Ensure discovery of coltan in Embu doesn't turn into a curse

I come from Mbeere South Sub-County (formerly Gachoka Constituency, a place with no inch of tarmac road of its own, apart from the bypass tarmac road from Embu-Machakos bypass that we used to travel over 12km while young to see what a tarmac road looked like.

There is something else that Mbeere South Constituency has been known for since I was young: The disputed 44,000-acre Mwea Settlement Scheme that is marked with bouts of bloody disputes between ‘squatters’ and external interests from some influential individuals.  

This week, another medal was added to the desolate constituency’s resume. News has it that a rare ore, columbite-tantalite (coltan), was discovered around the Kiritiri, the headquarters of the sub-county.

Parts of this sub-county are incredibly rocky; no wonder colten hides on crystallised deep-seated molten rock. In our place, the said coltan comes as a shiny or dull black metallic stones (ores), which we used to kill birds with when we were growing up.

Little did we know that the so-called ‘obscure mineral’ or geologically ‘Columbite Tantalite is the sole mineral used to manufacture electric car batteries, cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.

Last year, precisely at a time like this, I had a conversation with a colleague from DRC. He had come to collect his PhD certificates after graduating from Egerton University. For the first time, I asked him about his country and whether the gold we all hear about is there. He said gold is as common as stone in DRC, but it is a curse to the core.

He further said that in his inherited piece of land, he keeps cattle even though miners keep nagging him to allow exploration of gold and other minerals therein. He argued that in DRC, if you permit such exploration and gold or some other precious minerals are discovered; it could be the beginning of your hell on earth—you might be dispossessed of your land and sometimes even killed to pave the way for mining.

So, early this week, when Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Mining Salim Mvurya, flanked by Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire, and Mbeere South MP Nebart Muriuki, made an official announcement that the constituency has deposits of Coltan, I was scared stiff.

Alerting residents of possible external interests, Muriuki warned that “A precious mineral has been found here, and if you want to benefit, you should not sell your land.” 

The news spread like bushfire among the local and foreign media outlets. Notably, a common denominator in the background of the news reports was that this seemingly new ore is the primary cause of violent conflict in the east of the DRC Congo, which reportedly holds over 70 per cent of the world's coltan ore reserves.

My quick search regarding the rare mineral showed that coltan is also found in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Rwanda and DRC Congo. Records of lead reserves show that while DRC Congo is the world leader, Rwanda is the third largest producer—these two central African countries are not beds of roses.

We pray that our coltan does not attract illegal mining, illicit trade, and smuggling industries to Mbeere South, driven by external forces that incite armed conflicts in mineral-rich countries.

Apart from the initial “gold rush” of selling land that the area Mr Muriuki warned residents about, the discovery is also likely to open artisanal mining where children and teenagers are engaged in child labour, thus cutting children off schooling and generally restricting their fundamental rights.

Therefore, the national and the County Government of Embu must ensure that mining and mineral resources policies and frameworks are put in place to provide for the exploration and exploitation of this resource for the county’s socioeconomic development. Otherwise, the blessing could quickly turn into a curse.

Dr Ndonye is a senior lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Kabarak University