Tag Archives: resource curse

The Mining Curse

Two poor, fragile, post-Soviet democracies, two spectacular holes in the ground. Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill”, is a vast mine in the southern Gobi desert, just 80km from the Chinese border. Kumtor in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, operating since 1997, is if anything even more remote. Located beside a series of glaciers at 13,000 feet above sea level, it is the world’s second-highest gold mine.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these two mines to their respective economies. Once completed, Oyu Tolgoi will be the world’s fourth-biggest copper mine. When the contract with Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, was first signed in 2009, Oyu Tolgoi was predicted to add five percentage points to Mongolia’s annual economic growth, which, for a while, it did. The mine has created 15,000 jobs directly and another 45,000 indirectly, for a Mongolian population of 3.3m. As for Kumtor, its owner, Centerra, a Canadian exploration company, is the country’s largest private investor. In a good year the mine generates a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and is the biggest contributor to the state budget.

Both mines loom large in national life. Both foreign operators won sweet, initial deals when naïve young states opened their doors to foreign investment. Controversy surrounding the mines was thus inevitable. Oyu Tolgoi has long been controversial. Politicians often accuse Rio Tinto of fleecing the country…In Kyrgyzstan the goverment accuses Centerra of corruption, enriching politicians instead of the national budget. 

Accusations of being cheated are common in poor, resource-rich countries. With Oyu Tolgoi, the stand-off is more easily resolved….A recent independent review makes it hard for Rio to deny it bears some blame for delays and cost overruns in developing the mine…. In Kyrgyzstan the situation is bleaker. There, bribery and corruption are not incidental to business but central to it….Foreign investors too often blame “resource nationalism” for their woes in host countries. That is self-serving. After all, the resources usually belong to the state. It is reasonable for citizens to ask how best to benefit from them…. 

Excerpts from Banyan: Mine for the Taking, Economist, Nov. 6, 2021

Gorillas, Murders and Making $1.50 per day-Congo Rainforest

Protecting the forests of Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – home to endangered mountain gorillas – could be described as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In the past 12 months, more than 20 of the park’s staff have been murdered – and last week rebels were accused of killing the Italian ambassador to DR Congo, his security guard and driver in an attack within the park. “The level of sacrifice that’s involved in keeping this work going will always be the hardest thing to deal with,” says Emmanuel de Merode, who is in charge of more than 800 rangers at Virunga, Africa’s oldest and largest national park.


The Virunga park spans 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles) and is home to an astonishingly diverse landscape – from active volcanoes and vast lakes to rainforest and mountains.
The park was set up nearly 100 years ago to protect mountain gorillas, of which there are only 1,000 left in the world. It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war for the most of its recent history.

In  April 2020, 13 rangers were murdered in what park officials described as a “ferociously violent and sustained” attack by an armed group In January 2021, six rangers, patrolling the park’s boundary on foot, were killed in an ambush by militias. All of those who died were aged between 25 and 30.  It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war…. 

It’s estimated that a dozen or so armed militia groups survive off the park’s resources – poaching or chopping down wood to sell for fuel. DR Congo’s natural resources have been fought over for decades. The country – which is the size of mainland western Europe – has more mineral wealth, with diamonds, oil, cobalt and copper, than anywhere else on the planet. These are some of the elements essential to modern technology, making up key components in electric cars and smartphones.
Virunga is no different. It’s rich in resources underground as well as in nature and wildlife. But the two million people living in the region of the park mainly live on under $1.50 (£1.08) a day. This tussle for survival is not lost on Mr De Merode who sees protecting the park as essentially a social justice issue.

“It’s not a simple problem of protecting gorillas and elephants; it is overcoming an economic problem at the heart of one of the most horrific civil wars in history,” says Merode. 

Excerpt from Vivienne Nunis and Sarah Treanor, DR Congo’s Virunga National Park: The deadly job of protecting gorillas, BBC, Mar. 4, 2021

At Gunpoint in Congo: Is Coltan Worse than Oil?

Tantalum, a metal used in smartphone and laptop batteries, is extracted from coltan ore. In 2019 40% of the world’s coltan was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. More was sneaked into Rwanda and exported from there. Locals dig for the ore by hand in Congo’s eastern provinces, where more than 100 armed groups hide in the bush. Some mines are run by warlords who work with rogue members of the Congolese army to smuggle the coltan out.

