Energy and Mining Minister Cassim Chilumpha last week told the BBC ahead of its special series on 'Power in Africa' - with a focus on Malawi's growing mining industry - that "he was excited" that Malawi has substantial amounts of 'rare earth' otherwise known as niobium.
"So far - and this is not a very extensive exploration that has taken place - we know that there are about 30 million metric tonnes (of rare earth) that we have discovered...we estimate that after a full exploration has been done we are talking about a resource to extend from 40 to 50 years," he said.
Added to that Dr. Chilumpha said Mchenga Coal Mine alone is almost doubling production from 40 million metric tonnes to 70 million metric tonnes of coal per year. He also talked up the potential discovery of both solid and liquid minerals like uranium in Kasungu and, of course, Karonga and oil underneath Lake Malawi.
This is all good for a country that has been short-changed by the over-dependence of the back-breaking rain-fed agriculture for nearly half a century. Indeed tobacco, our chief cash crop, is failing to sustain our forex needs, so are other crops like tea, cotton, coffee and sugar. Our tourism potential is bogged down by poor infrastructure and prohibitive hotel rates. Maybe indeed we should look into the belly of the earth for salvation.
But Malawi has to tread carefully here. Like Kaka honestly told the BBC, Malawi does not have the financial power and the technical know-how to extract the minerals itself. This means inviting foreign players into the mining sector. Added to that since Malawi's mining sector is virtually none-existent, having been in serious mining business for only three years, caution must be the by-word here.
Look, many people - with some believable evidence too - think we got a raw deal from the Australians in Kayerekera. The Malawi government only has a 15 per cent non-controlling stake and spin-offs from the multi-million-dollar mine do not seem to be appreciated by surrounding communities.
Also the discovery of oil has turned out to be a curse in certain countries. Look at the environmental degradation and the violence from it in the oil-rich Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Let us hope that the new mining policy and laws (Act of Parliament) the minister said government was working on would be tight enough to look not only into environmental issues but also to make sure Malawians are not exploited. For example, Chilumpha talked about government setting up a fund to enable Malawian companies and individuals to partner with the foreign investors. He also said with the new policy mining contracts will include a well-policed social responsibility component.
Let us hope this is not all political hot air from Dr. Chilumpha because Paladin, for instance, claims it pays the Malawi government millions of dollars in taxes but people in Karonga want evidential results on the ground to show that they are benefiting something from their resources.
---(c) The Maravi Post 2012