Archive for the natural resource exploitation Category

Resources, conflict and Japan

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 November, 2010 by Virgil

Mining in the DRC. Photo by FairPhone under a CC Licence

It is easy to forget how closely connected the world is. After all, the media have very little time/space for events happening beyond the borders of the country in which they are based, unless people from the home country are directly involved. Nationalism is a powerful force in most countries in the world and patriotism helps sell the news.

But the world is irreversibly and closely connected at all levels. Talking about how events in the outside world do not affect ‘us’ is a reflection of how unaware we are about this reality. No stones have been left unturned in modern history in our search for the cheapest possible goods and services. Goods that can be produced locally will be shipped in from the other side of the globe if government subsidies or getting away with impossibly cheap labour make those goods just that little bit cheaper. If those the acquisition of such goods contributes to a conflict, political instability, or the illegal occupation of another country, then so be it.

The key for those selling the cheaper goods from distant lands is ensuring that the consumer is unaware of what had happened for the goods to reach them, or the effect that this business is having on a conflict or on the environment. This is usually not that hard – the news media serve as a powerful barrier to understanding what is happening in the outside world. In any case, the world is an extremely complex place (which is a major inhibitor in itself), and consumers have a strong interest in what is happening closer to home, not to mention in low prices.

The nationalist slant of the media, while rampant throughout the world, is perhaps particularly pronounced in Japan. Just 1 or 2 pages of a 30-page newspaper are devoted to events in the outside world, and coverage levels of the world on television news are arguably even lower. This makes the Japanese public highly insulated from awareness about the economic connections between Japan and many conflict-prone countries.

But the connections are undeniable. Consider some of these facts:

It has been estimated that some 90 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum (used in capacitors in electronic goods) for 2009 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues, and where armed groups (the national army included) still control many of the mines. The powerful Japanese electronics industry cannot do without this mineral.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is also coming from the DRC. Much of Japan’s supply comes via Finland. Demand for cobalt is skyrocketing because of a massive increase in lithium ion battery production necessary for making ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars in Japan. The mining of cobalt in the DRC is far from being environmentally friendly.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire (but you will not find a single bar of chocolate made in that country). Few chocolate eaters in Japan know this or have any idea that there was a conflict in that country – one fuelled by the illicit trade in this commodity (known in this case as ‘hot chocolate’).

Roughly 70 percent of the frozen octopus imported by Japan is from Morocco. At least that is what the labels on the packs say. But a sizable portion of this ‘Moroccan’ octopus is actually coming from the waters of Western Sahara. The bulk of this ‘country’ remains under Moroccan occupation (incidentally, Western Sahara is a member of the African Union, Morocco is not). The occupied zone is protected by a great wall of sand (2,500 km long) and the world’s longest continuous minefield. The EU is coming under fire because of a fisheries agreement with Morocco that enables it access to Western Saharan waters, although the outcry is limited because media coverage of the situation is so low. With media coverage of this situation virtually non-existent in Japan, Japanese imports of octopus from Western Sahara have sparked no outcries at all.

These are just some of the connections (and I haven’t even mentioned oil). The world is certainly globalizing at a rapid pace. Perhaps it’s time the media started to think about catching on and catching up.

Debt, dirt and blood

Posted in Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2 July, 2010 by Virgil

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has just ‘celebrated’ 50 years of independence from brutal Belgian rule. One of the birthday presents it received was a debt write-off of around 10 billion USD from the IMF/World Bank, which essentially frees up 15 percent of the national budget, hopefully for things like health, education, reconstruction and security sector reform.

Now before we start patting anyone on the back, let us not forget that most of this debt was incurred by Mobutu (the kleptocratic President who was propped up by the USA and these international financial institutions for the duration of the Cold War) under dubious circumstances. Let us not also forget that the DRC has continued to be charged interest on those loans through the nose (the DRC has been forking out at least 300 million USD every year just to pay off the interest!), or that realistically speaking, the DRC was never going to be able to pay the debt off anyway.

But there was one rather sinister detail hiding behind the whole deal. The Canadian government had been trying to delay/block the debt write-off. Why? Because of a mining deal between the DRC government and a Canada-based mining company (First Quantum) that had gone bad. The DRC’s Supreme Court had annulled mining rights (for copper/cobalt in Kolwezi) on a number of mining titles, and the company was seeking arbitration on the matter. The mining rights were allegedly being taken over by a company registered in that haven for secrecy and tax evasion – the British Virgin Islands.

