BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Women in Africa are paying a disproportionate price for mineral and fuel extraction, according to a raft of studies carried out by WoMin, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction.
Mining companies — and the governments of countries where they are operating — need to take the harm their practices and policies cause women seriously, said Samantha Hargreaves, director of the Johannesburg, South Africa-based organization.
To that end, the organization is calling for those governments to carry out studies of all their existing and abandoned mineral and oil-based development projects. It also wants to see the African Union publish an estimate of the number of people who will be displaced over the next 50 years by operations resulting from the 2009 Africa Mining Vision, a pact between African governments and mining companies.
“For us, the starting point for any extraction or infrastructure project should be the fundamental rights of people — and women especially — to give or withhold consent for projects,” Hargreaves said.
“In terms of compensation, we obviously have a position that it should be land for land, with people receiving the same quality and extent of land, if not more than what they had before, and that woman’s interests should be respected and taken into account in the compensation process,” she added.
Right now that compensation process is critically flawed, and WoMin says it has gathered multiple examples of that.
Often, when land is given to those displaced by mining and energy projects, it is inferior to what they have been forced to abandon, the group reports. One example in Mozambique is typical.
“In Tete province, which is the epicenter of coal mining, some villages received land compensation, but the land is so arid and stony that people cannot even farm it,” Hargreaves said.
What’s more, collective assets, such as wells, schools, or common land are not replaced when entire villages are evicted from their land. Intangible yet very real setbacks, whether lack of access to traditional markets or to transportation networks, are never taken into consideration, although they can represent an enormous financial loss for displaced communities.
“In Africa most land occupied by people living in rural areas is held under customary tenure,” Hargreaves said. “It is a collective model of ownership, so often decisions are taken by an individual chief, or by a chief and his council of elders. They are often the ones who are receiving the compensation, or getting money in their pockets as a result of corrupt deals. They are getting a new car or a house, or they can send their children to university and the people living in villages who rely on the land for their basic survival are left literally destitute.”
With neither tenure rights nor decision-making power, women are especially vulnerable. WoMin’s research has found examples of women being forced to find alternative ways of earning money when farming is no longer available to them, or to look after family members when air and water pollution causes illnesses.
Hargreaves cited one example in Uganda, which she said is on the brink of exploiting its oil reserves.
“There has been some minimal cash compensation and it has actually gone to the men, who have moved to the cities and bought motorbikes to use as taxis,” she said. “And the women and children are ending up in displaced persons camps, no longer having access to land, unable to feed themselves, and relying on handouts for survival.”
For WoMin activists, however, perhaps the heaviest burden placed on women affected by resource extraction is sexual. “We particularly focus on the forms of violence against women, or sexualized violence,” Hargreaves said. “Rape, gang rape, forced sex, sexual harassment – all these things. Stories that never get told but that need to see the light of day. It is a reality in every country where extraction is happening.”
WoMin works in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, partnering with local women’s organizations as well as environmental activists to bring a gender perspective to their efforts. It often works with those organizations by helping to set up projects with a practical bent to them, such as bee-keeping, water and alternative energy projects, revolving loan schemes, or burial clubs. “To help women organize there has to be a practical focus,” said Hargreaves.
Hargreaves sees these projects as important vehicles that allow women to “get on with the business of talking and strategizing without interference from powerful men.” WoMin also provides the local organizations with information on what the law says about extractives, including community rights and women’s rights. The idea is to give women a voice in defining what development means to them, she added.
While there is still a lot of work to be done, progress is being made, Hargreaves said. She recalled one training session in Madagascar where a women’s group has been protesting a mine. One leader confronted a district counselor who told her he did not want to listen to women’s voices or opinions. “And she hit back, and said, ‘I am the one, these women here, we are the ones who elect you into position, so you listen to us!’” Hargreaves said. “But that is still quite unusual.”
Even so, she said, “the basis of resistance in all of the areas where we work is the defence of the land, the defence of the forest, the defence of the waters. Women essentially make up the core of resistance because they are the ones who rely on these resources for survival. They might not necessarily be the visible face but they constitute the body of resistance.”