A Deadly Ring of Coal: VALE’s poisoned gift to Mozambique
15 years ago, when the Mozambican government signed a contract with mining giant VALE, almost everybody in Mozambique believed that coal would develop the country. This investigation exposes part of the destruction that VALE Moçambique is preparing to leave behind now that it has announced an agreement to sell its projects to Vulcan Minerals for US$270 million.
Located in the Province of Tete, in Mozambique, the Moatize Coal Mine is owned by VALE Moçambique and was officially inaugurated in May 2011, and now produces 11.3 million tonnes of coal per annum.
In its 2009 annual report, VALE stated that it had 1.087 million tonnes of coal resources (both proven and probable) across all its mines and projects, of which 954 million were in the Moatize mine. The report also stated that the projected depletion date of the project was 2046.
In January 2021, VALE announced plans to pull out of the project. Then, in December 2021, VALE announced it had entered into a binding agreement with Vulcan Minerals –part of the Jindal Group – to sell the Moatize coal mine and the Nacala Logistics Corridor for US$270 million. However, this transaction can only take place if the Government of Mozambique approves it.
But in those arid concession areas held by the transnational company in the troubled province of Tete, we found a worrying pattern of violence, land-grabbing and death that completely contradicts VALE’s claim of “responsibly sourced” coal.
Between 2009 and 2010, VALE resettled 1,365 families – in the Cateme and 25 de Setembro resettlements areas – in order to install the Moatize mine. Along the Nacala Corridor, an additional 2,000 families were resettled. Most of the families resettled by VALE relied on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising in order to survive.
The resettlement areas were plagued by a number of problems which have already been widely documented, such as unsafe housing (for example faulty infrastructure and poorly installed electrical and sewage systems), and land unsuitable for subsistence agriculture (due to bad quality of soil, no access to water and being far from markets). Although these problems have long been denounced by affected communities and various organisations at national and international levels, the vast majority are yet to be resolved.
The Mozambican Police (PRM), including its Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR), have been used by VALE on several occasions. They have dispersed and repressed protesters by beating them up or shooting at them with rubber bullets and even live ammunition, and they have arbitrarily detained local brick makers (known as oleiros) – who still seek compensation for their loss of livelihoods.
To make place for open-pit mining, the people who lived inside the concession areas were forcefully removed from their homes, from the small family farms that kept them fed, from the rivers that provided them with plenty of water and from the river banks where they produced clay bricks for a living. Today, pushed outside the fence, these people, along with tens of thousands of others who already lived in the outskirts of the mine, are facing a very harsh reality: there is no water left. The rivers that used to provide them with water for farming, cattle and other basic needs, have either been diverted to supply water to the mine, polluted or simply buried by tons of sand – a shameful and blatant violation of their human rights.
In 2019, for example, when VALE started the expansion of the Moatize IIIMine, the company cut Primeiro de Maio, Liberdade and Paiol’s access to the Moatize River, affecting brick makers and peasants from those communities. Since then, several meetings were held between the affected people, VALE and the government. More recently VALE changed its tone and started stating that no compensation is owed to any brick makers. While this process drags on, more than 4,000 oleiros struggle to support themselves and their families.
In the Province of Tete, abetted by the Mozambican government, Vale has abandoned roughly half a million people to their fate: living in a deadly ring of coal for at least 35 years. The destruction doesn’t end there. Not only is coal mining devastating lives and livelihoods in Tete province, but the continued use of fossil fuels will only deepen the climate crisis. Mozambique is one of the countries that will be most affected by the ravages of climate change. In March 2019 Tete province was devastated by deadly floods while the coast was battered by Cyclone Idai. Mozambique continues to face increasing extreme weather impacts year on year.
VALE’s arrival – the communities’ downfall
Zita, a forty-something year old widow, told us she lived with her late husband Refo Agostinho – believed to be the best brick maker in Moatize – before they were gradually forced to give their land away to VALE. Parents of four, Zita and Refo relied on brick making as their main source of income. The money was used to feed their children, pay for school and cover other needs, “They all grew up supported by money from brickwork.”
“Refo lost his life after things changed. VALE took everything from us. In Chipanga, where we used to make bricks, our property was large: one hectare. My machamba [farm] was elsewhere, in Canchoeiro. VALE took us out of there but they did not want to pay us compensation (for the land), nor for having us cease our activities. They refused to give us money, always talking but without a solution. So [the brick makers] had to organise demonstrations to receive the money. When they protested, the police arrived, intimidated him [Refo] and took him to jail. He stayed [in jail] for a week, then left and continued to fight until VALE compensated us. I’m not sure how much money it was, but I heard it was about 60,000 Meticais (approximately US$940).”
