Peasants and brickmakers from the neighbourhoods of Primeiro de Maio and Catete have been demanding a fair compensation from both VALE and the government for the loss of their land, loss of access to water and ultimately their means of subsistence. They lost access to River Moatize due to the expansion of the VALE mine – Moatize III – in 2019. VALE claimed in March of this year that it owed nothing to these groups. Since then, it has come to recognize that it will have to pay some form of compensation. However, this process has been dragging. On the 6th of May of 2021, the brickmakers and peasants occupied Section 6 of the mine and blocked the mining road. This event was reported by JA! in a recent article. What happened on this day and, even more importantly, on the day after, invite from us a profound reflexion about the way in which VALE and our government are dealing with this situation. To this effect we have brought to bearing a first-person account of one of the members of the peasant commission of Nhantoto: Sr. Fernando Botão.
“We started telling the drivers to go stow away the vehicles and the machines, and not to circulate on that road, so that VALE would have to, at least, come give us a clarification with respect to our demands. That’s because ever since we were paralysed in our activities we haven’t been assisted [in general] nor have we even received any nutritional assistance” – says Sr. Fernando explaining what happened on the 6th of May when peasants and potters paralysed VALE’s mining road.
The paralysation lasted for a large part of the day and, according to the brickmakers, it only came to a close when they were assured by representatives of the company and the government that in the following day they would have a meeting together with VALE and the government of the district of Moatize in the neighbourhood of Primeiro de Maio.
This paralysation and the demands coming from the groups affected by VALE arise within a context of fatigue and frustration for many reasons, among which are:
– the detereoration of the life conditions of many of these families, formerly sustained by the production of bricks and by subsistence farming;
– the difficulties in the correspondence with VALE, wherein VALE insisted for some time that the group of brickmakers here in question was included in a group that was previously compensated by the company in 2018; the brickmakers and peasants of the neighbourhoods of Primeiro de Maio and Catete have attempted to explain that they are in fact a distinct group that was only affected in 2019 by the recentmost expansion of the mine Moatize III;
– the dragging of meetings between the commissions of brickmakers and peasants, the government and VALE over the past 2 years without there ever being a concrete solution to the problem;
– the uncertainty and lack of information with respect to the disinvestment of VALE in Mozambique leading to concerns regarding the numerous pendencies which the company still has with the communities affected by the mine;
– the rise in conflicts between the members of the commissions of brickmakers and peasants and the respective communities; members of the commissions are acused of not being able to resolve the issues of the community, as well as of negotiaing for their own private benefit, as communities cannot deduce any productive outcomes from these negotiations.
These are just some of the reasons why the community made their demand in conjunction with the commissions of brickmakers and peasants incredibly simple, clear and legitimate: VALE and the government should meet them in their neighbourhood and speak to the entire community without any intermediaries or representatives of the commissions.
In Sr. Fernando’s testimony, we can hear with some detail how the occupation on the 6th of May was, as well as what happened on the next day – 7th of May – when the brickmakers, peasants and residents of the neighbourhoods Primeiro de Maio and Catete assembled to wait for the meeting arranged on the previous day to take place in the big square in front of the old CARBOMOC police office at Primeiro de Maio.
It was the Police who came
“The manner in which they surrounded us (the police), we didn’t expect it, we assumed that maybe they had come to garrison the terrain so that when the Administrator arrived she would see that the site was protected.” – said Sr. Fernando describing the moment when the police arrived at the location where the meeting was planned.
But the police hadn’t come to escort anyone. Neither VALE nor the government of the district showed up to the meeting on the 7th of May. The various vehicles employed by the protection police and the Unit of Rapid Intervention (UIR), which Sr. Fernando had judged to be there for security purposes, surrounded the residents and soon after, according to several reports from the community, UIR agents started approaching the people and ordering them in an intimidating manner to disperse or else – in Fernando’s own words – they would “change colours”.
“I said.. Sir (policeman), you can’t intimidate this lady, because here we are not in Cabo Delgado, we don’t have any weaponry” – retells Sr Fernando as he describes an exchange he had with a security agent who was threatening a resident.
It was then when the UIR agents decided to use tear gas and shoot rubber bullets to disperse the agglomeration. There are dozens of reports of people fainting or developing respiratory problems, including children and newborn babies. According to witnesses, the police even fired tear gas bombs inside the houses to which the people had escaped. One citizen was shot with a rubber bullet and had to be hospitalised for many days; furthermore, at least 6 citizens were taken to the police station without any accusation against them, 2 of them being detained until the following day. Some people also reported to JA the use of fire weapons, itself implied by some fires in the neighbourhood provoked by the gunshots of the police. The children who were studying in the Primary School Primeiro de Maio at that moment had to abandon the lessons, and many were lost from their families for several hours.
What can justify this violence from the police? What interests are the police and the UIR defending? The use of force to repress peaceful manifestations – a right that’s safeguarded in our constitution and fundamental to a functioning democracy – is unacceptable.
When asked about the events of the 7th of May, the Moatize District Administrator declared to JA that she did not know about them – not even about the actions of the police – until 2 or 3 days later. Moreover, she added that she was in her office during the whole day expecting the meeting with the commissions of brickmakers and peasants of Primeiro de Maio. This demonstrates, at best, a great lack of concern or competence, especially if we take into consideration the fact that even the President of the Municipal Council of Moatize was in the neighbourhood Primeiro de Maio as the events unfolded. And why, we ask, did VALE’s representatives not only not show up that day but didn’t even justify their absence to the population – especially taking into account that there have already been numerous times when police forces intervened in Moatize in alignment with the interests of the mining company.