While the debt relief did go through, the attempt to block/delay it was really a nasty move on the part of the Canadian government, particularly given the current state of the DRC – the conflict, the poverty, the suffering. Just last month the UN warned that there is a “catastrophic” shortfall in aid for the DRC that threatens to leave hundreds of thousands of people there with vital health and food assistance cut off. Not that this made headlines, though – the media blackout goes on.

This affair is hot on the heels of another natural resource exploitation dispute in the DRC – over oil drilling rights in Lake Albert. London-based Tullow Oil had its concessions taken over by another company registered in the British Virgin Islands – reportedly one without any expertise in oil drilling. This company is apparently owned by the nephew of South African President, Jacob Zuma. But it has been alleged that Israeli diamond tycoon Dan Gertler (who is close to DRC President Kabila) is behind both the takeovers – the oil in Lake Albert and the copper/cobalt in Kolwezi.

This kind of dealing would look bad in any impoverished country, but let us also remind ourselves of the blood that has been shed over these riches. This conflict has been by far the deadliest of our times, with violence and conflict-related illness and starvation having killed millions. And while the objectives of the many and varied parties to the conflict (and their backers) are also many and varied, the battle over control of minerals such as tantalum, tin and gold has always loomed large as a factor fuelling the conflict. Minerals extracted through violence and virtual slave labour (made possible by the conflict) are always going to be cheaper than those for which a decent wage is paid, which of course helps not only the corporations going after them, but also us consumers when we want to buy electronic goods.

The mix of public and private, of public figures and profit, of governments and corporations in this mess is all so obvious. Ever since the UN came out with its first report in 2002 on the exploitation of natural resources (linked to the conflict) in the DRC, national governments all over the world have been falling over themselves to protect their ‘home’ corporations that had been named and shamed. And countries like the USA and France have hardly been cooperative with further attempts by UN investigations to get to the bottom of the link between natural resources and the conflict, as this example shows.

Here’s an interesting comment by the spokesperson for Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on the whole mining contract vs. debt relief issue: “We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure Canadian investment in the DRC is protected, while empowering those within the country as they work towards peace and sustainable economic development”. It’s a wonder the spokesperson could put two such contradictory objectives together in the same sentence and keep a straight face.

It all seems to be just another sad, sorry and sordid page in a tale of conflict, plunder and profit, with everyone (governments, corporations and individuals) trying to get their fingers in the pot and come away with the riches. This is another case of, both figuratively and literally, riches covered in dirt and in blood.

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The DRC conflict and Japan

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 November, 2009 by Virgil

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the greatest stealth conflict of all time. It is a tragic irony that in spite of the fact that the availability of information about the world is at a level unprecedented in human history, the deadliest conflict since World War II can remain largely unknown to the world at large. This doesn’t say much for the real-world value (in terms of awareness about conflict) of the internet, jet airplanes, satellite videophones and other forms of technology that have supposedly made our world so much smaller.

The media have to take a large portion of the blame for this. The amount of reporting devoted to international news has dropped considerably since the end of the Cold War and regional biases (heavy on the ‘home’ region and almost always very light on Africa) are as pronounced as ever. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan. International news in Japanese newspapers accounts for just 1 (sometimes 2) of the roughly 30 pages printed, and Africa is even more neglected in Japan than it is in Western media. The Yomiuri Newspaper devoted just 1.9 percent of its international news to the African continent in 2000 (compared to 6.9 percent in the New York Times – see here for more).

The results are evident in the levels of public awareness of the conflict. In a simple survey conducted by the author in 2008, a class of 151 first year university students were asked a single question “Which armed conflict in the world since the end of the Cold War do you think has been the deadliest?” The top three answers were Iraq (death toll: >500,000?), Kosovo (death toll: 10,000) and Israel-Palestine (death toll: 5,000). Of the 151 students, not a single one could come up with the DRC (death toll: 5,400,000). The results are also evident in government policy. Over the past ten years, the Japanese government has given 47 times more aid to Iraq than it has to the DRC. It is also worth noting that the amount of research produced at Japanese universities about the world’s deadliest conflict is negligible.

All of this is rather odd, given the heavy reliance of the Japanese electronics industry on rare metals – many of which are found in abundance in the DRC (not least tantalum, of which Japan is a major consumer). The issue of rare metals was recently a front-page story on the Japanese edition of the Economist, and campaigns to recycle mobile phones and other electronic devices in Japan for the rare metals inside are taking place around the country. Economically, concern over access to rare metals seems to be of growing importance for Japan.