Little to nothing has been done to address the outstanding compensation due, new land allocations and social projects.
Paulo Vítor Maferrano, 41 years old, from Chipanga, Moatize, claims that he too made around 30,000 Meticais (approximately US$470) per month.
Paulo’s reality is no different to that of other brickmakers. He was also left without his machamba and without his brickworks – his main source of income. “We already tried to send the documents. We went to the government, and VALE really did say that it would not pay us. So we tried to turn to other forums. VALE only started working on this specific area in May 2021, these are the new lands VALE is expanding to. Neither the company nor we know the extent of the mine concession. When VALE arrived, they said that first they were going to give us 60,000 Meticais (approximately US$940) so we would leave our fields and stop our activities immediately, and then they would give us 125,000 Meticais (approximately US$1960) in compensation. But so far, they have not given us anything.”
Police violence against brick makers and local communities
Cases of police violence – carried out by State forces to protect the interests of the mining company – date back to the beginning of the project. People have been arrested, beaten, shot with rubber bullets and sometimes real bullets and tear gas has also been used on citizens, including pregnant women and children.
On 20 November 2021, four members of the Nhantchere community, who had been representing families whose homes cracked walls caused by the mine explosions, were unjustly detained and remained in prison for three days. Shortly afterwards, on 23 December, two brick makers were detained for five days during a meeting in which they were debating with their community what to do about VALE’s refusal to pay compensation to the expropriated brick makers and peasants. Community members who play leading roles in the negotiation processes with VALE tend to suffer increasing reprisals and intimidation, including arbitrary and illegal detentions.
Vasco was shot inside his own home.
On 6 May 2021, tired of VALE’s lack of interest in resolving the compensations and payments owed to people from the Primeiro de Maio neighbourhood who lost land and access to the river, a group of brick makers and peasants occupied Section 6 of the mine and blocked the access road, demanding answers from the company. This demonstration ended peacefully when brick makers reached an agreement with representatives of VALE and the government – who went to the site – and agreed that the matter would be debated the following day with the entire community, in the neighbourhood square.
But the agreed meeting on 7 May 2021, in Primeiro de Maio’s square, was an ambush set up by VALE and the local government. Representatives of VALE and the local government did not come to the site. Instead, the Police – including agents of the Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR) – showed up at the square and intervened by repressing the community that was lawfully demanding its rights.
“Suddenly, we realised UIR and the people were moving from one place to another. There were gunshots. They threw tear gas. People were running around, so I decided to pick up my six year old son from school immediately. When I got back home, we got inside the house and I shut the door. Every time they have a meeting here at the headquarters, they come to borrow my chairs, and that day I had lent the chairs to my neighbour. So, amidst the havoc, the neighbour came to return the chairs. He knocked on the door, I peeked out the window and only saw him. I didn’t know he was accompanied by a UIR agent. I opened the door and [the agent] shot me in the stomach. No questions asked. Nothing. [The agent] just said ‘these are the agitators’ and then fired the gun at me.”
Vasco was abandoned and left to die: “I was in pain. My six six year old son managed to take my phone out of my pocket and called his mother. His mother called a taxi driver and they managed to take me to the local hospital, but due to the serious situation I had to be urgently transferred to the city hospital [in Tete], where a doctor helped me promptly. If it hadn’t been quick, I don’t know what would have happened. I arrived unconscious and only woke up after the operation. I had a bandage around my belly. I was informed that they had operated on my belly and that I had ‘dirt’ inside. They had to operate to remove it, I was in hospital for seven days.”
At least two cases were brought against the mining company VALE Moçambique regarding access to public interest information: one by Justiça Ambiental (JA!)/Friends of the Earth Mozambique, and the other by the Mozambican Bar Association (OAM).
JA!/Friends of the Earth Mozambique demanded that,
“VALE’s environmental monitoring reports between 2013 and 2020 be made available, as they are public documents that should be widely known, especially by the communities that have to live with VALE’s operations on a daily basis.”
VALE claims to be a “transparent company” but denies access to documents of public interest, trying to argue against court decisions that, more than once, went Justiça Ambiental’s and OAM’s way. In the appeal filed by the mining company, VALE argues that “there is no doubt that the reports that contain the information requested by the applicant […] are of a confidential nature.”
This argument was refuted by Justiça Ambiental, who stood its ground.
