Cablegate: Niger Trip Reports (4) Arlit: Portrait of a Boom Town


DE RUEHNM #0610/01 1141621
R 241621Z APR 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF NIAMEY 167, NIAMEY 137, 06 NAIMEY 1055

SUMMARY: A Boom-town
Pattern of Profit & Loss

1. (U) This is the forth in a series of trip report cables
documenting life, leaders, and issues in several key towns and
regions (reftels A, B, C), of central and northern Niger.

2. (SBU) Arlit, in northern Niger, owes its existence and prosperity
to uranium mining. As world prices rise and the industry enters an
expansion phase, optimism reigns. The benefits to the town in terms
of employment and public services are obvious. Everything from
schooling to governance and healthcare are well above average in
Arlit, thanks both to French producer Areva's corporate philanthropy
and a dynamic local government. A rich town in a poor country, Arlit
faces some of the challenges that accompany booms. A local NGO has
raised concerns about the environmental impact of the mines on air
and water quality. While the Government of Niger (GON) undertakes a
study and Areva responds to the allegations with stronger
accountability measures, Arlit's mayor and council seek solutions to
problems posed by in-migration and the town's harsh desert
environment. END SUMMARY

Arlit Overview: Life in a Company Town.

3. (SBU) Arlit is a company town. Created in 1969 by the erstwhile
French public-sector nuclear concern COGEMA and the Government of
Niger (GON), it is today home to 86,000 persons. The story of Arlit
is the story of its mining companies. Today, the French nuclear
power concern Areva is the majority (greater than sixty percent)
shareholder in Niger's two national mining companies: the Societe
des Mines de l'Air (SOMAIR), est. 1968, and the Compagnie Miniere de
l'Akouta (COMINAK), est. 1975. The Government of Niger retains a
roughly 30% stake in the concerns, with the remainder in the hands
of Spanish (three percent) and Japanese (six percent) investors.
Since acquiring control of both companies from COGEMA in 2000, Areva
has merged their management and other shared functions, though it
retains the names to distinguish between the open-pit surface mining
of SOMAIR, which takes place on the edge of the city of Arlit, and
the subterranean mining concerns of COMINAK, a few kilometers away
near the village of Akokan. Together, the two companies employ 1,632
persons and mine about 3,200 tones of uranium each year.

4. (U) Workers of all ranks enjoy company housing. For most, that
means concrete houses, with electricity, running water, and interior
courtyards. Medical benefits and generous family and vacation
allowances make the mines a good place to work for Nigeriens lucky
enough to land a job there. Contacts noted that mining company
employees tended to have large families in order to take advantage
of benefits from the companies. They also noted that the days when
Arlit was considered a cosmopolitan "little Paris," rife with
expatriate engineers and executives, are over. The vast majority of
employees, even at senior grade, are now Nigeriens. French staff
seems to come on TDY for several months and then return to Europe.
Yet, the city retains a supermarket, sports clubs, and other
"quality of life" infrastructure. While future prospects for uranium
mining in Niger are good (reftel D) Arlit is unlikely to see a
return of 1970s style expatriate life--after years of contraction,
the companies have learned how to live without it.

Decentralization: Paternalism Pays
But so Does Dynamic Administration

5. (SBU) Arlit Mayor Bachir Sidi Abdoul Aziz has an office and city
hall that would be the envy of any other commune. Arlit's beautiful
Siege de Commune, like everything else in town, derives from the
largesse of the uranium mining companies. Since the advent of
decentralization, Areva has worked closely with the local
authorities on education, health, and agriculture issues. Even
though this cooperation sometimes takes time--Mayor Aziz noted that
project proposals submitted to the mining company take between 6 and
7 months to elicit a response--it is still appreciated. However, in
Niger every solution poses a problem--by virtue of the perception
that Arlit enjoys a "feast" of Areva funded projects, the city has
always faced a "famine" of donor and NGO investment. Aziz was quick
to point out that many needs are not covered by Areva, and, in the
absence of other NGO or donor activities, such needs are not
addressed at all. Aziz thanked the Embassy for the Trans-Sahara
Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) funded decentralization and
youth job projects, both of which will touch Arlit.
6. (SBU) Decentralization seems to be proceeding well in Arlit. Aziz
is a bright, articulate, young Tuareg who appears to be well
respected by the community. He traveled to New York City last year
as part of a National Human Rights Commission Delegation to the
UN--suggesting he has some national as well as local credentials.
His business card displays home and cell numbers as well as office
contacts, suggesting a commitment to constituent service. The
President of the Arlit Tribunal, Judge Abdourahamane Gayakoye,
characterized Mayor Aziz as "young and visionary." The Judge noted
that, within two months of its installation, Aziz's commune
government had paid the electric bills and gotten the lights turned
on in government buildings.

