Syed Masoom Ali stood in a clearing on the outskirts of Bamako, the capital of Mali, gestured towards the low-slung hills around him, and thought of home.

“It is a good deposit, the ore is close to the surface,” he said, but of course, it was not like home. Born in Orissa’s iron-rich Keonjhar district, Ali is now the mining foreman of a 210,000 hectare iron-ore mine operated by Sahara Mining, an Indian-owned West African mining concern set to become Mali’s biggest iron-ore exporter.

“We have invested almost $100 million in the mine,” said Sandeep Garg, the Gurgaon-based former scrap merchant who set up Sahara Mining. “The total, including a fully integrated steel plant, will be more than $300 million.”

The land is also home to hundreds of villagers who view the expansion of the mine with trepidation and are asking how they gain from the project.

As licences and land become harder to acquire in India, businessmen like Mr. Garg are investing in African countries eager for big-ticket foreign investment. Africa could produce 10 per cent of the world’s iron-ore by 2025, according to a report by market research firm, Frost & Sullivan, and currently accounts for between three and four per cent of global supply. West Africa has emerged as the new frontier for exploration with 15 major mining projects, with a capital expenditure of $36.9 billion, in progress.

Yet, the absence of established land titles and transparency hastens project approval to the detriment of project-affected communities.

Sandeep Garg built his network in West Africa in the 1990s by exporting scrap from countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Mali to buyers in India. “The major source of scrap in Africa is old vehicles,” said Mr. Garg, explaining his buyers were induction furnace operators in towns like Ghaziabad, Chennai and Raipur. India accounts for about 5 per cent of annual global scrap imports.

In 2008, Sahara Mining applied for an exploration licence in Mali and began work in 2010. The ore is mined, crushed, loaded onto trucks and driven 1,300 km across the border to the Atlantic Ocean port-city of Dakar, Senegal, from where it is shipped to India and China. In 2011, Sahara exported 6.6 million tonnes of ore, but they hope to sell steel products across West Africa once the plant is set up.

“Africa is more comfortable as there is no competition,” Mr. Garg noted. “Infrastructure-wise, there are a lot of things they have to build.”

Villagers on the land allotted to Sahara Mining are fearful of the company’s plans. “When the mayor and the company asked us for land, we said we would think about it,” said Dienfa Coullibaly, councillor of Dokoro village. “One day we noticed mining people in area. The mayor told us, ‘Indian people have bought the land’.”

Malian mining code requires companies to compensate landowners when they acquire land. Yet, Mali has no clear system of land titles, and most land is informally divided amongst the community. At Dokoro, villagers showed this correspondent a government document they insisted was a land title; it was only an identity card that made no mention of land holdings.

In an emailed reply to The Hindu, Sahara Mining said the land was barren and belonged to the government. “We have enough resources for commercial mining in the barren land and thus have not displaced any of the villages,” said the company, adding Sahara did not have a rehabilitation policy as it hadn’t displaced any villagers.

“Before Sahara started mining, every farmer was to be registered in case their land was affected by the mine,” said Diabate N’fa, mayor of the Tienfala commune. “The registration never happened. You cannot blame the company, I blame the government as it was their duty to do this.”

Villagers and local officials said the government oversight was deliberate. The government of Mali owns a 20 percent stake in the project, according to the African Business Journal, and last year three men in the adjoining commune of N’gabakorodroit were arrested and imprisoned for two months when they protested against Sahara acquiring a soccer pitch for their yard operations.

“That’s when we knew that we cannot say anything against the company,” said Malik Keita, the mayor of N’gabakorodroit.

“This land [for the yard] has been taken on rent from a local Malian. This is privately owned property,” said a Sahara spokesperson, adding that the company had no knowledge of the arrest of three people and any conflict must have been between the landowner and the villagers.

Sahara said the company was planting trees, distributing footballs and notebooks to local children and had offered to build a school and hospital. Yet no one, including Mayor N’fa of Tienfala, has a written copy of what the company promised to build. “The company said we will give you jobs, build roads and schools, it was described as a paradise,” Mayor N’fa said, “they really cheated us.”

Does anyone in the village actually know what they are entitled to? “Nobody does,” Mayor N’fa replied.

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