On 30 December 2020, The Administrative Court found in JA!’s favour, concluding that “the intended information cannot be classified as confidential” since “it has to do with mining operations, namely, whether or not they are harmful to the environment” and reiterated that “the Constitution of the Republic defines the environment as a citizen’s right and determines everyone’s duties regarding this right”. Yet again, VALE appealed this decision.
OAM in turn, asked the court to subpoena the mining company VALE Moçambique, S.A., to make available various information of public interest, including the Memorandums of Understanding and other agreements signed between the Government, VALE Moçambique and the affected communities; information regarding the total amount of taxes paid by VALE to the Mozambican State and information on ongoing resettlement processes, in addition to other information.
The Administrative Court of the City of Maputo agreed with the OAM and mandated VALE to provide the requested information. Not satisfied with this decision, VALE filed an appeal. Once the process was filed and the allegations and counter-claims analysed, on 15 December 2020 the Counsellor Judges of the First Chamber of the Administrative Court – dismissed the appeal filed by the mining company, for lack of legal basis to reverse the appealed decision, and agreed with the previous decision that condemned VALE for violating the right to information of public interest.
In April 2021, during the General Shareholders’ Meeting of VALE S.A. in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some company’s shareholders voted not to approve the management report, as it omitted important information about the project in Mozambique. These shareholders also requested numerous documents of public interest, including documents requested by Mozambican civil society organisations regarding VALE Moçambique’s activities in Moatize. Senior executives of the company pledged to send the requested documents, but these promises were not kept.
Despite so much reluctance to inform the general public of the real impacts of its activities, VALE strives to greenwash its image and constantly claims to be a transparent, ethical and honest company.
Continuous and systematic Human Rights violations
In Moatize, thick black clouds blanket the skies every time dynamite is blasted in the mine. The air is polluted, the surfaces are always covered with black dust, and maize flour can no longer be left to dry in the open air. The roads, used by VALE’s trucks, are a source of dust too.
With the violent and almost daily explosions in the mines of Moatize, more than 1,000 houses in the neighbourhoods of Primeiro de Maio, Nhantchere, Liberdade and Bagamoyo have cracked walls, and many have already collapsed.
Open-pit mining: sky-high levels of pollution and public health endangerment
“Here, when people cough, black stuff comes out [of their throats], and the doctors say it’s mine dust. VALE, the government and a team from the hospital came to test people for a week. They saw that they had a cough, and that they were spitting out black things. Hence, the company never came here to give us an answer,”
said one community member.
The levels of water and air pollution in Moatize put thousands of people at risk, many of them ending up in hospitals with respiratory problems, acute coughs or tuberculosis. But for the mining company only profit matters. In 2021, the pollution in Moatize worsened.
According to laboratory analyses carried out on water in the Liberdade neighbourhood in 2021 at JA/Friends of the Earth Mozambique’s request, water and air pollution are three times above the national and international limits established by law. For example, Cadmium (Cd) levels of 0.009 mg/l were recorded in VALE’s concession area, while the levels considered admissible by Mozambique and the World Health Organisation are 0.003 mg/l. Cadmium is a heavy metal that causes damage to the nervous system and can cause disturbances in foetal development, even in low concentrations.
According to hospital sources, most of the people treated at the Moatize Hospital are diagnosed with tuberculosis.
“Every day, here at the hospital, we receive a greater number of people who are diagnosed with tuberculosis due to the pollution caused by VALE here in Moatize. Pollution is affecting a lot of people, this company is hurting us. Many people drink dirty water from the river, the water is not coming as it used to. With Section 6, that VALE has just opened, all the dirt, chemicals that leave the mine, flow into the Moatize river, up to where the Revúboé river flows. This is just wrong.”
What can you do?
Hundreds of movements and organisations are taking the fight to the United Nations where we are working on a new UN human rights treaty, which aims to establish international legally-binding rules for transnational corporations. This year, governments will continue negotiating a draft text to address the gap in international law and bring justice to people affected by transnational corporate crimes, like those in Mozambique. You can follow and join our work to demand a strong and effective UN Binding Treaty.
Communities and civil society organisations are fighting dirty and harmful energy in Tete and all over the world. Follow our climate justice and energy work towards a just and feminist transition away from destructive extraction and fossil fuels to community led, decentralised, renewable energy.
Follow Justiça Ambiental (JA!/Friends of the Earth Mozambique), who are doing inspiring work mobilising with affected peoples to hold big corporations accountable by demanding Rights for People and Rules for business at the local, national and international level. Read about this inspiring victory from another JA! struggle where a village adopted collective, organic farming after a land rights win.
Estacio Valoi, in partnership with Justiça Ambiental/Friends of the Earth Mozambique