| A short visit to three African
countries enables French companies to beat out Chinese competition and
gain access to massive uranium mines - a victory for Sarkozy's nuclear
ambitions, a defeat for human rights, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN
The visits that French President Nicolas Sarkozy
paid to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville and Niger
at the end of March this year did not have great humanitarian purposes.
Sarkozy gave speeches on the role of peace and democracy for development
in Africa, but the "important talks" were happening in other venues, where
delegations of businessmen succeeded in signing contracts for the exploitation
of mineral resources.
The core objective was to accelerate French
mining and prospecting deals in the DRC and Niger for the extraction of
uranium. The new agreements will allow French public nuclear multinational
Areva to double its uranium supplies by 2015 (from 6,000 to 12,000 tonnes
per year), and to become the largest player in the global market for nuclear
energy, with a 25% market share.
In this game of global powers and economic
interests, African development and human rights seem the biggest losers.
According to Nigerien and French civil society groups, uranium mines have
caused serious damage to environment and health in the past, while offering
only a negligible contribution to prosperity and development for local
Areva promises that safety measures will be
guaranteed and that local governments will benefit from increased revenues
and employment opportunities.
"We will pay a fair price for uranium,"
said President Sarkozy.
However, only Areva and the African political
elite seem satisfied with the new deals.
Africa's biggest uranium mine
Areva's greatest achievement was on 4 May,
when Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja laid the founding stone of a new
uranium mine complex in Imouraren, in the country's north.
This complex will be the largest in Africa
and the second largest in the world, with a production capacity of 5,000
tonnes per year starting in 2012. The French multinational has invested
$1.5 billion in the project: Two-thirds of the mining revenues will be
kept by Areva, and one-third will go to the government of Niger – but the
terms of the agreement have sparked the ire of local and international
civil society groups.
One of the most outspoken critics is the Nigerien
organization Rotab, which has fought for many years for more transparency
in the mining sector. The organization is particularly concerned about
the health and environmental threats posed by the new mine.
"The pollution from uranium mines has seriously
affected the livelihood and health of our population," Rotab spokesperson
Amadou Marou told ISN Security Watch.
Areva, which has been extracting mineral resources
in Niger for over 40 years, has always rejected these accusations, stating
that most health problems are caused by the desert's harsh conditions and
not by uranium mining activities. However, scientific investigations conducted
by French organizations Criirad
and Sherpa found abnormally high levels of radiation in soil,
water and even in kitchen utensils made of scrap metal in close proximity
to Areva's mines.
"The mining sector can contribute to the
eradication of poverty in our country, so we are not against it. But this
agreement enriches France and a small elite in Niger, and seems to damage
everyone else," said Marou.
Areva promised to spend €6 million ($8.1
million) in social programs over the next five years, to build schools
and hospitals and to facilitate access to water resources, which is a major
problem for populations living in arid areas such as north Niger.
However, the Rotab spokesperson says that
these programs should be a government responsibility, instead of a temporary
donation by a private multinational taking away much of the nation's wealth.
The increase of mining activities in the past
years also provoked the armed insurgency of the Mouvement
des Nigériens pour la Justice (MNJ), a rebel group of Tuareg
nomads living in the uranium-rich areas in north Niger. Sarkozy's visit
accelerated the peace talks and the MNJ signed an agreement with the government
of Niger just one day before the construction of the Imouraren complex
officially started. However, the peace deal does not seem durable in the
long term, as the Tuareg rebels have refused to disarm and have already
demanded higher shares of the future uranium profits.
Sarkozy's visit to the DRC - the first for
a French president in the past 25 years - brought additional benefits to
the national nuclear company. Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon reached a favorable
agreement with the Congolese Ministry of Mines for Uranium mining and prospecting.
Areva will have access to the uranium mine
in Katenga province (south of the DRC) and will also have the right to
review the uranium potential for the entire country. The French multinational
will start a joint technical prospecting program with local public institutions
that could have an important economic impact on the world market for nuclear
energy, as the DRC is believed to possess large quantities of uranium that
are yet to be discovered.
However, there is strong scepticism about
the effects that these deals will have on peace and development in the
country. The DRC has suffered a 10-year conflict that has led to some five
million deaths - the highest death toll since World War II
- mostly because of struggles over natural resources. There are doubts
that this contract will bring tangible benefits to the population.
Beijing has closely followed the development
of the French mission in Niger and the DRC. China has 12 nuclear reactors
under construction and another dozen slated for operation in the coming
year, making it a leading player in the uranium market.
The government of Niger moved to put an end
to the French monopoly over uranium mines in 2006, granting over
100 exploration licenses to foreign companies, mainly Chinese, Indian and
Canadian. The Chinese state-owned nuclear company obtained a prospecting
contract in the Agadez region in 2007 and recently provided a $95 million
loan to the Nigerien government for the implementation of a major uranium
The competition between China and France reached
a peak in 2007 when then-chief of Areva operations in Niger, Dominique
Pin, was accused of financing the Tuareg rebel insurgency. The government
announced that all contracts with Areva would end, and that existing operations
would be transferred to Chinese companies. After long negotiations
between high-ranking French diplomats and the government, the parties agreed
that Areva's contracts would be renewed in exchange for increased aid for
the central government.
The increasing global competition over uranium
mines prompted the Nigerien government to push Areva for more during negotiations
also in the latest agreements. As such, in order to obtain the contract
for the Imouraren
complex, the French multinational agreed to pay a considerably higher price
for the uranium extracted.
However, according to Rotab's
spokesperson, Niger's bargaining power in these contracts is still extremely
weak, and despite the higher price paid by Areva, the new contracts are
unlikely to bring about any major benefits to development or poverty eradication
in the country.
Corporate and social responsibility
Areva maintains that 40 years of operation
in Niger have contributed significantly to the country's development and
that the group plays a central role in Niger's economy.
In an official
document released by Areva in January 2009, the company admits that
"The expectations of the population and the communities are, frankly,
huge" and that many programs of corporate social responsibility are
hindered by local conflict and economic instability.
However, Areva has built up infrastructure
in many parts of the country and provided employment to thousands of households
(the new Imouraren complex will create 1,400 local jobs). Moreover, the
company emphasizes the success obtained in HIV prevention programs and
the electrification of shantytowns in the Agadez region.
The French nuclear multinational has rejected
all criticism raised by international and local civil society groups, stating
that it operates in Niger in the same way it operates in Canada, Kazakhstan,
or formerly in France: by assuring the highest possible safety and environmental
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