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Congo Week in Osaka 2010

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 31 October, 2010 by Virgil

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not over. Insecurity still plagues parts of the east, and horrifying stories of rape and other forms of human rights abuse still emerge. And in case we needed reminding, in October, the UN released its controversial Mapping Report, which chronicles the numerous human rights abuses that took place in Zaire/DRC from 1993 to 2003.

Attempts to raise concern in the news and in online forums about such issues invariably raise comments along the lines of “it’s not our concern” or “it’s up to them to sort out their own problems”. Accepting this means accepting the idea that the rape and killing of innocent civilians should not concern us as long as it is happening beyond our national borders (or as long as the skin of the victims is not white). It also means failing to notice the role in the conflict of corporations and governments in the ‘developed’ world, and the benefits that we consumers enjoy in the form of electronic products made with exceptionally cheap raw materials that originate in the DRC.

For those of us who choose not to accept these notions, it helps to raise our voices (preferably in unison) and spread the word from time to time. Congo Week offers an opportunity to do this. This year, from 17-23 October, under the coordination of the Friends of the Congo, groups from 50 countries around the world held a variety of activities to raise awareness about the issues in the DRC and encourage action. This year Osaka was named as one of the ten key cities (along with London, Paris, Washington, New York, Toronto, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Goma) to anchor the movement. We tried not to disappoint.

SESCO, a Japanese group that assists schools in the DRC kicked off the week with a lecture and panel discussion on the issue. Osaka University took up the torch with a lecture followed by an informal forum (over cups of coffee from the Kivus in the DRC) via Skype with Goma in the DRC and Washington D.C. A representative of World Vision in Goma was kind enough to speak to the students in Osaka about the situation there, and Maurice Carney (Executive Director of Friends of the Congo) was kind enough to be up and talking about the issues at 6am. These events were coordinated by the Kansai chapter of the Japan-Rwanda Youth Conference. The week was capped off by a very successful theatrical event run by Peace Village. A play written specifically for Congo Week brought home the connections between the DRC’s minerals, the conflict, and Japan in a way that no lecture could – suffice it to say that tears were shed.

We hope to repeat some of these events in the near future. There is an open offer for more dailogue between the students at Osaka University and the Friends of the Congo, and the play was too good to be shelved after just one night. The struggle to raise awareness and get a serious dialogue going about this global problem must go on.

It is not an easy struggle. The media in Japan continues to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this conflict and its global implications. The Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s leading newspaper), which (like the rest of Japan’s media) generally tends to ignore most of what goes on beyond Japan’s borders, devoted more coverage in one day to the rescue of 33 miners in Chile than it did to five years of conflict in the DRC.

Japan cannot keep its head in the sand forever. Sanyo has just announced that it will increase its production of lithium ion batteries tenfold over the next five years to meet demands for supposedly environmentally friendly hybrid/electric cars. Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, and some 41 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC. The connection between the controversial mining industry in the DRC and key industries in Japan continues to strengthen.

In Maurice Carney’s message to the students in Osaka, the reminder that what we do here in Japan to raise awareness about the DRC serves also as a source of encouragement for the people in the DRC was inspiring. So to the people of the Congo, from those of us here in Japan who know and who care, know that you are not alone.

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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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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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