Niger's nomadic herders have struggled to raise their animals in the country's inhospitable north for centuries, but now they are being pushed off their land by international mining companies.
|The harsh conditions of northern Niger add to the hardships of the Tuareg population
Critics warn the new competition is threatening an ecological and human catastrophe.
"Before we had all kinds of animals - we had donkeys and goats and sheep - but now we have nothing," one Tuareg woman whose family members have seen their livelihood all but destroyed, told Al Jazeera.
Her friend agreed.
"When I was a young girl, the situation was completely different. There was complete freedom of movement, there were games and social relations between the families and there were lots and lots of animals," she said.
"People were happy, nothing to make them feel fear - now there are many sources of anxiety: we lost all our belongings and we’re poor, I feel sad in front of people who have animals and I’m constantly worried and afraid because of the security situation."
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.
The UN ranks it as the fourth poorest country on earth, with over 40 per cent of its children suffering from malnutrition and well over half of its population existing on less than a dollar a day.
But Niger is rich in uranium, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of its exports.
Niger is the world's third largest uranium producer and exploiting that natural resource is the cornerstone of Niger's efforts to pull itself out of poverty.
The uranium mines are clustered in the north, where the population is largely Tuareg and where the Movement of Niger People for Justice (MNJ), currently waging a low-level armed campaign against the government, is based.
The MNJ, who are dismissed by the government as simply "bandits", is demanding a greater share of the uranium revenues be invested in the region.
The UN ranks Niger as the fourth poorest country in the world.
Two thirds of its population live below the poverty line, according to the IMF.
One in four children are said to die before their fifth birthday and adult literacy is under 29 per cent.
Population: 13.3 million
Ethnic groups (per cent, 2001 census):
Haussa (55.4), Djerma Songhai (21), Tuareg (9.3), Peuhl (8.5), Kanouri Manga (4.7), other (1.2)
Major exports: uranium ore, livestock, agricultural produce
Source: CIA factbook
But the mining is also disrupting the traditional Tuareg way of life and many fear there will also be an environmental cost to pay.
One family that Al Jazeera met in Arlit, an industrial town in Niger's Agadez region, were ill - suffering from a condition that had left sores around their mouths.
There was no way of knowing if the problem was caused by pollution but with no access to health care there was also no way of finding out or any way of knowing how to cure it.
The only clinic in the area is the uranium company hospital, which is off-limits to regular citizens.
Butali Chiverain, who worked at that hospital for 25 years and now runs al-Haknakal, a NGO that safeguards indigenous rights, told Al Jazeera the situation was serious and was affecting those living around the mines and well as those who worked there.
"There are illnesses which people hadn’t seen before. There are also skin diseases with bumps breaking out especially on the feet, which touch the soil," he said.
"In the company there are also respiratory illnesses [and] high blood pressure - people are suffering from hypertension.
"After a person works 10 years in the company they start suffering from heart problems, coma and these kinds of illnesses. Many people have died."
He also said the water supplies around the mine had become polluted.
"Around Arlit for a distance of 160km ... one cannot find potable water at all because it's all contaminated and it's been contaminated for a long time.
"We took some samples to send them abroad to do some tests the water was not suitable for human consumption or even for animals. This water people have been drinking for ten years and now they've finally acknowledged that this water is unsuitable and they closed the wells."
He said the water had been found to be radioactive ten times above the level considered safe.
Niger's poverty - nearly half of the government's budget comes from foreign aid - and uranium mining's importance to its economy has made the government wary of interfering too much in the industry.
This has meant the government has effectively abdicated responsibility for the environmental impact of the industry to the companies behind the mining.
"The government is responsible for the health of the people, the government is responsible for the rights of the people, but the government ... must work according to its means and its policy," Mohamed Akotey, Niger's minister for the environment, told Al Jazeera.
