and against the removing of vegetation and the destruction of livelihoods. ACC in coordination with human rights lawyers works with the community to take the issue to court and stop the minerals minister from granting mining rights to their land which is held under traditional law.

Traditional family farming has suffered greatly since the instauration of neoliberal policies

Mining companies and the government make luring promises of employment and development to the community. Nonetheless Nonhle explained the importance of having a consolidated stance as a community against mining. In order to do that, activists explain to the community that the jobs that the mining companies offer are not “real” jobs in the sense of longevity, and that their negative impact on the community is far higher than the benefits they offer. Rather, the community is demanding the development of their region through organic agriculture and eco-tourism projects, where they are involved in the planning and execution of those projects. Resistance in this community is not a new thing, as rural people of Pondoland for the past 50 years have resisted state imposed development projects and against racial-capitalised Apartheid.

Having a somehow collective position against mining has been costly for the communities of Pondoland. The traditional authorities and the community members who are backing the mines are sometimes resorting to violence in their quest for profit from future mining. This is targeted especially against environmental and land rights activists and during the past decade 12 activists have been shot dead or poisoned.

View to the North

For the youth in Meknassi, a town in the Sidi Bouzid Governorate in central Tunisia, there is an opposite position where protestors are demanding the opening of Jabess mine on their land. Sidi Bouzid is known to many as the birth place of the Tunisian revolution given that it is the place where street demonstrations took-off demanding employment and dignity in 2011. Interior regions have always been marginalised as opposed to the capital and coastal cities which have been the focal point of economic development projects.

Sidi Bouzid, seven years onward, still suffers from a harsh economic situation and an unemployment rate higher than 45%. 
As one researcher puts it, the history of phosphate has a contradictory duality as both an initiator of life and initiator of decay: it is phosphate which created life in the Tunisian mining basin towns and it is also phosphate which accelerated the decline of other aspects of life in that region.

Phosphate mining is a very polluting activity. There is a strong rotten-eggs smell that is produced due to the sulphuric acid used in the extraction process near the mines. It is also a water intensive activity as 8 tons of phosphate require 10 million cubic meters of groundwater which consequently affects citizens’ right to access water, especially farmers. Sidi Bouzid is already overexploiting its groundwater at the hands of corporate farmers who are pumping the majority of water from deep aquifers without the proper authorisations. 

Empirical studies show that traditional family farming has suffered greatly since the instauration of neoliberal policies in the mid-90s. This affected access to land and water resources, favouring large scale private investment at the expense of small farmers who find themselves marginalised and incapable of competing. In light of these agricultural policies, the fact that the Meknassi community is willing to give up their land, seldom planted with olive trees, becomes much more understandable. 

Communities should not be deciding under the burden of unemployment and poverty

Despite all the issues raised about phosphate mining and industries, the Tunisian government in its 2016-2020 development plan, has the target of developing the phosphate and mining sector exports by 7.10% compared to a negative development of 4.12% during the period 2011-2015; which requires a recovery of the full production capacity in the mining basin and of the chemical group.

To formulate an alternative project, social-environmental protest movements have to reject hegemonic values imposed on them on modes and relationships of production. One of those values might be that phosphate mining at the hands of the state or even a private company is the only way for those youth to access employment opportunities. 

“Not about us, without us”

Communities must be involved in the decision making on suggested development projects that affect them. Whether a state or private company executed project, negative impacts are to be avoided and communities’ economic, social, and cultural rights should be protected. This is the concept of ׳free prior and informed consent׳(FPIC) which was adopted by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2017.

I would argue that in order for the decision to be made freely, communities should not be deciding under the burden of unemployment and poverty. Would the youth of Meknassi push with the same intensity for the mine opening if the state had invested in the agricultural sector in Sidi Bouzid in a way that favours small farmers? Isn’t the loss of land and water a very high price to pay for the provision of few hundred jobs in the Meknassi mine? 

Both forms of community organising in Pondolanad and Meknassi are innovative forms of civic engagement in which communities take the lead and express their right to development as they see it. They are both led by young people who unfortunately suffer intimidation but who luckily have not lost confidence in fighting for their rights. The role of innovative NGOs should not be one where they replace the community in negotiating with the government or other stakeholders, but rather to work side by side with the community and accompany them, using all available mechanisms, in their struggle for their rights. Perhaps there is a lesson here that South Africa might teach North Africa.

Unlike their fellow African citizens in Pondoland, the community in Meknassi has been pushing for accelerating the process of starting the phosphate mining operations in the Jabess mine demanded since 2011 and promised to them since 2013 after a series of protests and sit-ins which foresees the employment of 400 workers. The state is buying the agricultural land at the heart of the foreseen production site with compensation prices that don’t meet the communitys expectations: “It is our land, and all the mine lands belong to us! After six years they [Gafsa Phosphate Company] are bargaining with us after the Dinar has been devalued three or four times".

In July 2017 a final agreement was reached between the community and the secretary of state for energy and mines whereby it was agreed that in return for allowing their lands to be exploited by the mine, one person from each family will be employed, without affecting the list of the already selected persons for employment. However, till late November 2017 nothing has changed and the unemployed youth, in one of their many protests, blocked the national road preventing the circulation of phosphate transport trucks in protest against the status quo.


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