Photographer's Note

This is a view of Ministry of Mines and Energy in Niamey from the Niger river (it's very difficult to catch some reflections in these often brown waters!)
As the global demand for nuclear energy rises, analysts say the large amount of uranium in Niger is not a benefit to the country's people but adds to the serious problems facing the region.
Niger, an impoverished country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, has one of the world's largest reserves of uranium, the main source of nuclear fuel - but virtually nothing to show for it.
Instead, say local and international organisations, uranium mining by foreign-dominated companies has caused environmental damage and health problems in the far north of the country.
The mining operations are also causing domestic political tensions: one of the main demands of an armed militia that has been fighting Niger's army since February, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), is a more equitable distribution of the revenues from uranium mining.
Niger is the world's third to fifth-ranking producer of uranium, producing over 3,000 tonnes of uranium a year. However, the UN Development Programme's 2006 Human Development Index considers Niger the poorest country in the world, where life expectancy is 45 years old, 71 percent of adults cannot read, and 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
The government of Niger's share of the uranium revenue is small: foreign companies have a majority stake in the two uranium production companies, SOMAIR and COMINAK, which are operated and mostly owned by Areva, a French multinational company and global mining giant.
In July, the government renegotiated the price of its uranium, increasing the per kilogramme royalty to 40,000 CFA francs (US$86) for 2007. Still, under the terms of a decades-old agreement, the two production companies are only required to pay 5.5 (!) percent of revenues to the government.
Resentment is also growing among the thousands of mine workers and people living near the mining sites in the northern region of Agadez, who complain about unsafe working conditions and exposure to radioactive poisoning in the community.
A 2005 investigation by Sherpa, an international network of lawyers who promote corporate social responsibility, found that workers in Niger's uranium mines were not informed of health risks; were not given the most basic protection measures; and were not always treated if they developed lung cancer. Long-term inhalation exposure to radon, a gas formed by the breakdown of uranium, has been linked to the onset of lung cancer.
Another French NGO, CRIIRAD, found that water, soil and metal scrap from the area where Niger's two mines are exploited were contaminated with dangerously high radioactivity levels
Areva has consistently denied the allegations, and has attributed the high number of illnesses to the harsh desert climate.In a written statement Areva said it regularly conducts external audits dealing with health, environment and safety, including an audit by the French Institute for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Hygiene (IRSN) which found the company to be operating within international standards. Areva has also said it will open a health centre around its sites.
Niger is home to Africa's biggest uranium reserves, which had been dominated by Areva for years. The government is now trying to diversify its partners and has distributed more than 100 exploration permits to Canadian, US, Chinese, Indian and other companies in the last year alone.
Historically, instability in the Sahel region has been due to factors other than resource exploitation. But in Niger, uranium is part of a potentially volatile mixture of factors, including the US war on terror, the rebellion in the north and the government's policy of non-negotiation with the rebels.
Independent researcher Volman warned that the presence of natural resources leads foreign governments to provide military and financial support to resource-rich countries in order to ensure maintained access to those resources.
(from allAfrica.com; abstract from UN integrated Regional Information Network)

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Additional Photos by Alberto Piubello (albertopiubello) Gold Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 331 W: 41 N: 881] (2623)
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