He acknowledged that environmental studies suggested that uranium mining was having severe effects on the environment, but said it was up to the mining companies to act on them.
|Under the sands of Arlit lie rich desposits of uranium which could lift Niger out of poverty
"Today these companies have environmental teams at the mines. At the same time the government does not have the means to make studies at the different locations and companies," he said.
"The government trusts its partner to know if the studies [are] done properly or not in the environment."
The mine at Arlit is run by Areva, the publicly listed French energy company that specialises in nuclear power.
France has been one of Europe's foremost advocates for nuclear power, investing considerable funds in the industry after the 1978 global oil shortage and helping to lessen France's dependency on foreign energy.
Today, thanks to its nuclear plants which provide over 80 per cent of the country's power, France is a net exporter of electricity.
Areva told Al Jazeera it believed its environmental controls were sufficient and that it had conducted tests to ensure it conformed to international standards.
"Three years ago, local communities started to worry about pollution possibly reaching their region. Their worries were legitimate and we took them into consideration," Yves Dufour, external affairs director at Areva's mining business unit, told Al Jazeera from his office in Paris.
"Areva undertook systematic ecological tests and verification measures, under the supervision of the Nigerian ministerial bodies.
"We [also] check the water quality because it is the water we drink - I mean our workers as well," he said.
"We have always been implementing these measures."
Dufor said that Areva, knowing its own tests were unlikely to be considered independent, had asked France's institute for radioprotection and nuclear safety (IRSN), a public body that falls under the authority of several of France's ministries, including the ministries of environment and defence, to verify the results.
"We went further and asked the IRSN, which publishes its results under its own name and with its own publicly, to audit the ecological tests carried out by Areva."
In 2005, the IRSN announced that Areva's ecological management of its sites in Niger conformed to international standards.
Critics, though, have questioned whether the IRSN can be considered truly independent, given the importance of nuclear energy to France's economy.
Areva runs both of Niger's two main mines through its subsidiaries Somair and Cominak - has put forward plans to begin producing 4,000 tonnes of uranium a year by 2011.
But Niger activists criticise the company for enjoying the benefits without developing the region.
"Areva has done nothing for Niamey [Niger's capital], never mind the fact they've done nothing for Agadez and the north," Chiverain said.
"France has [a] responsibility but has done nothing positive. As for Niger's government - they look the other way."
The benefits for Areva are large - Niger accounts for about half of the company's global uranium production.
|The MNJ has condemned mining firms for not investing in the region
"It is with our uranium from Niger - it is with this that they move every single conveyor belt in France," Nouhou Arzika, the co-ordinator of the Citizen's Movement for Peace, Democracy and the Republic, an non-governmental organisation, told Al Jazeera.
"For more than 40 years - it's shocking - the French company known as Areva has extracted from our country 100,000 metric tones of uranium," he said.
"The electricity which [it produces] is not only consumed by France, but also by all the neighbouring countries that France sells electricity to."
France, Niger's former colonial ruler, has been accused of giving Niger a raw deal, exploiting the country's natural resources and paying far less than the market price for the uranium mined.
Badie Hima, a lawyer and the vice-president of the Nigerien Association for the Defense of Human Rights, told Al Jazeera: "France has been exploiting the uranium for more than 40 years and yet the north of Niger is still undeveloped - that means the contract between Niger and Areva is pure stealing."
Only in 2007 did Areva's monopoly came under pressure. The government's move to start tendering prospecting licences to Chinese and Canadian companies prompted a standoff with the French company, and in August that year the government negotiated a new deal with Areva, which still accorded France a discounted rate on uranium.
For many activists, at least part of the blame for the "raw deal" on Niger's resources and the lack of investment in the north lies with the government.
"There is the responsibility of those who are selling it and of those who are managing the revenues," Badie said.
"So France and Areva have a huge responsibility and the leadership of Niger [also] has a big responsibility."
Since the new deal with Areva, the government of Mamadou Tandja, Niger's president, has also granted about 100 licences to foreign companies, many of them new firms looking to strike it rich and if mineral deposits are found, the government takes a 40 per cent stake.