Canada and the World

Sands of Conflict

A Canadian firm’s plan to develop a mine in Kenya is dogged by opponents

Stefan Lovgren,Tom Fennell October 2 2000
Canada and the World

Sands of Conflict

A Canadian firm’s plan to develop a mine in Kenya is dogged by opponents

Stefan Lovgren,Tom Fennell October 2 2000

Sands of Conflict

Canada and the World

A Canadian firm’s plan to develop a mine in Kenya is dogged by opponents

Stefan Lovgren

Tom Fennell

Juma Suleiman spends his days toiling in his small cornfield under the scorching African sun. With three wives and 14 children to feed, the 60-year-old Kenyan lives in constant fear of droughts and storms. These days, Suleiman is also battling another opponent—the Toronto mining firm Tiomin Resources Inc. The company has discovered a vast titanium deposit 450 km east of Nairobi, and is pushing to relocate Suleiman and about 4,500 other local residents to make way for a massive strip mine. Some have accepted buyouts, but hundreds who are ineligible for Tiomins compensation offer are refusing to go and are receiving growing international support. And as he stood outside his straw-roofed hut with one of his wives one recent morning, Suleiman

spoke for many of his neighbours, telling Macleans-. “I will not give up this land—they will have to kill me.”

Half a world away, in his sprawling office overlooking the Toronto harbour, Tiomins soft-spoken president, JeanCharles Potvin, is just as determined to proceed with his mine as Suleiman is to remain on his tiny farm. “No one,” says Potvin, lifting from his desk a three-volume environmental assessment of the project, “will be worse off because this mine went ahead.” But even before the company starts digging, Tiomin has been caught up in allegations of cormption and charges that its project will damage the environment. And the debate over the Tiomin mine could heat up this October when two Kenyan activists, sponsored by the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights, are expected to travel to Ottawa to meet with government officials. “The

Kenyans must feel that they have been compensated fairly,” said a centre spokesman.

“We want to give them a chance to explain their position.”

Tiomin discovered the titanium deposit by accident in 1995 when a company geologist, whose plane was diverted over an area just south of the coastal city Mombasa, noticed what he thought were promising geological structures. Subsequent exploration determined the Kwale region holds more than 10 per cent of the world’s reserves of titanium, a metal usually found in sand and used to provide pigmentation in paint, as well as in the manufacture of metal for everything from airplanes to golf clubs. In a feasibility study completed last April, Tiomin concluded it could mine up to 10 million tonnes of mineralized sand per year over the next 14 years from the site. A massive machine will be used to scoop out the sand and the titanium washed out with water. The remaining sand is then returned to the pit. When the mine is eventually closed, the topsoil will also be replaced, allowing the land to be brought back into productive use.

So far, Tiomin, which also plans to mine a titanium deposit in northern Quebec and a massive copper deposit in Panama, has invested almost $15 million in the project, and estimates it will cost another $200 million to open the mine. The firm expects to create 1,000 jobs during construction, and 200 full-time positions once the project is complete. Tiomin executives hope the promise of jobs will eventually persuade the holdouts to accept a buy-out. But many residents clearly do not trust Tiomin. “All of this will be destroyed,” says Frank Mutua, a local farmer, as he makes a sweeping gesture at the coconut groves and citrus fruit plantations prevalent in the area. “Once they start, there will be nothing left. They would never do this in Canada.”

To convince the farmers to leave their tiny plots of land, which range from four acres to 15 acres, Tiomin is offering a one-time relocation fee of about $180 per acre, and then a $40-per-acre annual rental fee (as well as 10-per-cent interest a year). Potvin believes the compensation is high enough to allow farmers to buy land elsewhere. “They will have enough money,” said Potvin, “to go out and buy another piece of land, and they will still own their original land.” Some farmers, however, do not believe Tiomin has been generous enough. “This is far below market rate,” says Elphas Ojiambo, an activist with Action Aid in Mombasa, a human rights organization.

So far about 95 farmers who have legal title to their land have accepted the offer. But another 426 who are either

squatters or have inherited farms without legal tide, do not qualify for the company’s offer (most of the farmers are supporting large extended families). Potvin would like the Kenyan government to expropriate the squatters’ land and give the holdouts full title to new farms in a nearby area. The government has yet to announce its intentions, but critics do not trust the administration, claiming farmers that have been pushed off their property have rarely been given new land.

In fact, opposition to the project appears to be hardening. On Aug. 31, politicians from the region met with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in Mombasa, and complained bitterly thatTiomin’s compensation offer was too low and the environmental risks of the mine too high. While Moi told them that Kenya needed the project, he decided on Sept. 12 against issuing the final go-ahead for the mine, leaving it to Tiomin and the farmers to negotiate.

Tiomin has produced an environmental impact study, which concludes that titanium can be mined safely and the land could be returned to its original state once the mine closes. But the Geneva-based World Conservation Union has challenged the neutrality of the report because it was largely financed by Tiomin and not by an independent third party. (Canadian taxpayers also helped offset the cost of the study: the Canadian International Development Agency, which helps promote domestic corporations abroad, contributed $400,000 towards the $ 1.2million cost.) And concerns that a full-scale strip mine would irreparably alter the local landscape are compounded by other worries.

Among them is the issue of radiation. Titanium contains low-level background radiation; critics of the mine say it

Canada and the World

could be released into the environment with disastrous results. Mining titanium, however, does not create radioactive waste, and Tiomin asserts that radiation levels at the site are very low and pose no risk to local residents. “The radioactivity is equal to X-rays in a hospital, not Chernobyl,” says Françoise Goutier, an executive with Tiomin in

Kenya. And Potvin adds that there are no toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, used in the mining process.

To bring the titanium to world markets, Tiomin intends to build a loading facility in the small port of Shimoni, about 65 km from the mining site. But that plan has also drawn the owners of local ocean-side resorts into the dispute.

Shimoni is located about 35 km from a marine park, and hoteliers and activists warn that building a seaport capable of handling large cargo ships will damage precious coral reefs in the area that are a major tourist attraction. But in his Toronto office, Potvin produces a large aerial photograph that, according to the mining executive, shows there are no reefs where the company plans to build the facility. “We will not dredge,” said Potvin, “and there is no coral.” The controversy over the mine has also focused on how Tiomin dealt with local officials. Activists say corruption is rampant in the country, and accuse Tiomin of offering bribes. Tiomin executives do admit to giving motorcycles to local chiefs, a gesture that many people interpreted as a bribe. Goutier now calls that gift “a mistake.” Potvin adds that the motorcycles were not bribes, but were intended to help the chiefs In October, Kenyan activists may travel to Ottawa to speak out against the mine move around the area—which lacks proper roads—and explain to their people what Tiomin was proposing. Such explanations do not appease the mines opponents. “Tiomin is getting what it wants by playing on people’s ignorance here,” says Mutua. “The company is only here to make money and profits. They don’t care about us.” Such charges anger Potvin. Fie insists the mine is being built to the highest possible safety standards. “We have demonstrated beyond any doubt,” he says, “that we are not going to pollute the land.” Environmentalists, he argues, are making unsubstantiated claims in an attempt to block the mine. “You can be a cride,” says Potvin, “but there has to be some scientific basis to your claim.” But as opposition to the mine builds, Potvin may never get a chance to fulfil his promise that Tiomin could be a good corporate citizen for Kenya. “This land is part of our history,” insists Mutua, who vows to fight on. “We will not give it up.” With Catherine Roberts in Toronto