When demand for electronics soared in the early 2000s, coltan went from being an obscure, semi-valuable ore to one of the world’s most sought-after minerals. Rebels fought over mines and hunted for new deposits. Soldiers forced locals to dig for it at gunpoint. Foreign money poured into Congo. Armed groups multiplied, eager for a share.

Then, in 2010, a clause in America’s Dodd-Frank Act forced American firms to audit their supply chains. The aim was to ensure they were not using minerals such as coltan, gold and tin that were funding Congo’s protracted war. For six months mines in eastern Congo were closed, as the authorities grappled with the new rules. Even when they reopened, big companies, such as Intel and Apple, shied away from Congo’s coltan, fearing a bad press.

The “Obama law”, as the Congolese nickname Dodd-Frank, did reduce cash flows to armed groups. But it also put thousands of innocent people out of work. A scheme to trace supply chains known as ITSCI run by the International Tin Association based in London and an American charity, Pact, helped bring tentative buyers back to Congo.  ITSCI staff turn up at mining sites to see if armed men are hanging about, pocketing profits. They check that no children are working in the pits. If a mine is considered safe and conflict-free, government agents at the sites put tags onto the sacks of minerals. However, some unscrupulous agents sell tags on the black market, to stick on coltan from other mines. “The agents are our brothers,” Martin says. It is hard to police such a violent, hilly region with so few roads. Mines are reached by foot or motorbike along winding, muddy paths.

For a long time those who preferred to export their coltan legally had to work with itsci, which held the only key to the international market. Miners groaned that itsci charged too much: roughly 5% of the value of tagged coltan. When another scheme called “Better Sourcing” emerged, Congo’s biggest coltan exporter, Société Minière de Bisunzu, signed up to it instead.

Excerpts from Smugglers’ paradise: Congo, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Living in the World of Tesla: Cobalt, Congo and China

 A 20% rise in the price of cobalt since the beginning of 2021 shows how the rush to build more electric vehicles is stressing global supply chains. 

A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. It typically is carried overland to South Africa, shipped out from the port of Durban, South Africa, and processed in China before the material goes to battery makers—meaning the supply chain has several choke points that make it vulnerable to disruption…

Car and battery makers have been looking for more control over their cobalt supply and ways to avoid the metal altogether. Honda Motor Co. last year formed an alliance with a leading Chinese car-battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. , hoping that CATL’s supply-chain clout would help stabilize Honda’s battery supply..

Meanwhile, China plays a critical role even though it doesn’t have significant reserves of cobalt itself. Chinese companies control more than 40% of Congo’s cobalt-mining capacity, according to an estimate by Roskill, the London research firm…China’s ambassador to Congo was quoted in state media last year as saying more than 80 Chinese enterprises have invested in Congo and created nearly 50,000 local jobs…

To break China’s stronghold, auto makers and suppliers are trying to recycle more cobalt from old batteries and exploring other nations for alternative supplies of the material.  Another reason to look for alternatives is instability in Congo and continuing ethical concerns about miners working in sometimes-harsh conditions with rudimentary tools and no safety equipment.

Excerpt from Yang Jie, EV Surge Sends Cobalt Prices Soaring, WSJ, Jan. 23, 2021

The Plight of Electric Cars: Cobalt Batteries and Mining

About 60% of the world’s cobalt is found in Congo, scattered across the copperbelt that stretches east into Zambia. The people of Kawama, Gongo grumble that too much land has been sold to mining firms. “We used to dig freely,” says Gerard Kaumba, a miner. “But now the government has sold all the hills.” There are still some sites where miners can turn up and dig, but they have to sell to whoever owns the concession. A sweltering day’s work might earn you $7. Many people have found they can make more at night, pilfering cobalt from industrial mines.

Glencore, a commodities giant with two mines in Congo, reckons that some 2,000 people sneak into its pits every day. Other companies have even more robbers to contend with. In 2019 Congolese soldiers chased thieves out of a mine owned by China Molybdenum where, it was reckoned, 10,000-odd people were then illegally digging. Sneaking into Glencore’s mines is hardest, says a Kawaman, as its guards do not collude with thieves—and often chase them away with dogs.

