A mine in Kayelekera. The report claims that villagers in areas close to mines in Karonga district have suffered problems with crops and water sources. Photograph: Lauren Clifford-Holmes/Human Rights Watch

A mine in Kayelekera. The report claims that villagers in areas close to mines in Karonga district have suffered problems with crops and water sources. Photograph: Lauren Clifford-Holmes/Human Rights Watch

KARONGA (Kate Hodal)-Villagers in Malawi have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for coal and uranium mines and consequently face serious problems accessing safe water, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, which claims that the government lacks adequate safeguards to protect those affected.

Villagers told HRW that they were given little to no notice that mining would begin in their area, and unsatisfactory or zero compensation for resettlement, the report said. It also claimed the villagers had suffered problems with their crops and water sources, and were worried about the effect the mining was having on their health.

“Since the mining came we have had many problems,” a woman in Mwabulambo, Karonga district, told researchers. “The coal is in our gardens and running into our fields. The way the crops look, you would think that someone had poured petrol on them.”

A gravely impoverished but resource-rich country, Malawi has issued a large number of prospecting licences over the past 10 years, the report claims, allowing exploration for oil and gas extraction in various areas. Central to Malawi’s mining industry is Karonga district, which borders Tanzania and is located on the north-western shores of Lake Malawi. The nation’s first uranium mine opened here in 2009, and the district now houses two of the four largest coal mines in Malawi as well, the report claims.

The government has said that the private investment brought by mining – from both local and international companies, including those from Australia and Cyprus – would in turn create jobs for Malawians and improve locals’ access to infrastructure. HRW investigated the coal and uranium mining operations of Eland Coal Mining Company, Malcoal, and Paladin Africa Limited (Paladin).

Most of those living in Karonga district depend on subsistence farming, including of crops like maize as well as international and governmental food aid, according to HRW. While those living near the mines believed they would get rich from the industry, they told researchers that they are worried the mining operations have contaminated their water and crops, and given them health problems.

A 46-year-old woman in Mwabulambo recalled: “The first thing I remember was that a white man came into the village and asked children about the rocks in this area. The people found out that there is coal. They started talking to the government, but they didn’t discuss their plans with us. They only told us that we would all become very rich once they start with the mining. We didn’t know anything about mining and we believed them.”

HRW claims the Malawi government lacks sufficient legal standards and safeguards to promote the mining industry while protecting local communities. The report says that a new draft law regarding mines and minerals also fails to address a key issue facing the mining industry – transparency about the risks associated with mining.

“Malawi shouldn’t repeat the mistakes made in resource extraction in other countries in southern Africa,” said HRW researcher Katharina Rall. “It is not enough to create a fertile investment climate for mining companies. The government urgently needs to protect the rights of affected communities.”

The report is based on research in Malawi from July 2015 to July 2016, with interviews with villagers affected by the mining industry, representatives of the companies; the central, regional, and local governments; national and international nongovernmental organisations; and international organisations.

“The inadequate healthcare infrastructure and secrecy around monitoring results leads to a lot of uncertainty about what is actually happening,” said Rall. “This is part of the problem – the government and companies need to finally take monitoring seriously and people have a right to know the results.”

Companies operating in Karonga district have also largely failed to deliver on promises to build health centres and additional boreholes for water, according to HRW. The report said that officials at the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining acknowledged that health centres are urgently needed in mining communities, but admitted that the government had not yet managed to promote enforcement of company commitments to build them.

Jan Egil Moe, a spokesman for Independent Oil Resources, of which Eland is a subsidiary, said that Eland has not been operational in Malawi for two years. Asked about the local communities’ allegations, he said: “There have been a lot of allegations from the villagers. We do not comment on the allegations. During the operations, the mine was a good citizen and paid generous compensation to the villagers … We followed all the rules and regulations from the government.”

In an email to the Guardian, Paladin’s CEO, Alexander Molyneux, refuted claims that villagers had been forcibly evicted and stressed that Paladin have invested in social improvement projects in the area. “We solely funded the water purification plant, which is the main source of clean drinking water for Karonga district. We built a clinic in Kayelekera, roads, and school houses. [We] provided direct support to the community in the form of donations of food, non-mining vocational training and school supplies,” Molyneux said.

Malcoal had not responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment on the HRW report at the time of publication. The company stated in an email to HRW that they “strive to help the government to reduce rural poverty by providing employment while at the same time taking care of our communities and the environment”. Malcoal disputed that any resettlements had taken place in Kayelekera, Karonga district, but did not comment on any of the other issues raised in this report.

“The push for industrialisation and growth needs to be accompanied by a social licence and companies should deliver on their promises,” said Reinford Mwangonde, executive director of Citizens for Justice, which hosts the Secretariat of the Natural Resources Justice Network, a Malawian network of non-governmental organisations pressing for sustainable resource extraction.

“The Karonga district mines are just the first in many extractive projects in Malawi, making the lessons they have to offer extremely important,” Rall said. “The government should put effective protections in place as a priority so that people affected by new projects won’t suffer the hardships faced by people in Karonga.”