Poisoning more than pigeons in the park

The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is under threat of uranium mining

By Linda Pentz Gunter

We still call these parks “game” reserves but the animals there are no longer game. With the exception of poachers and Donald Trump’s sons, (and yes, of course other butcherous egotists), we don’t shoot these animals, we protect them.

But this is not to be the case in Tanzania’s precious Selous Game Reserve. Despite being a World Heritage Site, animals there will be slaughtered en masse, slowly, insidiously, over millennia. We will do it with uranium mines.

Selous is rich with wildlife, including elephants, giraffes, lions and hippos — although the Selous elephants are under siege from poaching, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, could be wiped out by 2022 if poaching continues at current levels.

Inexcusably, it was the World Heritage Committee itself that opened the door to the poisoning of these animals in a park that was supposed to be their sanctuary. In July 2012, it agreed to accept a “minor boundary change” that would allow the development of a major uranium mine — the Mkuju River Uranium Project — a joint Russian-Canadian venture. The change was heavily lobbied for by the Tanzanian government.

Selous_70,000 down to 30,000

The vast Selous park is home to the biggest population of elephants in Africa.

Ironically, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee makes the strongest case against uranium mining in its own description of the reserve:

“The Selous Game Reserve, covering 50,000 square kilometres, is amongst the largest protected areas in Africa and is relatively undisturbed by human impact. The property harbours one of the most significant concentrations of elephant, black rhinoceros, cheetah, giraffe, hippopotamus and crocodile, amongst many other species. The reserve also has an exceptionally high variety of habitats including Miombo woodlands, open grasslands, riverine forests and swamps, making it a valuable laboratory for on-going ecological and biological processes.”

Instead, Selous will be a laboratory for Rosatom, the majority partner in the Mkuju uranium mine project. A uranium mine in the midst of this delicate ecosystem would result in the “creation of 60 million tons of radioactive and poisonous waste by the mine during its 10-year lifespan (139 million tons if a projected extension of the mine should be implemented),” according to information provided by the Uranium Network. It adds: “No proven methods exist to keep the radioactive and toxic slush and liquids from seeping into surface waters, aquifers or spreading with the dry season wind into the Reserve.”

In May the threat deepened when the Tanzanian government announced it had found additional minerals in the park, including base metal, copper, silver, cobalt, and zinc.

Since the 2012 decision to exclude the Mkuju area from protection and allow the mine, environmental groups have been urging the World Heritage Committee — which listed Selous as a “World Heritage in Danger” site in 2014 — to reconsider its decision. The recategorizing had nothing to do with the threat to wildlife posed by the uranium mine, however, but because of the high levels of poaching and the ensuing dramatic decline in the elephant population.

Selous Richard Mortel Flickr

Lions and their cubs bask in the Selous Game Reserve but are threatened by uranium mines. (Photo: Richard Mortel, Flickr.)

In 2016, noted Tanzanian journalist Kiondo Mshana, urged his government to ban the uranium mine in a public appeal. “My fears are that if these companies are allowed to mine uranium, especially in the Selous Game Reserve, their activities would lead to irreparable damage, not only to the environment in terms of its ecosystem, but also to Tanzania’s precious tourism industry,” Mshana said.

 But nothing has changed, except Rosatom’s plans.

The company first announced that, despite getting permission for an open pit uranium mine, it would instead use the heavily water intensive in-situ leach mining method.  Says Gunter Wippel of the Uranium Network, “While UNESCO WHC clearly stated that a change of the mining method would necessitate a new ESIA, to date, there is no indication that a new ESIA has been commissioned.” Wippel wrote the section on Mkuju for the 2018 World Heritage Watch Report.

Then, on July 7, 2017, ROSATOM abruptly announced it was suspending the Mkuju uranium mine project. Suspended, not canceled, and for financial considerations only, with uranium prices depressed and no prospects of immediate profits. In addition, a new Tanzanian law would have given more of the profits than before to the state. The company removed equipment and workers from the site in March.

Uranium mining corporations have a nasty habit of doing these kinds of disappearing acts. Before the mine opens is one thing — although bore testing also releases radioactivity into the environment. But Rosatom is equally likely to walk away should business turn bad once the mine is functional. That could leave behind a catastrophic mess with no one responsible for its cleanup.

As Wippel concludes: “In Africa, as well as in other parts of the world, many uranium mine and mill sites, tailings and tailings ponds have been left behind without rehabilitation; in some cases, rehabilitation started 20-30 years later, and often at government expense. Taking into account the climate of ambiguities around the Mkuju River Project, and the boom-and-bust character of the uranium industry, there is considerable risk that the project may be left behind with an abandoned mine and unreclaimed tailings and tailings ponds – which will pose a serious threat to the headwaters of the Rufiji River system and to the World Heritage Site for many years to come.”

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