Podcast: Niger, Siberia and the global uranium wars

The Tuaregs of Niger and Buryat of Siberia, like the Navajo of the US Southwest, have had their territories usurped and destroyed by uranium mining for the nuclear-industrial complex, and it makes little difference from their perspective whether the extractivist bosses were French, Russian or American. While the Great Powers wage a neo-colonial game for control of this strategic resource, the indigenous peoples on the ground pay with their lands and lives—and are fighting back for autonomy or outright independence, and ecological and cultural survival. Bill Weinberg breaks it down in Episode 192 of the CounterVortex podcast.

Production by Chris Rywalt

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Podcast transcript: Niger, Siberia and the global uranium wars

Transcript from CounterVortex podcast of Sept. 23:

We will be returning on this discussion to Niger. And, as always, noting the contrast between the overriding concern with geopolitics in the media—both mainstream and alternative, legacy and social, and on the right, left and center in the West—and the lack of concern with the people on the ground and their struggles for autonomy and survival.

There was a story in Deutsche Welle, the German news agency, on Sept. 4: “Does Europe need Niger's uranium? Will the lights go out in Europe if Niger were to prevent France from mining more of its uranium?”

Apparently the junta that took power in the coup d’etat of late July has ordered a halt to uranium exports, which primarily go to France, and also ordered the French ambassador and the 1,500 French military troops in the country to leave.

France initially refused to comply, not recognizing the junta as legitimate. But there have been repeated anti-French protests in the capital Niamey, and finally last week, France agreed to begin a phased transfer of its troops across the eastern border into Chad—which, by the way, has also seen anti-French protests recently.

Now, we discussed in our podcast of Aug. 12, "Flashpoint Niger," the ghastly situation with French uranium exploitation in Niger’s remote desert north. All that nuclear energy that has powered the cities and factories of France all these years? It has all been fueled by uranium ripped from the earth of Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa, with more than 40% of its population in extreme poverty according to the UN.

And the northern Sahara desert region where the uranium is being exploited, is the most marginal and neglected part of the country, with the indigenous Tuareg population just left to deal with the radioactive mine tailings and the destruction of their traditional lands. Classic neocolonialism and environmental racism.

And in the early 1990s, this and other grievances led the Tuaregs to launch an armed insurgency against the Nigerien military, then backed by France, seeking an independent Tuareg republic in what is now the desert north of Niger, or, at least, local autonomy and control of recourse exploitation in the territory. And there was, of course, a French-backed counterinsurgency campaign against the Tuareg, with the predictable horrific rights abuses. There have been peace deals with the government since then, but some Tuareg factions remain in arms today.

Now, the Tuareg are a marginal minority in Niger, but the Nigerien people were generally angered, and with good reason, that the country as a whole was benefiting nothing from the plunder of its uranium resources by the former colonial power France. This is definitely a longstanding grievance that is now fueling the anti-French sentiment we see in Niger, with many Nigeriens taking to street—not only to demand that the French leave, but evidently in support of the military junta that is booting them.

One thing needs to be kept in mind here is that the Tuaregs, who suffered terribly at the hands of the military back in the ‘90s, and to an extent in the years since then, are not happy about Niger now being under military rule again. And in fact, one of the former Tuareg rebel leaders, Rhissa Ag Boula, has now taken up arms against the junta.

I will also point out the very obviously parallel situation in Gabon, which saw a military coup on Aug. 30, in which the French-aligned political dynasty of the Bongo family was ousted after two generations in power—power passing from father to son, Omar Bongo to Ali Bongo, just like the Assads in Syria or the Somozas in Nicaragua. In scenes reminiscent of those in Niger, crowds have poured into the streets of Gabon’s capital Libreville, expressing their support for the new junta—and animosity for both the Bongo dynasty and France.

And again, uranium mining has been a critical anti-French grievance in the country. French energy giant Areva—the same which operates in mines in Niger, or did up until the coup, anyway—pulled out of its uranium mine in Gabon, at the town of Mounana in the eastern savannas, in 1999. The mine was covered over—but Mounana continues to suffer from extremely dangerous levels of radioactive pollution, and many former miners have died of lung cancer. Under pressure from NGOs and the local populace, Areva opened a medical clinic in the town in 2011. But the staff lack sufficient training and resources to diagnose and treat diseases linked to uranium mining. The soil and waterways of the area are widely contaminated, and radioactive materials were even used to build local houses. So the local people will clearly be dealing with this nightmare for generations to come. While the CEOs of Areva, of course, enjoy luxurious lives in Paris.

