Home » Dig Your Own Grave: Algeria’s Mining Exploits and the Hirak Revolutionary Spirit
Algeria Featured News Politics

Dig Your Own Grave: Algeria’s Mining Exploits and the Hirak Revolutionary Spirit

Algeria’s political elite continues to violate the will of the people and the land. A controversial lead and zinc mining project has been opposed in Algeria’s Kabylie region, with activists stirring up the spirits of the Hirak movement.

On July 12, Algerian biologist and activist Kamel Aissat was about to travel to France when he was stopped and informed he had been banned from leaving the country.

He was summoned the following day and on July 16, he was placed under judicial supervision by court decision. Because he openly opposed the development of a zinc and lead mine in the region of Bejaia in Kabylie, he was charged with undermining national unity and publishing information harming national interest.

“I fear for the population on a national scale because our region is known for its agro-food production. If our waters are contaminated, it will be a national disaster”

His arrest has revived fears among activists, who have already been largely silenced by the nationwide crackdown against the Hirak protest movement, born in 2019.

The Kabylie region has already had tense relations with Algiers for decades and undergone intense repression in the aftermath of the Hirak. Dozens have been jailed and well-known dissidents, including co-president of the World Amazigh Congress Karima Nait Said, are currently incarcerated.

In this context, the means available to express their opposition to the mine project are limited, as protests are not authorised and public meetings are subjected to permits which are seldom granted. Several activists I contacted refused to speak on the record and some even described an atmosphere of “terror”.

The pouvoir is “using all means” to start the works, regretted an activist from one of the concerned towns. He said he had been threatened and told to “forget about the mine”. “People are terrified. They are still in a state of shock because of the wave of arrests [due to the Hirak]. Currently, everyone is in a silent and wait mode, waiting for either the continuation of the project or its cancellation,” he said.

Algeria's mining industry and the Hirak revolutionary spirit
The Hirak movement called for a dismantling of the “Le Pouvoir”/”The Power” – Algeria’s entrenched political and economic elite [Getty Images]

The latest impactful gathering against the mine’s exploitation dates back to May 2022. Activists, local inhabitants and experts, among whom Aissat, drew 200 people for a hike at its location in order to spread awareness of the environmental risks. Many participants were intimidated beforehand or briefly interrogated at a roadblock after the event, including reporters.

But despite the lack of public expression, the project remains largely rejected by the local population, who are dreading not only the environmental impact but also the future loss of their homes.

The site is also symbolically meaningful and holds historical significance because martyrs of the Independence War are buried there.

Samir Larabi, an activist from El Kseur and a longtime member of the now-banned Socialist Workers’ Party, believes there should be a moratorium to put the project on hold. “I am very worried because I do not trust the expertise provided by the company. There should be a counter-expertise performed by a serious and independent organisation. I fear for the population on a national scale because our region is known for its agro-food production. If our waters are contaminated, it will be a national disaster. The lives of our fellow citizens are not a game. We cannot play Russian roulette with the lives and health of the population.”

The inhabitants worry about the propagation of heavy metals in the air and also in the groundwater table, which could eventually affect all of the Soummam Valley, known for its orange groves and its agro-food products sold across the country. The region harbours centuries-old olive trees and over a hundred species of birds as well as several protected animal species.

“The environmental consequences are numerous, the most important being the pollution of the Soummam aquifer, already heavily stressed and vital for the region, the exposure of large agricultural areas which are the wealth of the region, the waste heaps of minerals which will pollute the aquifer by leaching, not to mention the displacement of populations,” explains climatologist and UN Expert Si Ahmed Sidi Menad.

The population density is significant in the region with at least 60,000 inhabitants in the two municipalities concerned, Amizour and Tala Hamza. In Aït Bouzid et Ibazghichen, two neighbouring villages at the heart of the mine, the inhabitants organised in local committees and addressed several petitions to the government to express their rejection of the project and their fear of seeing their villages disappear. Many families have been living there for generations and share a deep attachment to their land and way of life.

So far, Algiers has ignored the population’s concerns and hasn’t expressed interest in a dialogue with locals. The political class, including the opposition, has been silent. However, the opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy has called for the involvement of the population in the decision-making process and for a discussion with authorities and WMZ under the guidance of experts and scientists.

Meanwhile, the government has seized the opportunity to swiftly impose the project, which had been in the books for almost two decades, knowingly facing minimal public reaction. In May, President Abdelmajid Tebboune, poorly elected in 2019, had pushed for its acceleration. In July, an executive decree on the downgrading of agricultural land to set up a logistical base in Tala Hamza was released. The sudden rush to start the fieldwork and its basis on an unreleased impact study has increased the activists’ scepticism.

The mine will be exploited by the joint venture company Western Mediterranean Zinc (WMZ), a partnership between the Algerian ENOF and the Australian Terramin. Critics argue WMZ’s plan violates the country’s 2014 legislation which states that mines in protected areas shouldn’t be exploited. But the Soummam Valley is a wetland protected under the international Ramsar convention, ratified by Algeria in 1984.

With this project, Algeria aims to become a major actor in the mining industry. It is part of a wider plan to exploit the country’s rich mineral resources and rely on them to fill the state coffers.

However, this policy merely perpetuates the rent economy based on the export of hydrocarbons which has already blocked the country’s economic diversification. According to the government, the exploitation should last about 20 years and will directly employ 700 people and 4000 overall.

The government assured all the necessary feasibility studies had been performed and is attempting to convince the country’s public opinion that the project is “a priority” for its economy and that it will lead to considerable economic growth.

On October 7, several government members, the Minister of Industry and Pharmaceutical Production, the Minister of the Environment and Renewable Energy, the Representative of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Minister of Energy and Mines travelled to Bejaia to attend a conference entitled “Scarcity of mining resources and positioning of Algeria: Role of the zinc-lead deposit of Tala Hamza-Oued Amizour” at the university Mira Abderrahmane.

But according to Sidi Menad, the project is “revenue-generating and non-structuring”.

“At no time is there any mention of any ore processing industry, with the raw material for the manufacture of any product or of tertiary companies for the crushing of ore. Consequently, it is quite obvious that the sole concern is the extraction of the ore and its export,” he said.

“In my opinion, this project will only benefit a small group and will not benefit the region in any way. Even for the creation of jobs because it will mainly be low-skilled labour and without technology transfer.”

Source: The New Arab