Mining prospectors in Luapula Province, northern Zambia, have forced small-scale farmers from their land at gun point, according to villagers in the region.
"We have a lot of battles going on over land; people's right to land is being violated by manganese miners, time and again," said Ignatius Musenge of the Zambia Land Alliance, a land rights NGO based in Mansa, the provincial capital.
Luapula Province borders the mineral-rich Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has deposits of manganese, cobalt, citrine and copper; some reports claim there are also deposits of diamonds, uranium, gold and tin.
"We are handling about 20 complaints per week on average, and so far we have had more than 500 people evicted [since 2009] in various parts of Mansa as a result of manganese mining," Musenge told IRIN. People forced from their land have been given no compensation or alternative land.
"They [prospectors] are chasing us from our own land," Peter Mwila told IRIN. "Is this country just for the rich? The chief [traditional ruler] gave me a 10-hectare piece of land many years ago, where I have been farming. But early this year someone came and chased me with a gun, saying I was farming on his mining area, and I am now living with my uncle in the next village."
President Rupiah Banda's government has permitted exploration to gauge the extent of the province's mineral deposits, and has allowed small-scale mining activities, but residents claim that once mineral deposits are discovered they are evicted from their land.
Lister Zimba, who was "chased from her land" in Mansa district in May 2010, told IRIN: "The only thing I have is this land, where I do my farming. So, what happens to me now? The chief gave us land; people with money got the land from us."
Nowhere to go
"Where can we go? This is the only land we [I, my husband and three children] have lived on. We have no jobs, why should they take even the little that we have?" she said.
Mining - particularly in Copper Belt Province, northern Zambia - contributes 80 percent of the country's foreign earnings, and since 2003 has been the main driver of its annual five percent growth rate. But the commodities boom, tempered by the 2008 global slowdown, has failed to improve the livelihoods of most of Zambia's 12.4 million citizens.
About two-thirds of Zambians survive on less than US$1 per day, and only about 500,000 people have formal employment, but these statistics become more extreme in Luapula.
The province is one of poorest of Zambia's nine provinces, poverty levels are an estimated 78 percent - compared to the national average of 64 percent - and only three percent of Luapula's 775,353 people have access to formal jobs, according to the 2008 Labour Force Survey Report released in June 2010 by the Central Statistical Office.
One of the few large industries, a battery factory, closed in the 1990s and there is an expectation that large-scale mining operations could transform the province's economic fortunes.
Chief Ndake, a member of the House of Chiefs, a body of traditional rulers, warned that pro-market policies could push poor people living on customary land into deeper poverty if they were evicted.
In Zambian law, land is held by customary tenure, and although the government has encouraged citizens to take title to their land, many are unaware of the need to do so, and the state has the authority to revoke any untitled land awarded by traditional rulers.
"The powers that we have [as traditional rulers] to give land to the people are not actually honoured; in fact, the villagers living in rural areas are termed as squatters. The millions and millions of Zambians who have lived on this land for more than two, three centuries up to now, they are squatting," Chief Ndake told IRIN.
"It is only those who have settled on statutory land, where there are all those title deeds, that are settled permanently, and this law becomes very effective when there is an investor coming, when there is timber to be produced, when there are mineral deposits," he said.
Kennedy Sakeni, a former parliamentarian living in Mansa, is one of the small-scale miners accused of evicting people from their customary land.
"Those are just wild allegations - they want to create problems where there are no problems. Others want to eat with both hands; you compensate them today, tomorrow they come back and ask for more money," he said.
"The truth is, I have seven mining licenses for [digging] pits in different places, and wherever there are fields of cassava [a staple food] in any of my mines, I have compensated them [local people]. In certain areas, where I am not mining just now, the people still have their cassava fields intact," he said.
Boniface Nkata, Zambia's deputy minister of mines, said government was concerned at the rising number of evictions. "There's very serious tension in terms of mining activities in the district [Mansa]," he acknowledged.
"But ... government cannot be blamed where someone is evicted from the land they have been occupying illegally, without valid documentation - they are squatters. Those who are driving them out are permitted to do so, because they should not come and find their minerals tampered with," Nkata told IRIN.
"The law is very clear - even when your chief gives you land, you should obtain title deeds for it from the ministry of lands. Then, any investor will have to partner with you, or just mine outside your farm area," he said.
"We can't have a situation where anyone does what they think is right. As government, we can only call on all our investors to offer some form of compensation to the affected people, to ease their relocation or resettlement."
The government intended to open the mineral wealth of the province to international investors after a two-year exploration period, "so that they can develop the province, invest in corporate social responsibility, pay tax," Nkata said.
"These mining activities have the potential to improve the economy of Zambia significantly, and I think we should look at the bigger picture."
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