7. (U) Arlit's mayor and council are working hard to better their
commune, rather than relying unduly on the safety-net provided by
Areva. The urban commune of Arlit has eighteen councilors, and two
village chiefs (one each for Arlit and Akokan), who serve ex
officio. The partisan balance of the council breaks down like this:
seven PNDS (national opposition party); three MNSD; four CDS; and
one councilor each from RDP, RSD, UDPS, (all national ruling
coalition members); and, a local party called Talaka. Mayor Aziz is
from the PNDS. As is often the case with local governments, everyone
seems to get along just fine. The annual commune budget is 240
million CFA, thirty-five million of which comes from GON revenue
sharing. The local tax recovery rate is an encouragingly high
seventy percent (verses a national average of thirty-some percent).

Mayor Aziz attributed this to a special committee that conducted a
comprehensive tax census that counted and assessed every possible
small business tax source.

8. (U) Health care in Arlit is first class. SOMAIR and COMINAK each
run large, modern hospitals that serve citizens and workers equally.
Contacts noted that Areva would soon merge the two hospitals into
one larger entity at the Akokan site. Education too seems far better
than average, due to Areva's assistance but also to the commune
itself, which recently bought and installed 1,065 bench/table
combinations in the schools. Mayor Aziz claims the highest school
attendance rate in Niger. Also courtesy of Areva, Arlit has a small
airport capable of handling nine or sixteen seat aircraft. Between
five and six small, mostly company planes come each day. One can fly
to Niamey for about $400.00 on a space available basis.

9. (U) Not everything is easy in Arlit. A victim of its own success,
the city faces a population growth rate of 5.8%, which complicates
efforts to raise the standard of living. It has no paved streets.
The annual average rainfall in "the dustiest city in Niger" as it
was memorably described, is just ten millimeters. Yet, even that
creates great sanitation and health problems. The city is flat and
its soil rocky; thus, the rain neither drains away nor soaks into
the ground. It remains in un-hygienic stagnant pools that contribute
to malaria.

10. (SBU) While the mayor and council members were concerned about
sanitation, they also stressed the need for agricultural
development. They claimed that 600 to 800 tons of wheat could be
cultivated by gardening cooperatives, were funds available for well
digging and irrigation activities. In a similar vein, the council is
interested in developing a "green belt" around the city to arrest
desertification and reduce the dust. All of these development
aspirations may fall victim to Areva's enormous appetite for water.
The mining companies consume 4.6 million cubic meters of water each
year; the city, with its 86,000 inhabitants, consumes just 600,000
cubic meters.

The Environment:
Sifting Truth from Fiction

11. (SBU) Our discussion of water use issues segued into a broader
discussion of pollution. For several years now some NGOs and civil
society organizations, foreign and domestic, have claimed that
Areva's mines are polluting the air, water, and land. Locals, they
claim, are subject to higher than average levels of lung cancer,
tuberculosis, skin diseases, and mortality. Yet, as of this writing,
there is no scientific consensus on any of these points. NGOs argue
that a comprehensive epidemiological and sanitary study should be
conducted; Areva tends to rely on the results of various
environmental impact studies that have been conducted over the
years. Poloff raised this question with a variety of interlocutors.

12. (SBU) Mayor Aziz, in remarks echoed by his council-members,
stressed that primary responsibility for investigating such claims
lay with the Ministries of Health and Mining. However, he was
convinced that Areva had conducted credible studies proving that
there is no undue water pollution. The NGOs, he claimed, "have shown
no proof at all of their allegations." When Poloff asked Arlit
Prefect Omarou Djatti, he noted that he wasn't convinced by the
NGOs' claims, but added that: "I cannot say that all of the laws of
the state are universally followed," with respect to environmental
practice. For his part, Judge Gayakoye said that the jury was still
out. The GON, he argued, has the duty to commission a "totally
independent" and comprehensive study that would provide the answers.
NOTE: The Secretary General of the Ministry of Mines and Energy
subsequently reported that the Ministry of Health was working on
just such a survey. END NOTE

13. (U) Poloff met with Arlit's principal environmental
NGO-Agrin'Man--Tamachek for "protection of the lamb"--and its
Founder / President Almoustapha Alhacen. Created to "sensitize the
population to the dangers of uranium and its savage exploitation by
Areva," Agrin'Man pulls no punches. Ironically, Alhacen is, and for
most of his career has been, a SOMAIR employee. While ill and on
medical leave some years ago, he started reading about uranium
mining and connected safety and environmental issues. Concerned that
best-practices were not being followed, Alhacen created the NGO,
(which he appears to staff virtually alone) and started issuing
letters and press releases denouncing Areva.

