Demonstrators have taken to the streets in at least a dozen southern Ethiopian towns this week to protest the federal government’s renewal of a license for a mining company that they say jeopardizes local residents’ health and economic well-being.
The protesters, in the restive Oromia region, criticize a 10-year license for Mohammed International Development Research and Organization Cos., or MIDROC, to continue mining gold at a site near the town of Shakiso and the Lega Dembi river.
The demonstrations followed the April 27 report of the license renewal for MIDROC, which has operated the mine since the late 1990s. The company is owned by African-born billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, detained since November in what Saudi Arabia calls an anti-corruption sweep.
“Demonstrators are very angry. They are blocking roads and demanding change,” Dulacha Lafe, administrator for the local Goro Dolaa district, told VOA in a phone interview on Monday, when the protests began. He said local authorities “understand and agree with their concern. However, we don’t have the power to solve the problem. [The] Oromia regional government and the federal government should help us out. The license should not have been renewed at all.”
Some high school students skipped classes this week to join in the anti-mining protests, which have erupted periodically over the years. A Shakiso resident, who asked VOA to withhold his name out of fear of retaliation, said Friday that some students “were beaten because of protesting and asking for their constitutional rights.”
Abdu Kadir, an inspector for the local Guji district government, told VOA: “Some schools have been closed for a few days, and today students are back in class. Nobody is arrested or anything.”
Chemicals blamed for ailments
Protesters contend that chemicals used at the mine contaminate the water and air, sickening humans and animals with everything from respiratory illnesses to miscarriages, birth defects and disabilities.
“Mothers are having miscarriages every single day,” Abebech Elias, a health care provider from the Shakiso area, told state-owned Oromia Broadcasting Network in a report that aired Tuesday. “I am not seeing this in other places, only around the mining site.”
Also in that report, MIDROC’s environmental protection expert, Ahmed Mohammed, said the company used chemicals including hydrogen cyanide. “[E]ven a small amount” of hydrogen cyanide “can contaminate water and can cause serious consequences,” he said. He did not specify the amounts used in MIDROC’s operations, nor what safety precautions, if any, the company had taken.
MIDROC did not respond to VOA’s attempts to reach it by phone and via its website.
The website MiningFacts.org explains that cyanide, “in the form of a very dilute sodium cyanide solution, is used to dissolve and separate gold from ore. … Cyanide is toxic in large doses and is strictly regulated in most jurisdictions worldwide to protect people, animals and the aquatic environment.”
Local residents are concerned not only about health but also economics, said Galchu Halake, a community leader and one of the protesters in Arkalo town.