Over the past few years I have visited a lot of communities affected by large-scale mining projects. In Honduras, Mali, Peru, Ghana, Guatemala, Cambodia, or Senegal, I usually hear about more or less the same problems: loss of land, loss of jobs, pollution, and despair.
No matter how much you hear about these problems, seeing them in the small towns, villages, and in the homes of people remembering a lost way of life is always shocking. I was reminded of this most recently in a small village called Faloumbou, in the far eastern border of Senegal. The entire village of 650 people, including all 35 of its farming families, had lost all the agricultural land they had used to grow millet, maize, and ground nuts. The government gave it to an Australian mining company. All their fields are now part of an open-pit gold mine. No one in Faloumbou had received any sort of compensation for lost land.
The chief of the village, Kourou Keita, asks a simple question: “We don’t know anything but farming, so if you take the land from us, how can we survive?”
There’s another theme that usually comes out: the aggravation of telling a sad story to a steady stream of government representatives, company officials, and aid workers. They all listen respectfully, and then leave. And few things change. It was the same in Faloumbou. “People come here and ask about us and the gold mining…we expect them to help, or don’t bother us,” Keita says. “For five years there is no farming here, and we are tired of it.”
Keita and others say there is one exception: Oxfam’s partner La Lumière. “Since La Lumière started working here, we feel someone is really listening and trying to help us,” Keita says. Alpha Keita, who advises the chief, has been working closely with La Lumière. He says it is the only group helping the people of Faloumbou. First the organization held some training sessions to teach people in the village about their rights. Then, La Lumière helped women set up some small saving groups as part of Oxfam’s Saving for Change program. “This kind of activity is really helping us, and women know how to manage money, and get loans,” Alpha Keita saiys. “La Lumière is not giving us money, they are showing us how to find money on our own.”
Oxfam is supporting La Lumière’s work in Faloumbou to help people get compensation for their lost lands, and find other ways to make a living while they find agricultural lands the farmers can use. When I was there La Lumière and the villagers were discussing establishing a store where Saving for Change group members could sell foodstuffs and other goods. My colleague Eva Kouka from Dakar was in Faloumbou last week and reported that the store is now open and they are selling rice, oil, and sugar.
I told chief Keita that I was going to communicate what was happening in Faloumbou and the neighboring village of Sabodala to as many people as I could. You can help me do this by reading the story I wrote in our magazine (see page 4) and watching the video now on our web site, and sharing it with your friends. I also invite you to join our Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign, which recently helped push the US Congress to include strong measures in the recent financial reform legislation that will require oil and mining companies to disclose their payment to foreign governments. This will shed light on an industry in need of greater transparency.
Things can change. The more people who know about situations like these, the more likely communities like Faloumbou can defend their rights to a decent life.