Some have even referred to the DRC conflict as the ‘PlayStation War’. The peak of tantalum prices in 2000 coincided with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Global shortages in tantalum contributed to the failure of Sony to produce enough consoles to keep up with demand, and at the same time, the boosted demand for tantalum contributed to the violent scramble for the mineral in the DRC. Similarly, when environmental concerns over the use of lead in solder brought about a change in policy in Japan, tin (cassiterite) became the alternative component – contributing to a scramble for cassiterite in the DRC (see this video).

But few in Japan seem to be making the connection between these minerals and the situation in the DRC. Admittedly, the fact that the severely underpaid worker with the shovel digging for coltan (possibly under the barrel of a gun) is removed by some four or five stages (transporting, trading, refining and manufacturing) from the insertion of the tantalum capacitors into the Japanese mobile phones has something to do with this. Coltan changes hands many times before reaching the final consumer, and changes into an unrecognizable form hidden deep within the circuit boards of our electronic devices.

What all this means is that Japan makes for a very challenging environment to make traction in getting the issue of the DRC conflict on the agenda. With so little attention and awareness to begin with, there is not much of a base to build on. But at the same time, the rare metal connection should come in handy in some way in bridging the ‘it doesn’t affect me’ gap.

I have recently been involved in a number of events at Osaka University aimed at raising awareness that have left me with some optimism regarding what can be achieved in breaking the cycle of silence on this and other conflicts. My next post will cover some of these events.

Open letter to Stratfor

Posted in conflict, conflict analysis, Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , on 5 February, 2009 by Virgil

The following is a letter I have just sent to Stratfor, a US-based intelligence corporation that provides analysis on world affairs. Stratfor calls itself “the world leader in global intelligence”. As a paying (although often dissatisfied) customer, I have felt it important to point out what I feel are the problems in Stratfor’s services. My problem is not so much with the quality of the analysis, but more with their choice of issues for analysis. The most obvious problem is obsessive analysis of some popular issues and the marginalization of others that should carry considerable geopolitical value. It is quite disturbing to see that this corporation seems to produce more analysis on Israel-Palestine than it does on the entire African continent, for example. This raises serious doubts about how ‘global’ it is. My previous two letters on similar subjects have gone unanswered, but I thought I’d give it another go. Here is the letter:

To the Africa Experts at Stratfor,

I would like to firstly welcome you all back from your long vacations. I am assuming that you are all on long vacations because of the level of work that is been produced by Stratfor about the African continent.

Unfortunately, the people filling in for you haven’t done a very good job of keeping on top of things. In January, they have managed to come up with a total of just six area-specific analysis articles covering all of Africa. Your colleagues in the Middle East department are blazing ahead – they have come up with 26 analysis articles in January on the Israel-Palestine conflict alone! That’s four times the number of analysis articles on the entire African continent.

To make matters worse, they have completely ignored the dramatic developments in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the hands-down deadliest region of the world, and the source of vast amounts of mineral wealth. The last time Stratfor took the trouble to do an analysis of the DRC was 24 November 2008. Since that time, Uganda and South Sudan have entered the DRC in a joint operation with the Congolese troops against the LRA. A secret deal between the heads of state of the DRC and Rwanda has seen a dramatic turnaround between these former enemies. The CNDP rebels have split, and their leader has been arrested in Rwanda. Their major joint military operation against FDLR rebels is underway, and they are shutting out the UN peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations in the process. This represents a dramatic change in the state of this conflict, and of the geopolitical dynamics of the region. We are seeing alliances that would have been until recently unthinkable. What is really going on there? We continue to await your wise analysis.

One of the few analysis articles written on Africa is on the better-known (more popular) situation in Zimbabwe. To write on Zimbabwe while ignoring the Great Lakes region (especially at a time when there are so many major developments taking place), suggests a serious lack of understanding of the geopolitical significance of the continent. Zimbabwe’s greatest geopolitical asset (what makes it important to the outside world) is really its nuisance value. It has a leader that likes to speak out in English against the West – someone who won’t play ball. He is a leader that people seem to love to hate. But he has little grip over valuable natural resources, or economic and political clout. There is far more at stake in the Great Lakes region. Zimbabwe is a popular choice, but not a very shrewd geopolitical one.

You really do need to get back to your posts, and get up to speed on these and other important issues, and give your customers some serious analysis on what is going on. I realize that everyone needs a break from the daily grind, but I really wonder how long your employer can turn a blind eye to such neglect of this part of the world, particularly given its rising importance to the rest of the world. Just look at your friends in the Middle East department, who seem to be so industrious and motivated. I hope your jobs are not at stake. Your employer certainly is very understanding.