Now, my point in bringing all this to your attention is not only to call out French neo-colonialism in Africa and provide some context for the anti-French sentiment in Niger and Gabon, but also as a rebuke to pro-nukers—the now alarmingly prevalent boosters of nuclear power as a panacea for the climate crisis. These are the invisible victims of the extraction of uranium for your damn nuclear plants: the Tuareg of the northern desert of Niger, and the Obamba and Téké peoples of the eastern savannas of Gabon. The expropriation and poisoning of their lands is never taken into the accounting, and this is inherently racist. And this ecocidal and ultimately genocidal uranium extraction is inherent and integral to the nuclear industry. The notion that nuclear power is any kind of alternative to fossil fuels is an obscene illusion for he Tuareg and the Obamba, and many such other indigenous peoples around the world—including, I hasten to emphasize, in the United States.

The US does not currently mine very much uranium, but it certainly did during the Cold War, or I suppose I should say the first Cold War.... And this was overwhelmingly ripped from the ancestral lands of the Navajo people—known as the Diné in their own tongue, the United States’ largest indigenous group, but inhabiting very remote, rugged and impoverished territory in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uranium mining began on the Navajo reservation in the 1940s and continued through the 1980s, leaving a grave toll on local health—a wave of cancer among Navajo miners and mesa dwellers, and a grim legacy of “uranium widows.” There are 1,200 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, where lung cancer rates are significantly disproportionate. With uranium leaching from abandoned mines into groundwater and contaminating wells, many Navajos must drive miles for water. And in 1979 a spill of uranium tailings from a United Nuclear Corporation mine in Church Rock, New Mexico, contaminated the Rio Puerco, which flows into the reservation—the largest release of radioactive mine waste in US history, which the Environmental Protection Agency only got around to starting to clean up in 2008, almost 30 years later.

This uranium mining, as well as very destructive coal mining, was undertaken with the cooperation of a domesticated and compliant Navajo Tribal Council, which finally only in 2005 instated a uranium mining moratorium on the reservation—which of course, it is being lobbied by the mining companies to overturn.

And we all understand the process of internal colonization that reduced the Navajo to having their remnant lands thusly degraded. Numerous treaties, beginning in 1849 after the US took the territory from Mexico, attempted to confine the Navajo, and only broke down into war. The Navajo ceded their eastern lands along the Rio Grande, only to face continued raids and encroachment from white settlers, including to seize Navajo people as slaves.

In 1864, General James H. Carleton, convinced that Navajo territory was rich in gold, determined to have the entire nation forcibly relocated 150 miles across the Rio Grande to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Brigadier General Kit Carson was dispatched on an extermination campaign, with submission to relocation the only condition for surrender. In the Long Walk, 10,000 Navajo were force-marched to Fort Sumner.

After four years of suffering and death on dry and meager lands at Fort Sumner, the federal government intervened. In 1868, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and 29 Navajo headmen signed a treaty creating the current reduced reservation spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border. The Navajo have recovered some of their lands since then, but still only a fraction of their former territory. The reservation looks big on the map, but it’s very arid and it takes a lot of land to graze a herd of goats, which is still what many Navajo do today. And while the Tribal Council is to be applauded for finally standing up to the mining companies, the Navajo Nation has long been an internal colony of the United States—reasonably akin to the external colonies of France in West Africa.

But I also intend this rant as a rebuke to the tankies and campists of the pseudo-left, who are cheering on Russia’s tanks in Ukraine, and are now exploiting the whole question of Niger’s uranium to cheerlead for the junta that has taken power there—and, most perversely, to celebrate the coup as an advance for Russian interests in Africa. We’ve noted, of course, how Russia is filling the vacuum, so to speak, as French neo-colonialism has retreated in Africa following successive coups over the past three years—Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, now Niger and Gabon—with Moscow’s mercenary Wagner Group stepping in as French forces withdraw.

We have also discussed how the Wagner Group has been given access to mineral resources, principally gold, in exchange for services rendered to the regimes in Burkina Faso and Sudan. Clear neo-colonialism.

I’ll also point out that since 2007 the China National Nuclear Corporation, Sino-U, has also been exploiting uranium in Niger, and we can imagine it makes little difference to the Tuaregs whether their lands are being despoiled by French or Chinese capitalists. In the latter case, arguably state-capitalists, because Sino-U is a state-owned enterprise—but that again makes little difference.

