Seinoli caught up in mine storm

Seinoli caught up in mine storm

MASERU – SEINOLI Legal Centre, an NGO that casts itself as a fierce human rights defender, has found itself in a pickle after it waded into the raging battle between Kao Mine and its community. Seinoli’s core business is to provide legal services to communities whose economic, environmental and social rights have or are likely to be affected by large infrastructure projects like dams and mines.

It has successfully sued on behalf of communities affected by the construction of Katse and Mohale Dams.
Its roots are in the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), an ecumenical lobby group, under which it was formed in 2009 as a litigation arm before it branched out to be an independent organisation in 2014.

Since then, it has been a pain in the flesh for organisations like the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) as it seeks justice for people affected by the water project.
But after trying to dabble into the Kao Mine dispute Seinoli has found itself facing accusations of a serious conflict of interest that might damage its reputation. Its claims to be an independent organisation looking out for the interests of the small man are beginning to be questioned.

Seinoli tried to enter the fray in April when relations between the mine and the community were so hostile that a protest had left one villager dead and two others badly injured.
Sometime in April, Seinoli offered to assist Kao Mine to mend its troubled relations with the community.
While that was within its line of business a peculiar condition it attached as part of its peace-making effort is what has left it in a scrape.

In the proposal, Seinoli wanted Kao Mine to fund meetings to improve dialogue and create rapport between the mine and the community.
Attached to the proposal was a M363 000 budget Seinoli said Kao Mine should pay for the process. It wanted M150 000 to cover the travel costs for 15 trips three Seinoli officials were going to make to the mine.

Some M90 000 was for the accommodation of the three officials for 30 nights.
According to the budget the mine was to pay M40 500 to feed the officials during the trips.
Something the budget called “incidentals” was going to cost the company M9 000.
This is in addition to the M24 000 Seinoli said was for translations.

But the most curious part of the budget was the 15 percent project administration fee it charged.
That fee, usually charged by profit organisations, came to nearly M50 000.
Several questions arise from this proposal. The first is why Seinoli, as an NGO, wanted funding from a private company involved in the same dispute it was trying to resolve.

The second is why Seinoli would charge a 15 percent administration fee on a community project that would not generate profit.
The third is how Seinoli was going to be an impartial arbitrator between Kao Mine and the community after receiving funding from the mine.
The other issue is Seinoli’s close relations with the TRC, the same organisation accused of fanning the incessant fires at the mine.

Some observers say there seems to be a clear modus operandi in which the TRC stirs trouble for mines and Seinoli, its partner, comes in as a peacemaker.
While there might be nothing amiss about that arrangement the fact that Seinoli wants the mine to fund its efforts creates an impression of an organisation that is making its own timber.
But Mothusi Seqhee, Seinoli’s liaison officer, who submitted the proposal to Kao Mine, says there was nothing dubious about the request for funding.
Seqhee says it was the mine’s responsibility to provide the community with legal expertise to ensure that the community interacts with the mine on an equal footing. He says the proposal and budget were made at the mine’s request.

Seqhee says the budget was for the “specific work” Seinoli was going to do at the mine.
He insists that Seinoli is not receiving funding from any local institution.
The budget to Kao Mine, he explains, cannot be seen as a donation or funding to Seinoli.

“It was for the actual expenditure on activities to be undertaken to achieve the objective of helping to build relations between the mine and the community and to help organize the community to enable it to engage effectively,” Seqhee says.
And what about the 15 percent administration fee?

Seqhee’s answer is that this was because Seinoli’s experts were going to leave other projects and work to concentrate on the Kao Mine issue.
“In any case there were going to be other costs like photocopying and phone calls,” he says. He says Seqhee agreed in “principle to cover the costs for our intervention aware of the fact that Seinoli did not have funds in its current budget to deal with the Kao Mine issue”.