If things keep up like this, though, it will be hard to shake the appearance that Stratfor is really following the ‘fashionable’ crises, rather like the regular mainstream media does. Such an extremely disproportionate view of the geopolitical scene is hardly befitting a supposedly detached and objective intelligence organization. Israel-Palestine certainly has political significance, but to suggest that this very small part of the world is a few times more important than the entire African continent is really stretching things, and cannot be taken seriously.

There are those who would think (even if they don’t admit it) that Africa is just a poor continent full of black people who really don’t matter much in the scheme of things. We know of their resource riches, but as long as their problems don’t adversely affect those of us in the whiter and richer world drilling or mining for them, or buying them at literally give-away prices, then it doesn’t really matter what else goes on there (their problems often conveniently help us to get hold of those resources).

You and I know better, though. Humanitarian notions aside, the USA imports more oil from Africa than it does from the Persian Gulf, and that’s before we even start talking about diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, cassiterite, coltan and all the other treasures there that the rest of the world relies on. I apologize for taking up your valuable time on reading this letter, time that could be spent getting up to speed. I do wish you all the best and look forward to the reinvigoration of the Africa department at Stratfor.

Sincerely,

Virgil Hawkins

Gorillas and guerillas

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy, conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage, natural resource exploitation, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 January, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.

 

In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.

 

But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.

 

Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?

 

While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.

 

Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.

 

Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:

 

The people:

Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)

Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)

Are different from me (black and poor)

Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)

Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them

Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them

 

On the other hand,

 

The animals:

Are cute

Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)

Are helpless

Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans

 

Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.

 

Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.

 

Chaos and African conflict

Posted in Africa, conflict, natural resource exploitation, terminology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 4 January, 2009 by Virgil

‘Chaos’ is a word frequently used to describe conflict in Africa, in particular, that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (see this article and this article, for example). But what does this term tell us about a conflict? What images does it conjure up? A look in any dictionary under “chaos” gives us the picture – “a state of utter confusion or disorder”, “a jumble”, “a gaping void”. But is it appropriate to describe any conflict it this way?

 

Conflicts are social activities – they happen for a reason (or more often, reasons) and they are organized. It doesn’t matter if there are 2 ‘sides’ or 22 ‘sides’ (at varying degrees of cohesion), each group and each actor has its own reasons and motives, be they based on grievance, greed, need, creed or any combination thereof. And each group has its own strategies and tactics. The agendas of many of the players in conflicts are certainly murky, and the more players there are, the more difficult a conflict can be to understand. But do murky agendas and multiple players mean that there is utter confusion and disorder? I think not. It simply means that the conflict is more complex – that the units for analysis are smaller than they might be with other state-on-state conflicts, for example. Labelling a conflict with the term chaos suggests that the conflict has not been understood. But more disturbingly, the term seems to serve as a licence to ignore the conflict in question – a very convenient way to help us wash our hands and turn away (another variation of the ‘chaos’ write-off is the ‘heart of darkness’ line, dealt with in this article).

 

But washing our hands and turning away is hardly an option when we face the deadliest conflict the world has seen in more than half a century. By this I don’t mean that I am going to proceed to lay down plans for military intervention or major humanitarian airlifts. But if we are capable of demonstrating humanitarian concern for the suffering of people affected by conflict in Israel-Palestine or in Darfur, then we should be capable also of doing so for those suffering in the DRC. That said, actions based on humanitarian concern need to be based on solid knowledge of the situation, otherwise they risk being ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. That is, we need to know more about the conflict and what is behind it.

 

It was quite disturbing to see the responses to a BBC website debate question asking “Can Congo be saved from crisis?” (issues with the term ‘saved’ can wait for another day). A recurring line of thinking in the comments in the debate (many of which ended up generalizing for the entire African continent, not the DRC) was something like this: Africa is a mess despite having been given their independence and despite having been given so much aid by the West – Africans should be sorting themselves out instead of begging for any more help from the West. It is difficult to know where to begin in a addressing this highly simplistic line of reasoning, but importantly here, the notion that Western actors are detached and disinterested observers that do no more than charitably offer assistance to the often ungrateful needy is something that needs to be addressed. It ignores an incredibly important point – powerful Western actors are key players in the conflict.

 

Many of the direct belligerents in the conflict in the DRC could be called warlords – controlling a certain geographic area and relying on force and the threat of force to enable the extraction of resources for their own benefit. But warlords need to export the resources they extract and import the weapons they use. Foreign corporations come in here. But foreign players are not merely facilitators. To ensure greater control over and greater profits from resources, foreign players (hiding behind the scenes) involve themselves in the manipulation of politics and the use of force. You might be surprised at how broad and deep the connections are between the plunder of resources, Western corporations, Western policymakers, and even NGOs. Take a look at the articles on the site All Things Pass by Keith Harmon Snow for some very hard-hitting and in-depth analysis on this subject. The notion of chaos serves as an effective smokescreen for this state of affairs. 

