Nagonha is a small rural village of just 1 329 residents on the northern coastline of Mozambique. Situated in the Angoche district, about 180km east of Nampula city, its people live in 236 huts facing the Mozambique Channel of the Indian Ocean.
Though it has been around for four decades, Naghona lacks essential public services.
There is no school, health facility, electricity, running water or sanitation. The village’s main source of livelihood is fishing.
When Chinese multinational Haiyu Mozambique Mining Company arrived in the village in 2011, there was considerable excitement among locals. Awarded a contract to extract valuable minerals from the area, the company’s presence brought the promise of jobs and development.
The celebratory mood at the time is summed up by a resident, Fatima: “We were hoping they would do good things to help the community.”
Little did Fatima and others know that Haiyu’s arrival would mark the beginning of a miserable chapter in their lives.
On the morning of February 7 2015, residents of Nagonha woke up to a flash flood sweeping through their village. Forty-eight houses were washed into the sea as the flood water cut the dune on which Naghona stood in two, carving a new channel through the middle of the village into the Indian Ocean.
The flood left about 290 people homeless and an additional 173 houses partially destroyed. People who had lived in the area for more than 70 years told Amnesty International there was no record of such floods occurring in Nagonha before the arrival of Haiyu. There was no time to prepare for this disaster because nothing could have prepared them for it.
A two-year investigation by Amnesty International, released last week, strongly suggests that Haiyu’s mining activities made a significant contribution to the 2015 flood.
Comparison of satellite images of the area between December 2010 and October 2014 show the build-up of mining-related sand deposits around the village and a gradual change in the natural flow of water.
By October 2014, about 280 000m2 of wetland north of Naghona were covered by the sand and a vital channel connecting several nearby lagoons to the sea had been completely blocked.
Together, these environmental changes left Naghona and its people at a greatly increased risk of flooding.
This analysis corresponds with testimony from residents, as well as with the opinions of independent environmentalists.
At the heart of all this is Haiyu’s failure to abide by Mozambican law and conduct a proper environmental impact assessment or consult the residents prior to establishing its operation.
Company officials have refused to take any responsibility for the housing and environmental destruction, instead blaming “acts of nature”.
They have also been unable to provide satisfactory answers about what they knew or should have known, or what they did or should have done, before setting up business.
Given that the mining operation was in an area of complex wetland, with a community whose economic, social and cultural fabric is interwoven with the ecosystem, these failures are frankly shocking.
Explaining the devastating effect the mining operation has had on his life, one fisherman said: “We used to catch enough fish to give us a livelihood. But our lives are getting worse, because these machines disturb the sea and make the fish disappear. Please help us. They cannot be allowed to leave us in these conditions.”
More than three years on from the disaster the affected households have still not found closure for their losses.
This is a classic case that highlights the struggles that poor people face when big corporates ride roughshod over their rights. For their part, the Mozambican authorities are far from blameless, failing as they did to ensure that Haiyu abided by the country’s laws and providing nothing in the way of reparations to residents.
It’s high time that this situation was redressed. Amnesty International is calling for a prompt and effective investigation against Haiyu for the breaches of the country’s laws that led to these violations. And, if Naghona’s people are ever to get justice, they must be provided with effective remedies.
A lot is at stake here. Multinational companies cannot be allowed to treat people as nonentities.
Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s regional director for Southern Africa