Brazilian coal miner leaves cloud of despair in western Mozambique

January 17, 2022

Estacio Valoi

MoatizeVale, a mega-million Brazilian multinational with interests in mining, logistics, steel-making and energy, insists its mission is “to transform natural resources to prosperity and sustainable development”.

But that is certianly not the impression you will get if you go to Moatize in western Mozambique’s Tete province where the company, in partnership with Mitsui Corp, has been mining coal for more than a decade.

Vale looks set to sell its coal mining investments in Mozambique to Canada-based Vulcan Minerals—a Jintal Group subsidiary—and the Nacala Logistics Corridor for some US$270 million, but it is leaving a dusty legacy of environmental and livelihoods harm that, in more than one way, may be impossible to repair, as residents of Moatize will readily testify.

The government is yet to approve the sale, though.

The Mozambican government, at best, looks disinterested and, in a big way, is considered an accomplice in the environmental and socio-economic crimes that the coal miners have been committing over the years.

The Moatize coal mine was officially opened in May 2011 and has been producing an average of 11.3 million tonnes of coal per year, with the project estimated to last till 2046.

The mining profits get shipped away from Mozambique to Brazil and beyond, but the enviromental destruction dogs the people of Moatize.

Between 2009 and 2010, Vale moved 1,365 families to the Cateme and 25 de Setembro resettlements areas to make way for the coal project.

Then, along the Nacala Corridor, an additional 2,000 families that relied mostly on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising were also resettled.


The resettled residents complained of unsafe housing and poor civil works in the new settlements.

Part of the Moatize settlement

Walls of the houses are cracking due to the angry blasts from the Moatize mines that are taking place almost daily, and a good number of them has already collapsed.

Residents said they have, for years, been requesting compensation for the damaged houses but Vale is not listening, nor is government paying attention. 

The land was also unsuitable for farming, they said. And those problems, investigations revealed, persist despite drawn-out complaints by the displaced residents and non-governmental pressure groups.

Politicians and local authorities are barred from talking to residents and oleiros, the bustling group of clay brickmakers who are fighting a gruelling war with Vale to be compensated for their loss of land and livelihoods as they made way for opencast coal mining.  

Observations revealed that the river water that the resettled people depended on for consumption and farming has largely been diverted from the streams that feed into the Moatize and Revuboe rivers, which form a confluence in the area and are fast silting up.

Residents have been left high and dry after Vale diverted water courses

In Moatize, the cattle have been left without pasture and are having to stray and feed off the numeorus garbage dumps scattered throughout the city of Moatize.

This is affecting thousands other people from Bagamoyo, Nhantchere,  Primeiro de Maio and Liberdade—well beyond those that were displaced by the coal project.

Thick black clouds blanket the skies every time blasting occurs and the trucks that Vale uses kick up swirling dust too, leaving surfaces covered in thick sooty layers.

The residents say it is no longer safe to dry the staple maize flour in the open because of the dust.

More dust than air

They say they are now breathing more dust than air.

“Here, when people cough, black stuff comes out (of their throats), and the doctors say it’s dust from the mines. Vale,  government officials and a team from the hospital came to test people for a week. They saw that people were suffering from coughs and that they were spitting out black things. But they never came back after that”, said one of the residents.

Residents talked about little Ester from Primeiro de Maio who, in September 2014, met her death while playing in an open pit. They said a Vale dump truck accidentally buried her alive while dumping ore.

The family reportedly received only 5,000 meticais—about US$75—to cover burial expenses.

In November 2020, residents said, a group of children from Cateme drowned while bathing in a rain-water filled pit, having underestimated the depth of the pool.

Justiça Ambiental, a non-profit organisation, facilitated laboratory tests on water and air in Liberdade neighbourhood in 2021. Results showed that  the water and air pollution levels were three times above the national and international limits.

For example, cadmium levels of 0.009 mg/l were recorded in Vale’s concession area, while the amounts considered admissible by Mozambique and the World Health Organization are 0.003 mg/l.

 Cadmium is a heavy metal that causes damage to the nervous system and can cause disturbances in foetal development, even in low concentrations.

According to hospital sources, most of the people treated at the Moatize Hospital are diagnosed with tuberculosis.

“Every day, a big number of people are diagnosed with tuberculosis linked to the pollution caused by coal mining here in Moatize. Pollution is affecting a lot of people,” said a hospital official who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.

He complained that Vale—which did not respond to media questions despite numeorus attempts—was offloading harmful chemicals into the nearby Moatize and Revuboe rivers. “This is just wrong!”, he said.

When Vale commenced the expansion of the Moatize III Mine in 2019, they blocked the Moatize River course, thereby cutting off Primeiro de Maio, Liberdade and Paiol.

The Vale coal mining project

This severely affected brickmakers, the subsistence farmers and livestock relying on the major river. 

Several meetings were held between the affected people, Vale and the government, Vale and the government to negotiate compensations but with no tangible results. [EM1] 

Elephant in the room

Compensation for some 4,000 oleiros has become another elephant in the room. Their displacment from their original homes disrupted their livelihoods and most of them are now living from hand to mouth.

The late Refo Agostinho and his Zita, a widow in her 40s, used to make a decent living from brick production and were actially considered the most successful brickmakers in Moatize.

The Agostinho family fed the family and sent their children to school on the brick-making money. “Our children all grew up with support from the money from our brick work,” said Zita, who added that they started the modest business venture in 1993 which, by the time of Refo’s death, was bringing them close to US$500 a month. 

