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The sun-wizened Tuareg women of Azalik have declared war on China. Like their ancestors, they once eked out a living selling dried salts from an ancestral well. Everything changed last year, when the government leased their land to the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U) for uranium exploration. Left with no livelihood and no compensation, a hundred women gathered to launch stones at mining machinery.
“Now it is eternal war,” says Tinatina Salah, their 50-year-old leader, who still seeks compensation for the loss of her salt.
Her land contains one of the world's largest uranium deposits, and Niger was the world's sixth-largest uranium producer in 2008. As resource-hungry China expands its holdings here, local groups and Tuareg-led political opposition are voicing concerns over Chinese investment in the Saharan state’s graft-ridden mining industry.
Nigerien authorities led by President Mamadou Tandja, deposed last month in a military coup, awarded a fresh round of exploration and operating permits to foreign companies starting in 2007, for uranium, gold, silver, and oil in the desert of northern Niger.
Despite billions of dollars pouring into the country, however, Tuareg rebels accuse Mr. Tandja’s administration and mining companies of neglecting development in the north, which is a Tuareg stronghold. The largely Tuareg rebel organization Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), which fought Niger troops and sabotaged Chinese mining operations up until last year, wants local people to have greater control over resources.