At the Bottom of the Lake is rare earth


While the fight over ownership of Lake Nyasa, between Tanzania and Malawi does not look set to finish soon despite regional mediation efforts. But in the meantime the local Tanzanian community bordering the lake is no nearer to understanding what the conflict is about, nor why so much is at stake.

A 29,000-square-kilometre tranquil lake that is a tourist spot, source of revenue and food for the local populations, has potentially become a lucrative oil and gas source since July 2012. The discovery rekindled a border dispute between the southern African neighbours over who owned the lake.

Just outside Mbeya Region, in southwest Tanzania, members of the community bordering the lake on the Tanzanian side have been working with the national NGO HakiArdhi or the Land Rights Research and Resources Institute, to understand their water rights.

“We know that we have agreed to disagree with Malawi on this one, but these communities depend completely on fishing and the lake for their lives. There’s been no consultation at all with us about how we benefit if there is oil here, none at all. How do we gain from this? The land issue is new for us here: we have no experience,” Saad Ayoub, the organisation’s assistant programme officer, told IPS by phone. (he says we and us? Is he from the area?)

Local residents echo this feeling. Richard Kilumbo, a resident from Kyela district, which lies on Lake Nyasa, told IPS that he could not understand the reasons for the dispute.

“We have relatives from Mzuzu, Malawi and were going to attend a wedding (there). We are shocked and panicked to find we are making preparations of war against our neighbours. We do not know why this is such big thing amongst our leaders. We heard people were talking, we thought we were free to walk and enjoy life,” he said.

Aruguably the trouble started in 1890, when the treaty of Heligoland divided up the lake according to Colonial law. It was amended in 1982 by the UN. However more recently in October 2012 Malawi’s former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, awarded a contract to British Surestream Petroleum to start gas and oil exploration on the eastern part of the lake, and then a second exploration licence in December 2012 to a subsidiary of South African firm SacOil.

In July 2012, Tanzania announced plans –with Denmark’s help- to purchase a new nine million dollar ferry to cross Lake Nyasa’s waters. Malawi’s Ministry of Lands claimed they had no legal right to start operating on Lake Malawi, since the ownership and border dispute remains unresolved. In retort, Hilda Ngoye, Tanzanian member of parliament for the Mbeya Region, claimed Malawian fishing and tourist boats were encroaching on Tanzania’s waters.

Things took a decisive turn for the worse. Matters were not improved when the Tanzania’s acting Prime Minister in the National Assembly, Samuel Sitta, warned that Tanzania would not hesitate to respond to any military provocation.

To date most tactics have been employed to resolve the dispute between the neighbours: mediation using Mozambican ex-president Joaquim Chissano, hot talk of army invasions, threats to take the case to the International Criminal Court of Justice, appeals using Southern African Development Community bishops, and diplomatic talks between the prime minsters of Tanzania and Malawi. (

But there have been criticism that the issue of the lake dispute has been used to further political careers.

“This lake should be used to improve the lot and livelihoods of local people, on both sides. The lake is a resource – instead it’s being used as part of a political game, at the higher level to further political careers,” Local environmental journalist and expert who has followed the story for many years, and writes regularly on it for Swahili newspapers and in his own blog, Felix Mwakyembe, told IPS.

“There’s no border dispute among the local community, it is a dispute among politicians, a political performance at higher levels, eying elections in Malawi in 2014 and Tanzania in 2014. Unfortunately the local communities are pawns: they lack access to information and education to understand the implications and seriousness of this,” Mwakyembe said.

Kilumbo agreed.

“There really is no trouble on the ground, none at all. Fishermen from Tanzania are carrying on as usual, and although we know it’s in the news, we’ve no idea why,” he said.

The issues of resource extraction in Lake Nyasa echo other conflicts regionally when it comes to ownership, division of spoils, allocation of licences, and who pays for capital investments. As with other areas in East Africa, such as the Albertine Rift and Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, and Virunga National Park in Rwanda, (see there are two main oversights in this process: disseminating the results of the Environmental Impact Assessments and comprehensively incorporating community feedback into both the planning of extractions, and the “division of the spoils”.

“I have no idea about oil plans, none at all. And no, I’ve never even heard of an Environmental Impact Asessment, and certainly not seen one,” Kilumbo said. Laughing, he adds: “It’s hard to know what the ‘wazi wazi’ (fuss) is.”

Yet so far, it does not seem local communities do understand this conflict, nor their rights in the process.

Media and advocacy manager of local rights NGO Haki Elimu (your Rights), Nyanda Shuli, told IPS that the emphasis must be on financial accountability and transparency with the flows of income and investment both towards the communities, and the profits from the lake.

“Whatever the outcomes of this current dispute: we need daring thinking to try and tackle the bigger issues of how our communities in rural areas develop, find imaginative ways for people know their rights, and what they can expect, from the poorest marginalised fishing communities around Nyasa, to other communities inland.

“At the moment decisions are taken in the capital, Dar Es Salaam, and there’s no connection or meaningful dialogue with the regions at all: it’s more complicated because the distances are so huge, and the transport, telephone networks and roads so poor,” he said.

Amidst the obscuration and disagreements, there are several things that need to be remembered: there is  “rare earth” (a colloquial name for complex and valuable minerals mostly used for engineering) below the lake, and potentially a lot oil and natural gas.

To date, there is no documentary evidence that either of the local fishing communities, on both sides, Malawi or Tanzania, stand to gain much. Instead much quibbling goes on in national and international capitals, by elites dizzy with the prospect of more oil and natural gas wealth.

But for now, Kilumbo believes there is enough to go around.

“Yes, I can say the Malawians get the bigger fish, but that’s because we Tanzanians like the smaller, younger fish. But there’s enough to go round. I have no idea about oil plans, none at all.”



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