They even managed to hire labourers.

“First we had five workers, then 10, and then 15. They could make 3,000 bricks a day for about 900 to 1,000 Meticais (approximately US$15). With the money from brick making, we were able to build our own house and buy a car.

“Refo ran other businesses. We also used our car to transport the bricks to where our clients needed them,” added Zita.

But Refo died a painful death. He was among hundreds of bricklayers who peacefully demonstrated against Vale for delays in paying displacement compensation when they were moved from their original homes.

They police, as it often does, pounced on the demonstrators and arrested Refo as well as scores of other protesters who they detained for weeks.

Even though Vale subsequently paid the brickmakers some US$940 for relocation and promised US$1960 as compensation, Refo returned home sick and later passed away.

During investigations, Nordino Timba Chauque, the representaive of the Nhankweva brickmakers group, said they were fed up with Vale’s unfulfilled promises.

Vale, he said, was using frustrating tactics so as to avoid paying the compensation. It started compiling a list of people who needed to paid in 2020 but still claims the exercise is ongoing.

The company promised us that it would pay us all, a group of 571 brickmakers, and that each of us would receive 125,000 Meticais (approximately US$1960). We were not compensated. The company told us to come back on December 22, 2021,” he said.

Nothing came out of it when they went to hear their fate and Vale is now saying it will not pay them a cent more more.

“At one point Vale just said that it no longer recognised us and that we are not on the registration lists,” said Chauque.

Vale subcontracted a company called MP to continue with the registration but later rejected the list, claiming that it had been manipulated by “outsiders”.

An affected brickmaker queried how the list was manipulated, considering that the local authorities, government officials and affected residents were involved in a transparent manner.

“These are Vale’s tricks to avoid paying us. They are the ones who used to do the registration, but they chose MP to do this registration. So, they must have the numbers,” said Chauque.

Fromer MP employees insist that a list of about 35,000 was completed some time back, but Vale was claiming that it only had 5,000 only. They said they were expelled from the company under unclear circumstances, at one time having their mobile phones confiscated for allegedly stuffing the lists with undeserving people.

Paulo Vítor Maferrano, 41, from Chipanga, Moatize, says he made around US$470 per month before they were removed in 2008.

Vale said it would not occupy Chipanga, so people who were removed from other areas came to Chipanga to make their machambas (farming plots). But suddenly, Vale moved people out of Chipanga too, which meant they had to negotiate with those people too. People have not been compensated yet,” said Maferrano.

Police brutality

Reports of police violence to protect the interests of the mining company date back to the beginning of the project. Residents, among them pregnant women and children, have been tear-gassed, arrested, beaten and shot at with rubber as well as live bullets.

On the 20th of November 2021, four members of the Nhantchere community who had been representing families whose homes have cracks on the walls caused by the mine explosions, were unjustly detained and remained in prison for 3 days.

Two days before Christmas, two brickmakers were arrested and detained for five days for holding a meeting over the the unpaid compensation, investigations revealed.

Reports indicate that community members who play leading roles in the negotiation processes with VALE tend to suffer increasing reprisals and intimidation, including arbitrary and illegal detentions.

On 7 May 2021, security agents—among them the infamous Rapid Intervention Unit ambushed residents who were awaiting a meeting in Primeiro de Majo and dispersed them.

A resident who was, however, at home, was hounded out during a door-by-door search, shot in the belly and left for dead.

He was hsopitalised with bullet wounds but is no longer able to do menial work because of the pain he suffers fromthe shot.

“When I put on the seat belt, it goes through my belly here, and I still have stitches. I have been feeling pain whenever there are changes in temperature or when it is about to rain. The people who did this to me were not held responsible and I did not have any support.

“I would like to point out that the government was aware of what happened to me, and nobody came here to, at least, see how I was doing,” moaned Vasco.

The police was not available to comment even though numerous attempts were made.

At least two cases were brought up against Vale Moçambique regarding access to public interest information—one by the non-governmental organisation, Justiça Ambiental (JA!), and the other by the Mozambican Bar Association (OAM).

JA! demanded that “Vale’s environmental monitoring reports between 2013 and 2020 be made available, as they are public documents that should be widely known, especially by the communities that have to live with Vale’s operations on a daily basis.”

In a subsequent appeal, Vale has insisted that the information being demanded is confidential but JA! pressed on for the documents.

The courts, through a ruling filed as number 130/2020 ordered that the information must be availed since it was of public interest.

OAM, in turn, asked the court to subpoena Vale Mozambique to make available various documents of public interest, among them memoranda of understanding and other agreements signed between the government, Vale and communities.

The Administrative Court of the City of Maputo agreed with the OAM but Vale made an appeal that was dismissed by the a Counselor Judges of the First Chamber of the Administrative Court, through Ruling No. 119/2020 of December 15, 2020, referring to case No. 131/2020.

However, the information remains elusive.

In April 2021, during the General Shareholders’ Meeting of Vale in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some company’s shareholders voted not to approve the management report, as it omitted important information about the project in Mozambique.

These shareholders also requested numerous documents of public interest, including information requested by Mozambican civil society organisations regarding Vale Mozambique’s activities in Moatize.

Senior executives of the company pledged to send the requested documents, but these promises, too, were not kept.

*This investigation was produced with support from Information for Development Trust (IDT) and in partnership with Justiça Ambiental.

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