VALE is known for conducting prolonged and non-inclusive processes as way of weakening the demands of the affected communities
It’s important to highlight here that the strategy of lengthening processes, exhausting affected groups and prolonging negotiations while excluding a big portion of the affected persons is common practice of VALE S.A. in many of the territories where it operates. This is all part of a broader strategy VALE uses to evade its responsibilities and try to delegate its commitments to the society and nature to the state, using the loopholes and institutional weaknesses existing in fragile and co-optable democracies such as ours in Mozambique. Needless to say, – for it is so widely documented and analysed – in addition to all the unjust resettlements and the environmental destruction, VALE Mozambique can also be regarded as having amounted no less than a terrible contribution in economic aspects such as fiscal income, employment generation, reduction of poverty, and inequality, which had been some of the great expectations to have been heralded when the contract for exploration was signed.
Well, taking into account the fact that VALE is preparing to sell its mines in Moatize and the Corredor de Nacala project – precisely at a time when its period of bonanza with respect to benefits and fiscal concessions comes to a close – these pending problems should be cause for concern and for sounding alarms in Mozambique as a country, but it seems for now that only the groups most directly affected by the company are recognizing the urgency of the situation. At any moment, VALE could find a buyer who is willing to invest in an obsolete deal in coal – and if it does so it will certainly do all it can to minimize any pending issues it has with the local communities or the country. On the other hand, such an investor will not to be concerned for the resettlement houses which will remain pending rehabilitation, with families still wanting for land to cultivate, or with brickmakers awaiting the conclusion of the interminable negotiations. We are not merely speculating – this is exactly what VALE did with its project in Baía de Sepetiba, in Brazil, when it sold to the company Ternium. The residents were caught by surprise with the sudden sale of the project, and today neither VALE nor Ternium are taking responsibility for the huge damage left behind.
A radically different path is necessary – and urgent
It’s urgent for us, above all else, to find ambitious and systemic ways to resolve, as a country, the problems facing most of the Mozambican people. We need to find another way that does not employ violence and repression as means to deal with discontented and frustrated citizens that decide to protest – for whatever the motive, and independently of whether it is convenient or not. We need to be able to collect heavy taxes on any large or mega-corporations operating in Mozambique so that we can invest in public services of quality for all and reduce the typical social tensions associated with a population pushed to the limit. And to guarantee the participation and protagonism of the people who are on the frontline of the impacts brought to bear by coal mines, big industries, industrial plantations, and mega-dams, so that they be the ones to define what is a just compensation for their land and territory. We cannot accept that our laws or ratified international treaties on human rights serve merely to fulfil the simple function of polishing our discourse toward financial donors or the UN – these rights need to be skin-felt, on a day to day basis, by all Mozambicans. It’s urgent for us to condemn and vehemently refuse any form of governing which oppresses and represses citizens that are against the current model of the country, in favour of the maintenance of ostentatious privileges of an elite that is becoming increasingly richer, unchallenged and criminal.
Above all, we need to rethink our pathways to the future whilst anticipating the mistakes that we have made before. We can learn a lot from the sale of the Rio Tinto mine to ICVL, from all the problems that persist in Capanga, Benga and in the resettlement of Mualadzi up to today, and refuse to allow VALE to do the same. We can learn from all that coal promised to be and wasn’t, and refuse to allow gas to do the same to us. Let us remember that VALE estimated a lifespan of about 35 years when it signed its mining contract with the government of Mozambique in 2007 – which means that, according to its calculations, there would be an international market or demand for coal until 2042. Today, a mere 14 years later, many can see the ridiculousness of this projection. When are we going to understand that to believe in the projections made by fossil fuel companies, or by research organisations funded by them, is a trap for any nation state? Are we going to continue to believe that gas is – for some special reason – going to succeed in developing Mozambique?
The stories of megaprojects that we hear all through Mozambique are not stories of employment, empowerment, or quality of life: they are in fact stories of impoverishment, despair, and social conflict. Nor are the stories that we hear about neoliberal capitalism throughout the world stories of solidarity or independence. The climate crisis, the rise in inequality, the systemic violations of human rights or the rising authoritarianism are inevitable results of a socio-economic system that rewards entrepreneurial actors for their absolute commitment to profit, independently of what the ensuing consequences might be. It is a model that is ever more shamelessly showing us what purpose it serves: the enrichment of global capital elites, with the complicity of our national elites.
In order to confront the times and crises that are coming we need a new paradigm: one which puts an end to the devastation of nature by man and re-establishes the control of the earth by local communities while prioritizing the conscious and collective use of resources that is inclusive of future generations. A paradigm which contributes to the formation of citizens motivated to act in defence of the next one by means of a competent State which is oriented to serve the people with the aim of valuing and strengthening our diversity.
We do need radical changes. And we cannot continue to allow the current socio-economic model to limit even our capacity to imagine a different model. In many places of the world, and even in Mozambique, this is already happening, in micro manifestations of resistance and social transformation that are largely repressed or not duly valued. We need space for these new paradigms to proliferate.
“Politics in our times should depart from the imperative to reconstruct the common world”, defends the Cameroonian philosopher and intellectual Achille Mbembe. It’s urgent that we start to chart this path, because we are already late and things are not getting better.
Watch here the complete testimony of Sr. Fernando Botão