14. (U) Alhacen argued that Arlit needs a comprehensive
epidemiological and sanitary study; ad hoc studies of environmental
impact are not sufficient. In December of 2003, Agrin'Man asked two
French NGOs to come and conduct a study. Their 2004 report and
letters to Areva claimed that water radioactivity exceeded national
and international norms by 10 to 110 percent. Nevertheless, Alhacen
noted that the GON has not responded to this study or to his NGO's
repeated letters and press releases in any way. Alhacen conceded
that the GON does not have the means to study radiological
pollution, but questioned why such capacity had not been developed
in a country like Niger. Going beyond the study results, Alhacen
cited three key types of contamination in Arlit: air, water, and

15. (U) Air pollution: Alhacen alleged that SOMAIR's open-pit mines
had left about forty-five million tons of radioactive dirt piled up
around town. When uranium is removed from the soil, about eighty
percent of the natural radioactivity remains in the waste dirt. When
piled up loosely, and hit by the wind, this turns into a rather
dangerous cloud that blows through Arlit or descends on occasion as
acid rain. Alhacen argued that Areva should do a better job of
burying this extra dirt, perhaps using some of it to fill in old
mine shafts or holes and then capping them with concrete.

16. (U) Water pollution: Alhacen alleged that Arlit's water table,
which lies at about 300 meters, was also susceptible to chemical
runoff from the mines. Apparently, when mining uranium, companies
inject a chemical into the soil to separate uranium from the other
matter surrounding it. These chemicals, over-time, continue to
descend until they reach the water table. Alhacen argued that Areva
should supply Arlit with water from another, more distant site that
doesn't risk this contamination.

17. (SBU) Materials pollution: Alhacen argued that Areva had not
always done a good job of controlling materials used in the mines.
When old metal, machines, etc. wore out, the companies would allow
workers to salvage the stuff for scrap--meeting popular demand for
free junk. Alhacen claimed that some employees' families had even
made cooking pots from old radioactive aluminum. He further noted
that the Societe Nationale de Transport Nigerien (SNTN) truck
drivers who move the uranium ore south commonly allowed hitchhikers
to ride on top of the loose ore-often for hundreds of miles. Such
egregious examples--as much an outgrowth of local cultural practices
as bad corporate oversight--seem to have been brought under control.

18. (U) Responding to Agrin'Man's complaints, Areva now forbids
employees to take old materials from the mining sites, and is
stricter about disposing of such things. It now containerizes the
ore before trucking it, and forbids SNTN drivers to take
hitch-hikers. Nevertheless, Alhacen noted that some pilferage of
dangerous items continues, and he showed Poloff recent pictures of
hitch-hikers riding in the bins of SNTN tractor-trailers next to the
containers of ore.

19. (SBU) COMMENT: As the foregoing anecdotes indicate, Agrin'Man is
not only up against easily documented and corrected slips in
corporate practice, it is up against ingrained cultural practices
that derive from poverty. Fostering concern about the environment is
not an easy task when the dominant issue is economic survival.
Alhacen seemed to concede as much when he admitted that most of the
five to ten-thousand people who came out for Agrin'Man organized
protests over environmental issues in May and November 2006 were
actually mobilized by the concomitant themes: poverty and the cost
of living. Alhacen admitted that pollution, sanitation, and the
environment are not effective mobilizers. In order to get people out
on those two occasions, he needed to alter the issue dimension to
stress economic concerns.
20. (SBU) It is hard to know how seriously to take Almoustapha
Alhacen. A one-issue fanatic and a bit of a demagogue, he is, at the
same time, quite obviously right on some instances of poor corporate
practice. Areva, to its credit, continues to employ him. No one, he
claims, has ever tried to interfere with his or his organization's
freedom of speech. Partly because of his efforts a moderate
consensus view seems to have taken root among intelligent observers
in Arlit--that a comprehensive, independent, epidemiological,
environmental, and sanitary study should be undertaken in order to
finally sift fact from fiction in the Arlit mines. END COMMENT

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