He says he finds the allegations that Seinoli is conniving with TRC to cause chaos in the mines as “baseless”.
He describes TRC as an ally that shares values and objectives with Seinoli.
“We complement each other: they deal with lobbying and advocacy while we handle litigation and community legal empowerment. Our roles are different but the objective is to achieve justice for communities affected by these huge capital projects,” Seqhee says.

“It is therefore unfair to say that we are working for each other. We are not anyone’s barking dog.”
Seqhee says they told the Kao Mine management that if they did not want to pay then the mine could provide the help in kind like accommodation at the mine’s lodge, meals at the canteen and transport.

He says they told Kao Mine that this was the same arrangement Seinoli had with Liqhobong Mine.
As it turns out, Liqhobong Mine has not had audible quarrels with communities since it involved Seinoli as an arbitrator, he said.
The TRC itself has not been very active in the Liqhobong area despite that Liqhobong Mine shares some communities with Kao Mine.
In fact the villagers around Liqhobong Mine have similar concerns as those of people around Kao Mine. Yet the pressure continues to pile on Kao Mine.
Seqhee says this does not prove connivance between TRC and Seinoli.

The Liqhobong community was aware of the help Seinoli was getting from Liqhobong Mine, he says.
Hlalele Hlalele, TRC’s Social Justice and Socio-Economic Rights officer, said he was not aware of Seinoli’s alleged request for funding from Kao Mine “because while we collaborate on activities we remain independent organisations pursuing different strategies.”

Seinoli’s proposal however appears to have fallen through around May after strongly worded emails between Seqhee and Kao Mine’s corporate chief executive, Mohale Ralikariki.
On May 22 Seqhee wrote an email saying Seinoli decided to “momentarily discontinue talk” on the proposal “to provide professional input and support as part of efforts to empower communities and facilitate good relations between your office and the community”.

He said this was because of recent events in the community especially the treatment of Tseko Ratia and “apparent attempts to silence and weaken the community”.
Ratia is the former Kao Mine employee who was fired for threatening colleagues with violence (look out for his story in the next few weeks). He is also the chairperson of the community liaison committee.

“In the wake of mining operations impacting adversely on communities and abusing human rights on a regular basis, it is our obligation as an organisation to put the interests of such vulnerable communities first,” Seqhee said. That email triggered an equally strong reply from Ralikariki, denying the allegations. Ralikariki said Storm Mountain Diamond (SMD), Kao Mine’s parent company, was not going to brook indiscipline and criminal activities from its employees.

“SMD has taken action (dismissing Ntate Ratia and laying criminal charges against him) with the understanding that Lesotho is still committed to the rule of law, that unlawful actions have consequences, and that unlawful conduct will still be met with the appropriate sanctions,” Ralikariki said.
“SMD’s actions are defendable — and SMD can be held accountable in the relevant forums and courts of law.”

Ralikariki said the company had evidence and information that “certain members of the Kao Community Committee, as well as certain NGOs in Lesotho, are acting in furtherance of some political agenda”. “SMD is saddened by the picture that emerges: that these vulnerable communities, and of their members, are pawns in the personal and political games of others, to their own detriment.”
“Communication to the broader community using these members of the Community Committee, fails, as information is hijacked, selectively distributed, and false news is spread,” Ralikariki said.
He said the company will continue to follow the principle “of fair and equitable treatment of communities” so their lives are better off as a result of the mine’s investment in their area.
Ralikariki said the company was tired of being accused of “regular human rights abuses”.

“Seinoli should refrain from publishing this vague, untrue, but extremely serious allegation,” he warned.
Seqhee responded a few days later, sounding conciliatory. He said his initial email was not meant to accuse the mine of any wrongdoing.

Seinoli, he said, had suspended the talks to safeguard its integrity, reputation and trust with the community.
“We have in no way defamed your good office in that email and we do not intend to do so despite your accusation,” Seqhee said.
“We hope to work together with you in the near future if your office is still amenable to the partnership.”

Staff Reporter

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