Six uranium activists were arrested and imprisoned without charge in the Central African Republic on September 16. After a week in detention, during which it was insinuated that the activists were involved in terrorist activities, espionage, and/or general destabilizing of the country, all were released.
The activists were on their way to a workshop in Bakouma, where French nuclear company AREVA owns a uranium mine, when they were halted by armed military forces. Without being informed about the reason for arrest, they were transported back to the country’s capital Bangui, interrogated, and immediately detained.
Purpose of the activists travelling to Bakouma was to organise a workshop for local citizens and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to inform them about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of uranium mining.
Upon arrest, the authorities claimed that the activists were not authorised by the Ministry of Mining to travel to Bakouma. In fact, the activists had demanded and received permission from the Ministry previous to their trip – even though the authorisation was officially only needed for the one foreigner in the group of activists. This surprising and obviously erroneous claim by the authorities make one wonder what the real reasons for the arrest might have been.
Infrequent uranium exploration activities have been conducted in the region since decades. Although ore grades at the Bakouma deposit are relatively high compared to some other African mining sites, the infrastructural and political situation made the Central African deposit less attractive for commercial mining operations.
Until today, only French nuclear company AREVA has opened a uranium mine in Bakouma. The Central African government, desperate to attract any kind of foreign investment into the economically underdeveloped country, was hoping for the first uranium production to be realised by 2010. However, despite government pressure and promises by AREVA, the French still have not shown much interest in starting production.
Meanwhile, the habitants of the region remain uninformed about the developments taking place at government and company level. Local populations live in a remote area where access to education, services, health care and justice is absolutely minimal. Scarce and biased information is provided by government and industry.
With the aim to inform the communities about mining hazards, NGOs based in Bangui are making efforts to get access to the Bakouma population. For information and support, the Central African NGOs are supported by various international organisations. The arrested activists were representatives of the Organisation Centrafricaine pour la Défense de la Nature, l’Observatoire Centrafricain des Droits de l’Homme, the Groupement des Agriculteurs pour la Lutte contre la Désertification et la Pauvrété, the Association pour la Protection Environnementale et le Développement Durable, the Association Centrafricaine des Professionnels en Evaluation Environnementale, and Capacity for Development.
As serious problems related to uranium mining operations are undoubtedly occurring in the Central African Republic – lack of public participation, radiological and toxic contamination of the mining area, neglect of human rights, etc – the Central African human rights and environmental experts who were arrested are receiving much support from foreign organisations, who offer their expertise and support. Organisations such as Capacity for Development (Belgium), CED (Cameroon) and Croissance Saine Environnement (Gabon), along with other organisations, are actively involved in empowering the Central African organisations, and are closely monitoring the Central African developments.
Now that the Central African activist movement to struggle for more information, more public participation, and better protection of environment and humans, becomes better-organised and more powerful, it seems that the Central African government are not so pleased with this new, more mature civil society: hence the arrest of the activists. AREVA, equally, has proven to find it difficult to accept the role of civil society in decision-making on mining activities. The company has not shown much willingness to keep Central African citizens informed and to communicate openly with NGOs.
Meanwhile, the activists do not at all seem discouraged by the unexpected turn of events. Fiercefully claiming their rights and confronting their authorities, while enjoying support and protection by the international community, it is expected that the activists will continue to enhance public participation and disclosure of information in the Central African Republic.
The prisoners were suddenly released on September 22. One of the activists, a foreigner, forcibly returned to Europe. All other activists, of Central African nationality, remain in the country. The Central African activists are planning to discuss their arrest with the authorities and will seek clarification from them. It is still unknown when the activists will attempt once again to reach the communities in Bakouma.
Sources: personal contact with involved activists
Contact: WISE Amsterdam