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WASHINGTON, DC — Mining ministers representing the member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a sub regional body of 15 countries, have adopted a new directive guiding the principles and policies of the region's mining sector. International aid agency Oxfam America, which participated in the process of developing this directive, commends ECOWAS for taking steps to strengthen protections for the local communities most directly impacted by the industry.
"Adopting a regional mining policy directive is an important first step toward strengthening regional protections for the basic rights and livelihoods of mining-affected communities in West Africa and ensuring that these countries' mineral resources contribute to their sustainable development," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.
Ministers from 11 West African countries met on April 17 in Abuja, Nigeria to review a draft mining directive that covers a broad range of financial, social and environmental issues relating to the industry. The draft was developed by the ECOWAS Commission with input from government officials, civil society organizations, and communities affected by mining.
Revenues from the mining industry form an important part of the economies of many West African countries. However, these revenues do not always translate into benefits for citizens. For example, Ghana is the second-largest gold producer in Africa—producing 2.5 million ounces of gold in 2007—but nearly 80 percent of Ghanaians are living on less than $2 per day.
The ECOWAS member countries currently have individual mining policies, but the need for foreign investment often leads to competition by offering tax reductions and exemptions, which deprives countries of sustainable benefits. A strong common policy is needed to ensure that the mining industry respects the rights of local communities and the environment and contributes to sustainable development.
"Oxfam is particularly encouraged by the mining directive's clear provisions for the protection of the human rights of local communities. This includes their right to free, prior and informed consent, which gives communities a meaningful role in decision-making about mining projects that would affect them," said Offenheiser. "We also applaud the directive's support for the disclosure of financial and environmental information relating to the mining sector."
Too often, mining industry contracts and revenues are kept secret. This lack of accountability facilitates embezzlement, corruption and revenue misappropriation leading to the industry's failure to alleviate poverty in West African countries. Measures to improve transparency in the directive will go a long way to inform the public about mining revenues. This will enable communities to hold governments accountable for using revenues to support vital services like healthcare and education.
However, the directive does not cover all the critical issues relating to the impacts of mining on affected communities. In particular, Oxfam believes the environmental protections can and should be further strengthened.
"Oxfam calls on the ECOWAS member states to engage with relevant stakeholders, particularly civil society and affected communities, to work to implement the directive and further strengthen legal provisions to increase transparency and protection of human rights and the environment," said Offenheiser.
Back in 2007, ECOWAS requested Oxfam America's involvement based on the organization's experience and expertise in the mining sector. Throughout the process, Oxfam worked to facilitate civil society's participation in the formation of the mining directive. More than 50 West African civil society organizations from 11 countries joined and participated in the formulation process.