Uranium mining in Niger: Shining a light on a case of injustice

If you ask a French citizen where their electricity comes from, many would proudly say from ‘green power’, meaning nuclear power. France has one of the largest nuclear power complexes in the world, supplying powerhouse economies like Germany as well as many Eastern European countries.

But France doesn’t have much uranium for nuclear generation. For more than 50 years this simply hasn’t been a problem. Since it struck an agreement with the poor, landlocked country of Niger in 1967, France has been getting a pretty good deal.

A win-win contract

Between 1971-2010, two subsidiaries of AREVA, the nuclear giant, extracted 114,346 tonnes of uranium from Niger, worth 2.3 trillion CFA francs (over €3.5 billion). From that sum, AREVA paid Niger only 300 billion CFA francs (approximately €459 million or a paltry €11 million per year on average), or just 13% of its market value. This is obviously not fair. What Oxfam is asking for is for Niger to sign a win-win contract, based on Niger’s demand that its uranium mining industry should be contributing around 20% to its national budget, or about €400 million each year.

AREVA and the Government of Niger are now negotiating to renew this agreement. But how can Niger hold out for its fair dues? Niger’s officials lack sufficient information on AREVA operations, and lack sufficient experience in negotiating such a mega-contract. Most importantly, Niger is heavily dependent on French development assistance, budget support and military assistance.

Highly secretive negotiations

France sits at a high 20th spot in the latest Human Development Index, while Niger is in 187th and last place. It is vital that France is as open and as fair as possible in negotiating such a huge mineral contract with the world’s poorest country, in order to dispel even the hint of suspicion of bullying and exploitation. But so far, it’s doing precisely the opposite; these negotiations appear to be highly secretive.

To make matters worse, there are also the pervasive threats of health risks from radiation, water table depletion, and environmental destruction. There needs to be much more research and publicity on the impact that this uranium mining is having on the health of workers and residents living in the area, as well as the impact on the environment. ROTAB, a national NGO, and a local NGO, AGHIR IN'MAN, regularly criticize AREVA and the Niger government for their carelessness.

ROTAB (part of the Publish what you Pay Coalition) is a partner of Oxfam that lobbies extractive industries to be more transparent and accountable. In Niger’s Agadez region and in other mining areas, ROTAB trains local people and authorities on participatory budgeting, to ensure that the revenues from the extractive industries are managed in more transparent ways.

Public mobilization

I’m proud of the joint report that Oxfam produced this month, because we need to use public opinion to ensure that Niger establishes a uranium mining partnership that is more balanced and in the best interests of Nigeriens.

Pastoralist communities across the vast, desert lands of northern Niger do not have a strong voice in the complex negotiations over mining permits. Their story is not unique – it’s being repeated in remote, rural communities all over the globe. There are millions of Nigeriens who live without electricity, education and health care. In this country that is so vulnerable to repeated droughts and floods, uranium should provide the means for Niger to develop and build an economy that is resilient to food and climate shocks, and that ensures the right to basic services for its people.

One of the best ways to change the balance of power is to strengthen Nigerien civil society organizations that try to help ordinary people to assert their rights. In Oxfam’s experience, we know that most of the improvements that have come about in the partnership between Niger and AREVA are largely due to grassroots activism. The work of civil society reinforces and encourages Nigerien government negotiators to defend more strongly the national interest. Indeed, Government actors are more aware about more their obligations of accountability because of the pressure by local civil society. Oxfam will also continue to advocate on this issue internationally, mainly in the capitals of Europe, especially France.

These negotiations with AREVA are a huge opportunity for Niger to make more of one of its most valuable natural resources. The first step is to bring these talks out into the open, and with a better deal, ensure that in 2014 AREVA starts paying the true price for its power.

Oxfam in Niger has a staff of 107 and has conducted programs since 1992.

What do you think can be done to change the balance of power? Write and give us your views.

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