The Tebboune government is brutally suppressing any protest against a lead-and-zinc mine being built in a RAMSAR protected area.
The region surrounding the Soummam river has long been renowned for its agriculture. It is home to centuries' old olive trees and a diverse and rich flora and fauna with several protected species. It is the core of a major agro food center, which supplies the country and produces several brands of mineral water as well as a local beer, Albrau.
But a government project launched in July is about to radically disturb its ecosystem and landscape. Algiers is speeding up the exploitation of a lead and zinc mine which had been planned - and feared - for almost two decades. It will be developed by the joint venture company Western Mediterranean Zinc (WMZ), a partnership between state-owned mining firm, Sonarem, which has majority shareholding, and the Australian mining firm, Terramin, in compliance with the 51/49 rule of the finance law, which requires the Algerian side to hold the majority of shares.
The government insists that the project is national, and consistent with its ambitions to become a major actor in the mining industry. Meanwhile, there have been calls from scientists and activists to investigate Terramin, the Australian miner's lack of international expertise and scarce information about the agreement with Algerian authorities being issues of concern.
Many local residents worry the mine's development could destroy their livelihoods and even push them out. Two villages, Amizour and Tala Hamza, with respectively 45 000 and 15000 inhabitants, will bear the brunt of this decision. If the mine project moves forward, dozens of families will be forced to leave their homes. The region's historical and intangible heritage will be threatened as well, as martyrs of the Algerian revolution are buried there. So are the loved ones of many inhabitants.
"This is a mine in the middle of paradise," a native of the region laments. "The inhabitants are not only afraid of harmful effects on the environment and their health but they do not want to be relocated. They have a special attachment to their land. It is a beautiful region where they lead a quiet life and many of them live from mountain agriculture. Their parents, grandparents and great grandparents are buried there. If the area is destroyed, they will lose everything."
In July, Algerian authorities released an executive decree concerning the downgrading of a plot of agricultural land which will be used as a logistical base to access the mine Unsurprisingly, the debate over the exploitation and its environmental consequences has been stifled by local authorities and more importantly, decision-makers in Algiers. The project has been pushed forward as a presidential priority, which makes it more opaque and difficult to oppose, especially given the current repressive context. Regrettably, the local population hasn't been officially consulted prior to the July announcement, even though their health and that of future generations is at stake.
What civil society actors and experts are requesting is a transparent and open debate with government officials. According to activists, local residents, especially in Ait Bouzid and Ibazghichen, two neighboring villages in the exploitation area, are largely opposed to the project and expressed their concerns through several petitions sent to the government. They remain unanswered and the government hasn't reached out to local associations or political actors.
On May 13, 2022, a group of associations from Amizour and Tala Hamza organised a hike on the site of the mine to raise awareness about the dangers of the extraction of minerals and to call for the preservation of the region. It drew over 200 people although it took place during a wave of repression aimed at silencing the Hirak protest movement and other forms of dissent. According to several people who attended the event, the participants were held at a roadblock and had their personal details and that of their vehicles registered by security forces. A team from Radio M, which was known for its independent coverage and was shut down in December 2022 after the jailing of its editor, Ihsane El Kadi, was stopped for an hour and interrogated. In an interview, an activist claimed several people had been intimidated and even threatened by not only security forces but also local representatives of political parties close to the regime.
Kamel Aissat, a scientist, university professor and activist of the Socialist Workers' Party (PST), an opposition party banned in 2022, who lives in the area, has been vocal in his opposition to the project. In July, he was arrested as he was about to travel outside Algeria. He was later summoned and interrogated only to be placed under judicial supervision a few days later by court decision, which means his movements and encounters will be closely monitored and consequently hampered. He's been charged with harming national unity and publication of information which could harm the national interest. His prosecution redoubles the pressure on local activists. Several people I contacted refused to speak on the record for fear of retribution or due to ongoing judicial procedures due to their involvement in the Hirak.
"The pouvoir [powers-that-be] has sown a climate of terror," a local inhabitant told me.
"[The project] will impact the entire Soummam valley. Everyone and all the neighboring towns will be affected, [all the way to] the Mediterranean sea," warns Samir Larbi, a PST activist from the neighbouring city of El Kseur.
Other civil society actors share his concerns over the propagation of heavy metals in the groundwater and the air. "It will have a disastrous impact on agriculture, especially since the region is known for its fertile land. The water table will be contaminated, which in turn, will contaminate all the region of Bejaia," stresses an activist.
Critics say the environmental damage outweighs the economic and social benefits. There's already a great mistrust in the ability of authorities to tackle environmental issues. A recent example is their poor response in 2021 and this summer to the deadly fires in the Bejaia region. Another has been concerns about poor waste management treatment which raises fears over the handling of the toxic waste from the mine.
The plan, they argue, is in contradiction with the mining legislation passed in 2014, which states that mines in protected areas shouldn't be developed. The Soummam valley has been classified as a wetland protected by the international Ramsar convention, which Algeria ratified in 1984. Moreover, they point out that there hasn't been any in-depth public impact study. Furthermore, they mistrust the evaluation of the environmental feasibility of the extraction put forward by the government, which they say should have been performed by an independent organisation. Among the few political actors to speak up against the opacity surrounding the project, members of the opposition party Rally of Culture and Democracy (RCD) in Tala Hamza as well as the party's regional bureau demanded a genuine and publicly accessible impact study.
"The expanding of the extraction of underground resources to other natural resources than hydrocarbons does not hide the economic breakdown that is taking hold in the country and must never be done on the sly and by prohibiting debate and advice from experts in the field," declared the RCD bureau.
In an interview to the state agency Algeria Press Service in July, the Director General of Mines at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Nadjiba Bourenane claimed that "all the studies necessary for the realization of this strategic project have been carried out, in particular the detailed feasibility study comprising several technical components, namely exploration, exploitation, treatment, mining planning, environmental impact, as well as the technical-economic study with economic modeling, in addition to the development of a market study to be able to prove the profitability of this investment."
According to the government, the mine is expected to last about 20 years and directly employ 700 people and 4000 overall. However, in a region where the state has generally been absent, opponents to the project believe it will not lead to sustainable development but is merely a short-term financial opportunity for Terramin and their Algerian counterparts. They stress that the jobs that will be created are non-specialist ones and that the extraction of the mine cannot improve the local economy. The recent history of the country supports their scepticism. Over the last decades, the Algerian population hasn't generally reaped the benefits of its immense oil and gas resources. The economic policy of the state, which relied on their export, hasn't led to the development of the regions concerned, only favouring the southern part of the country, perpetuating a rentier economy.
As the PST activist Larabi argues, these are old government orientations that have accelerated under President Tebboune. "The current policy is based on extractivism and the unbridled use of resources," he said.
Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist focusing on protest movements and human rights issues in Morocco and Algeria.