Niger’s uranium, poverty and France’s growing wealth
Niger to get the world’s 2nd largest uranium mine
The President of Niger, Mr. Mamadou Tandja has sought peace-talks with rebel groups in the country to reach terms of agreement to share the country’s impending rise of Uranium wealth. According to estimates, Niger will become home to the world’s second largest uranium mine by 2012. To benefit from this development, the president has promised amnesty to rebels who will lay down their weapons. But will the mines profit Nigeriens?
For the past two years armed rebel groups in Niger have been fighting the government for a greater share of Niger’s uranium wealth.
The $1.5bn mine is expected to yield 5,000 tonnes of uranium per year once it opens in three years’ time. Areva, French nuclear energy giant formerly known as Cogema, is building the mine and will take a majority share in it. France has kept close ties with its former colony for its uranium; a relationship which is vital to France’s nuclear energy program. Areva’s uranium mines have helped in shaping France’s place as the world’s fourth uranium producer and the first producer of nuclear power which represents 80% of its electric power.
In 2007, anti-Areva protests rocked the country as thousands of Nigeriens marched on the streets against the presence of the French company, following a nearly 40 year Areva operation in Niger that had yielded little development in the lives of the local people and the country.
Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and the export of uranium provides one of its few sources of foreign currency. Other than uranium mining, Niger’s population relies on subsistence farming and livestock production.
While this new project appears to only excite the Niger government, many Nigeriens and observers remain skeptical about what good-tidings this may bring. And for a good reason. The country suffered a severe famine between 2005 and 2006 in a backdrop of highly productive uranium mines. Little development has been seen in the last 50 years. Activists from the local branch of the Greenpeace lobby group claim that the potential pollution from the Uranium mines will bring about the forced displacement of the local people. The open pit mine would employ 1,400 people and more than double Niger’s current uranium exports.
The price of Uranium in the world market is determined by the heavy consumers amidst other factors. France as a heavy consumer has great influence of the products price on the world stage. However, the fluctuating price in uranium created by the big consumers in a profit maximization system, has brought repeated instability to Niger’s economy as the world’s fourth biggest producer of uranium.
In 2007, the government of Niger and the French nuclear group Areva reached a critical point in their dispute over the mining of Niger’s uranium deposits when, on July 25, the government expelled the Director of Operations for Areva in Niger from the country. According to a report published in WMD Insights, 2007, the expulsion was preceded by months of escalating tensions between the two countries, which had been aggravated by popular opposition to Areva and rebel attacks on mining facilities.
Following the dispatch of a high-level diplomatic mission from Paris in 2007, Niger and Areva finally reached a new agreement over uranium mining rights. This agreement has emboldened Niger’s central government to seek out new partners for uranium mining, among them China and India. Critics at the time claimed that China extended military aid to Niger in return for rights to uranium. At the same time, India’s new quest for uranium raised potential proliferation concerns that will likely persist into the future.
According to the French journal Le Canard enchainé (03/08/2005), with profits from its mines running to the tune of "428 million annually", Areva’s aid to Niger’s starved population in 2005 "only amounted to 0.05% of its annual profits". The question is, will the Nigerien people benefit from this new project and be spared from another famine? And will Areva take on more moral responsibilities in developing the country’s agricultural sector to benefit the Nigerien population at large?