mardi 23 décembre 2008
Robert Fowler’s disappearance : The French connection
Carolyn Lebel, National Post -20-12-08
mardi 23 décembre 2008, par temoust
Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, two respected Canadian diplomats, along with their driver, were reported missing in Niger on Sunday, when their vehicle was found abandoned on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Niamey. So far, scant details are known about the disappearances. But the incident is likely connected to the ongoing Tuareg rebellion in the uranium-rich northern part of Niger — a conflict that Mr. Fowler, as UN special envoy to the country, was trying to resolve.
I learned quite a bit about Niger’s civil strife a month ago, when I met a Tuareg activist named Issouf ag Maha here in France.
Ag Maha, who is in his 40s, grew up with a traditionally nomadic way of life. While he was chosen amongst his siblings to pursue an education, he returned to his Tuareg roots when he was 14. He fondly recalls the four years he spent as a goat and camel herder in the Saharan desert. Since then, he has become an agronomist and a mayor. In recent years, he initiated an organic movement, training nomads-turned-farmers in the practice of replacing expensive chemical fertilizers with compost made of hay and goat droppings.
But in 2007, uranium prices soared in response to the revived interest in nuclear power and its promise of clean, abundant, low carbon energy. Niger parcelled off a significant portion of the country’s Tuareg region and offered licenses for uranium exploration. In response, a Tuareg-led rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), took up arms. When the government declared a state of emergency in the region on August 25, 2007, ag Maha joined the MNJ’s political arm in France.
Over 100 research and exploration licenses have been issued to international mining companies from around the world, notably from China and Canada. Increasingly, Niger’s uranium business is encroaching on the increasingly sparse grazing land available to impoverished Tuareg nomads. Like similar local rebel groups in Sudan, Nigeria and other parts of the developing world, MNJ demands that a share of revenues and jobs generated by resource extraction be directed to locals.
Clad in a traditional Tuareg robe and veil, ag Maha addressed a full auditorium in a trendy quarter of Paris on Oct. 25, speaking poignantly of the threat to his people and their traditional way of life. "The death of a community is not purely biological, although people are dying in the process," he said. "When a community loses its way of life, its means of subsistence, its culture, it ceases to exist as such."
France has a special connection to the Tuareg plight. The country, which is heavily reliant on nuclear energy, continues to import 30% of its uranium at discount rates from Niger, a former colony.
Areva, the French nuclear conglomerate, had come to enjoy a monopoly on mining Niger’s uranium ore (commonly referred to as "yellowcake") for over 40 years. The company denies charges by a French body, the Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD), that the company’s operations, including mountains of radioactive waste left in the open desert, have been harmful to the region’s fragile ecosystem and to the health of locals. But the fact remains that one of only two nonrenewable groundwater sources in the desert region is two-thirds depleted, and what remains is contaminated.
In France, ag Maha has established a non-profit aimed at raising public awareness of the plight of his people. He has just published his second book, Touareg, le destin confisque (The stolen destiny of the Tuareg).
True to his nature, the nomad travels. One of ag Maga’s many trips included a visit to the United Nations last year. At the time, ag Maha felt that nothing concrete had come of his visit. But in July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon discretely named Fowler a special envoy to Niger in an effort to calm escalating tensions among Tuareg rebels, the Niger government and mining companies.
Ag Maha says he met the UN envoy in September. "Fowler was working to bring peace to Niger," he notes. This is one thing that the two men share in common.
firstname.lastname@example.org - Carolyn Lebel is a Canadian Freelance Writer based in Paris.