Makuutu Rare Earth Elements project ought to pay attention to human rights concerns

Last week, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) issued a certificate of approvalto Rwenzori Rare Metals Limited to mine rare earth elements within the districts of Bugiri, Iganga and Mayuge.

This has come to be known as the Makuutu Rare Earth Elements (REE) project. The project follows Uganda’s discovery of rare earth minerals in the Busoga sub-region in 2013 with initial estimates pointing to a 300 million tonnage within the three districts.

According to the Project Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report of June 2021, these minerals are estimated to deliver gross royalty payments of $380 million plus corporate tax contributions of about $965 million.

For context, in the financial year 2019/20, the government of Uganda reported mining revenues of 374 billion shillings (about $98 million) in the country’s first Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report released this year.

The discovery of these minerals has naturally caused a frenzy with the crux of the discussions focusing on the numbers – the economic potential of the project and not forecasting the implication of such projects on human rights.

Rare earth minerals (sometimes referred to as rare earth elements) are a set of 17 metallic elements whose industrial uses range from manufacture of batteries in electric cars, computers and cell phones to their use in medical imaging.

By 2020, China was the largest producer of rare earth minerals, with an estimated tonnage of 140,000, accounting for 60  per cent of the total global production. By the very nature of their industrial uses, rare earth minerals have huge demand and have also prominently featured in the trade wars between the United States of America and China.

But as we look to the economic potential of our rare earth minerals project, it is important that we also look at the potential for such projects to occasion various human rights violations and infringements.

This year, the US Congress has investigated claims of Chinese usage of child labour in the mining of rare earth minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and opaque mining contracts that sought to exploit the country’s vast natural resources.

In northern Myanmar, civil society organisations have unearthed human rights abuses from rare earth elements mining. Already, there have been a number of warning signs over the Makuutu project.

In May, Daily Monitor reported that the project would displace an estimated 4,867 households, thereby potentially limiting the right to property as enshrined under the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

Whereas the project seeks to construct a resettlement village, it is important to note that certain districts that are part of the Makuutu project such as Mayuge do not possess any experience in project resettlement and yet their role in the same is important.

Secondly, as it stands, there is little information on the project and this is reflected in the stakeholder concerns during the ESIA process. Whereas this information can be gotten from the ESIA itself, the language of such documents is usually technical and difficult to understand especially for the project-affected persons (PAPs).

As a member of the EITI, Uganda has committed to disclosing information along the extractives value chain. It is, therefore, important for Rwenzori Rare Metals Company Limited to consider explaining the project to PAPs in the simplest of ways.

Thirdly, there are concerns with the project’s impact on the environment. According to the project ESIA, there is likely to be disturbances with land and contamination of surface water with ammonium sulphate lixiviant.

According to some researches, this poses a threat to surrounding soils, surface groundwater and even to human health. It is not clear how the project will address such a glaring concern but Article 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda is clear in providing for the right to a clean and healthy environment.

The discovery of rare earth minerals ought to elicit excitement and hope, considering that the economic benefits are immense. However, throwing all caution to the wind is bound to thwart efforts at obtaining transparency and accountability, especially from Rwenzori Rare Earth Metals Limited.

If, however, we have human rights considerations at the back of our minds as this project kicks off, then perhaps we will be able to ensure that these natural resources do not just benefit those involved in their mining but also those affected by these activities.

The author is the program manager, corporate accountability and transparency at Global Rights Alert