So this notion that advances for Moscow and Beijing in Africa represent progress just because they come at the expense of the traditional French and Anglo-American influence spheres is... problematic. I’m reminded of what one of my Facebook friends in South America said in reference to Venezuela: “Si EEUU quiere el petróleo de Venezuela, China y Rusia quieren las arepas?” Get it? If the US wants Venezuela’s oil, China and Russia want the arepas? (You know what arepas are, right? Those Venezuelan and Colombian corn cakes, kind of like very thick tortillas.)

And now the Wagner Group, after evidently committing serial atrocities in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, the Central African Republic, apparently just this month participated in a new Malian government attack on Tuareg rebels. The traditional territory of the Tuareg is divided between Niger and Mali, just as that of the Navajo is between New Mexico and Arizona; and the Tuareg have also waged an insurgency in Mali for land and autonomy. And now a ceasefire between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels appears to be breaking down, with the Wagner Group backing up a new government offensive. Do not for a minute swallow this propaganda about how Russia is the friend of Africa. We’ve also noted how the Malian and Burkinabé states and affiliated paramilitary groups under presumed direction of the Wagner Group are targeting the Fulani people in a campaign of state terror. So if you think Russia is the friend of Africans—ask the Tuaregs and Fulani.

I must also comment that the big context for all these intrigues over the Sahel, the horrific brutal insurgency being waged by ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region, is just amazingly overlooked by the media—both mainstream and “alternative,” legacy and social. It was, as usual, just barely noted by the wire services when 50 civilians were massacred by Islamist militants who stopped a riverboat on the Niger River in Mali on Sept. 8. Barely made a media ripple, and it is but the latest is an endless series of such acts of mass murder across the Sahel nations over the past years.

Can you imagine if something on this scale had happened in Europe or America? Nobody would be talking about anything else for months. But in Mali.... who cares? Not even us supposed anti-racist progs. Brief cursory coverage, and down the Memory Hole. While the genocidal Wagner Group exploits the insurgency to groom Mali as a Kremlin client state. Just as the French did.

And, uh, if the US is no longer getting its uranium from Navajo country, where is it getting its uranium? Heh. OK, wait for it... yeah, that’s right... from Russia! Even now, more than a year and a half into the Ukraine invasion, the US is sourcing its uranium from Rosatom—a Russian state corporation, and a real old-fashioned vertical monopoly that supplies every phase of the nuclear cycle from mining, milling and processing uranium to actually running nuclear plants. Including illegally assuming control over the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia complex in Ukraine. And the US and other Western countries are even now purchasing uranium from Rosatom.

This was revealed in a story in the Washington Post on Aug. 27, “Why the US and Europe still buy Russian nuclear fuel.” Unbelievable.

And if you can believe this, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Aug. 24: “US doubles uranium imports from Russia... The US bought 416 tons of uranium from Russia in the first half of the year, more than double the amount for the same period in 2022 and the highest level since 2005.”

And you thought there were sanctions on Russia? Not very meaningful ones, apparently. Read the fine print. And Rosatom, no less! This isn’t buying Russian potatoes, this is a pillar of Russia’s military-industrial complex. Beyond belief.

And neither of these accounts, neither the Washington Post nor RIA-Novosti, mention the Buryat—the indigenous people of far eastern Siberia whose lands are being destroyed to supply Rosatom’s uranium. The largest source of Russia’s uranium is the Khiagdinskoye open-pit mine in the Republic of Buryatia, on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal, in Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District. The Buryat are a people related to the Mongols who are an internally colonized people of the Russian Empire—known in this more euphemistic age as the Russian Federation.

Buryatia was conquered by the Cossacks in the 17th-century, with the usual massacres and atrocities, land usurpation, reduction of the Buryats to slavery, et cetera. Once the Russian state established a degree of centralized control there, Russification campaigns were imposed, aimed at exterminating Buryat language and culture. This led to organized Buryat resistance, just about the time of the Russian Revolution, and de facto independence was won during the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s.

Buryatia was lured into the Soviet Union in 1923 with promises of a Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. But this was of course disbanded by Stalin, and Buryatia was divided between neighboring ethnic Russian-dominated oblasts, including that of Irkutsk across Lake Baikal to the west. Buryat-majority lands were allowed to reconsolidate as the Republic of Buryatia after the Soviet collapse in 1992, but this remains a domesticated and compliant entity—certainly where resource extraction is concerned.

There are definitely now signs of renewed Burtyat resistance. Some 12 years ago, when Rosatom sought to expand uranium ops into a place called Krasny Chikoi in the Zabaykalsky Krai, bordering Buryatia on the east, a local Buryat Regional Association for Baikal led an activist campaign to stop it, which appears to have actually been successful. But I must emphasize that Russia was a much more open place a decade ago than it is today.