Takeshi Kuno)
Rebel patrol in Eastern DRC (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)

 

Complexity also seems to sap us of our humanitarian strength. In an entry in his blog, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof responded to questions on why he chooses to focus more on the conflict in Darfur than on that in the DRC, despite the fact that the conflict in DRC is far deadlier, saying that:

 

“Congo is essentially a tale of chaos and poverty and civil war. Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about …We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur”.

 

This argument is far from convincing. While it is clearly difficult to measure “human evil”, one wonders why killing because of so-called ethnicity is any worse than killing for any other reason. And how “chaos and poverty and civil war” serve as an explanation in this sense is a little perplexing. Reading between the lines, I would think the difference in response has much to do with the issue of simplicity versus complexity. Darfur came into the spotlight because it was painted with a simplistic brush: bad guys (Arabs) killing innocent victims (blacks) which constituted genocide (the fact that the conflict rose to prominence at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is no accident). Without such an easy-to-follow storyline, the conflict in the DRC loses its attraction, especially when the storyline has the word chaos attached to it.

 

But the victims of conflict and their suffering in the DRC are very real. Just because there are more than two groups involved; and just because we cannot easily distinguish groups based on their skin colour, so-called ‘ethnicity’ and/or religion, or come up with notions on how ‘evil’ or ‘good’ an entire group apparently is, this does not make the victims any less deserving.

 

Conflict in the DRC happens to be by the far the deadliest conflict of our times, so dismissing it as chaotic and writing it off is hardly an option. The conflict is not chaotic, it is complex. Let’s not let something like complexity get in the way of concern. Let us instead work towards getting a clearer picture of what is really going on there.

Not so fast (Guinea revisited)

Posted in dictators, Guinea, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , on 28 December, 2008 by Virgil

In my previous post, I wrote:

 

“In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.”

 

Things might not be so silent after all. Captain Camara, who took power in a bloodless coup hours after the death of President Conté, has claimed to have blocked the mining sector and pledged to review mining contracts and stamp out corruption. He announced that gold extraction had been suspended for a start (see this article). This could shake things up.

  

Alexandre Foulon)

Bauxite extraction in Guinea (Photo: Alexandre Foulon)

 

As things stand today, too much of the mining and exploitation of other valuable resources in much of Africa happens under dubious contracts, by which foreign multinationals pay off local officials to sign deals that give the bulk of the country’s wealth to the multinationals at giveaway prices. Valuable minerals and other resources are hauled off leaving very little, if anything for the people in the country (except perhaps a small boost in employment, a token payment for the government coffers, a wad of cash in the pockets of the government officials negotiating the deal, and a dose of environmental degradation as a souvenir). This kind of scramble for resources is at its worst in situations of conflict – the conflict itself inevitably becomes linked to this scramble. See this article, this article and this report for an idea of how bad things can get – the DRC is a prime example.

 

The silence of powerful policymakers and the media on the situation in Guinea to date is, to an extent, a sign that foreign multinationals and their backers (policymakers in their home countries) have been happy about the way things are – mining contracts are lucrative for them. The question is: how far will the new military administration go in changing this? Of course it is entirely conceivable that Captain Camara is playing to the gallery, making noise as a strategy to ensure that the current ‘arrangements’ for distributing the spoils of mineral wealth are reconfigured in his favour. He may also be making announcements like this in an effort to boost his popularity and shore up local support, but is not serious about following through with reforms. But if he is in any way genuine and determined to bring about reform, then things could get interesting.

 

Having taken power by force, Captain Camara is, of course, subject to obligatory condemnation by other countries for his disregard for the democratic process. But whether this condemnation ends up as a kind of formality for the gallery, or develops into something more serious (with pressure that will hurt), will probably depend on how willing he is to ‘play ball’ with the foreign multinationals and their backers in maintaining the status quo.

 

If it is to be a continuation of the same game with a new player, then the players (with the exception, of course, of the people of Guinea) will be happy, and talk of the situation in Guinea will fade away. The same applies if the new military rulers can be quietly convinced (behind the scenes) to play ball. But if Guinea keeps popping up in the news, complete with indignation about the flagrant abuse of democracy and human rights, then it just may be that some changes in how valuable resources in Guinea are handled are on the way. Let’s not hold our breath just yet…

Pan-African News Wire)

The coup leader (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

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