Also inevitably left out of the accounting on nuclear power is what to do with the waste. Media commentators and analysts are only concerned with nuclear plant accidents, because these can happen in central and densely populated areas where the dominant culture prevails, such as Fukushima or Chenobyl or Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania 1979, if you remember that one). But like the mining at the beginning of the cycle, the waste at the end of the cycle can be hidden away in the remote territories of internally colonized peoples. Hence the US government seeks to bury its nuclear waste on Western Shoshone lands at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. And Russia is seeking to build a nuclear waste facility on Buryat lands, at Angarsk in Irkutsk oblast, just across Lake Baikal from the Buryat Republic, in the Siberian Federal District. There was also a local protest movement over this back when such things were still possible in Russia, some 15 years ago. And I believe that enough pressure from global ecologists was brought, over concerns with the possible contamination of Lake Baikal, that there has happily been little progress on this project. Just as opening of the Yucca Mountain facility has been stalled. And these waste sites mean permanent contamination of these lands—nuclear waste will remain deadly for exponentially longer into the future than biblical times stretch into the past. Think about that. Think about the legacy that our civilization is leaving for essentially all of human posterity.

So this reality really rains on the glib tankie propaganda much in evidence now about how Russia isn’t an imperialist power but is somehow anti-imperialist for opposing French and Anglo-American imperialism in Africa. The Buryat are an internally colonized people. And the Russian Empire, which survived in its essential structures as the USSR and now the Russian Federation, was called the Russian Empire because it was an empire. As we’ve observed before, Imperial Russia was largely a land power rather than a sea power, and never established external colonies like French West Africa. But it is a key player in the new Scramble for Africa that we witness now, and opposes French and Anglo-American imperialism in Africa only as a rival imperialism—whatever facile anti-imperialist rhetoric may be cynically wielded.

In some good news from Africa, Namibia in December 2022 rejected a proposal from Rosatom to mine uranium on its territory, citing concerns about potential contamination of underground water sources in a very arid country.

Getting back to the Buryats... their longstanding simmering grievance over the usurpation and destruction of their lands by uranium mining is now greatly augmented by anger about being conscripted for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Reports indicate that a disproportionately high number of young men are being called up in poor regions populated by ethnic minorities, such as the North Caucasus and Siberian republics like Buryatia. A clear parallel to the disproportionate conscription of Black youth by Uncle Sam to fight in Vietnam.

The 5th Buryat Tank Brigade is included in a list of Russian units that the Ukrainian government implicates in massacres and war crimes, at Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin and elsewhere. On the other hand, the exile-based Free Buryatia Foundation has launched an initiative called Buryats Against the War, demanding support and asylum for Buryat youth resisting military service.

Now, the Free Buryatia Foundation is calling for Buryatia to have meaningful autonomy within Russia, as opposed to the kind of pseudo-autonomy it has now. But there are increasingly calls for Buryatia to secede from Russia entirely and regain the independence it briefly had in the early 1920s, exactly a century ago. On July 27, there was a rally in Times Square here in New York City by metro-area Buryats, Tatars, Kalmyks and other indigenous peoples of Russia, both opposing the Russian aggression against Ukraine and also calling for break-up of the Russian Federation and actual independence for their territories.

We discussed some of these struggles in our podcast of April 9, 2022, “The looming break-up of Russia,” in which we predicted that the Ukraine invasion could backfire on Putin and on Russian nationalism in a very ironic way.

So I have two messages from all of this. First, to the nuclear boosters out there, I say this: I think all progressives understand that as the Western powers seek to reduce their reliance on Russian hydrocarbons in response to the Ukraine war, we must demand that they not seek alternative sources, but rather decarbonize their economies. Similarly, we must demand that the Western powers immediately halt imports of Russian uranium—and, again, not seek alternative sources bur rather denuclearize their economies.

And I echo the slogan of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum, the group that came together to petition for the mining moratorium at Navajo some 30 years ago: Leave uranium in the ground!

And to the Putin-shilling pseudo-left tankies out there, who are rooting for Russia in Ukraine and in West Africa, I just want to point out: the Buryat want independence from Russia for essentially same reason that the Nigeriens are now kicking out the French. Put that in your metaphorical pipe and smoke it.


This has been Bill Weinberg with the CounterVortex. Check us out online at CounterVortex.org, where everything I've been ranting about is all blogged up, hyperlinked and documented. Support us on Patreon. I want to again emphasize that we need your support of just one or two dollars per weekly podcast to keep going at this level of productivity, so if you appreciate this work, please support it. We have 58 Patreon subscribers presently, please become number 59. Patreon.com/countervortex.

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