Congo’s industrial miners are not all angels.  Gécamines, the state-owned company, has enriched crooked politicians for half a century. Global Witness, a watchdog based in London, says Congo’s treasury lost $750m of mining revenues to graft between 2013 and 2015. ENRC, which has mines in Congo, has faced allegations of corruption and an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (it denies wrongdoing). So has Glencore, which has worked with Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire. Mr Gertler, a close friend of a former Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, is under American sanctions… 

While big firms rake in millions, many of the little guys languish in jail. The prison in Kolwezi, the largest city in the mining region, is crammed with men caught stealing copper and cobalt. More than a hundred inmates occupy one stinking room, sitting in rows on the ground, each wedged between another’s legs. Prissoners are allowed to use the toilet only once a day, so they often urinate in their clothes

Excerpt from Cobalt blues: In Congo the little guys are jailed for stealing minerals. Economist, Oct. 17, 2020

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Another Resource Curse: Amber Fossils

In a bustling market in Tengchong, China, vendors hawk globs of amber, some the size of cantaloupes, with astonishingly pristine fossils inside. Mined across the border in Myanmar, the amber has yielded extraordinary finds—the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, frogs, snakes, a host of insects, and more—allowing scientists to build a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago. 

In 2018, scientists reported 321 new species immaculately preserved in Burmese amber, bringing the cumulative total to 1195. One team recently argued that Burmese amber may boast more biodiversity than any other fossil deposit from the entire reign of the dinosaurs. “You think this can’t even be possible,” says Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, “but it’s happening.”

But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist’s dream, it’s also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar… In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. The amber comes from mines near Tanai township in Kachin, where for decades Myanmar’s army and the local Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic insurgency, have battled over control of lucrative resources such as jade, timber, and, most recently, amber. “These commodities are fueling the conflict,” says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. “They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources.”

 Visitors to the mines describe a lush terrain transformed into barren hillsides. Tents cover claustrophobic holes up to 100 meters deep but only wide enough for skinny workers, who say they are responsible for their own medical care after accidents. The miners dig down and, when they hit layers of amber, tunnel horizontally with hand tools to dig it out. They sort finds at night, to avoid publicizing valuable discoveries. Amber with fossil inclusions is the most precious, proof after weeks of uncertainty that a mine will be profitable. Reached by phone through an interpreter, miners say both warring sides demand bribes for the rights to an area and equipment—and then tax 10% of the profit.

The amber is then smuggled into China and sold to the highest bidder. Yet if scientists don’t engage in the amber trade, specimens are lost to science.

Exerpts from Joshua Sokol, Troubled Treasure, Science, May 24, 2019

The Power Plays in Africa

As the overthrow of despot Robert Mugabe entered a stalemate on November 17,  2017, eyes turned to China — Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor and a key ally — amid speculation over its role in the military coup.Source in Harare believe the Zimbabwean conflict within the ruling party Zanu PF is involving two rival camps has direct links to China and Russia with both countries trying to control and protect their own economic interests.

The army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, visited Beijing l — just days before tanks rolled into the streets of Harare. President Mugabe has been been hostile to the Chinese in recent years accusing them of plundering the countries diamonds worth $15 billion.  On October 2017 First Lady Grace Mugabe was in Russia where she represented her 93-year-old husband at a function where he was honoured with some accolade in Russia at the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) in Moscow.

“It is a BRICS internal rivalry with both Russia and South Africa on one side trying to protect their economic interests and China on the other side,” a regional think-tank in London said on November 17, 2017… Russia has been investing in several projects in southern African nations, for example, the ALROSA group of diamond mining companies is engaged in several projects in Zimbabwe, while mining and steelmaking company Evraz and Severstal steel and steel-related mining company conduct their business in South Africa.

Russia and South Africa, which together control about 80% of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals, have created a trading bloc similar to OPEC to control the flow of exports according to Bloomberg.

Zimbabwe, Canada, and the U.S. are among other major platinum group metals producers.

Russian and South African officials signed a memorandum of understanding today to cooperate in the industry.South Africa mines about 70 percent of the world’s platinum, while Russia leads in palladium, a platinum group metal used in autocatalysts, with about 40% of output, according to a 2012 report by Johnson Matthey Plc.

According to the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe (CMZ) and geologists, Zimbabwe has far bigger platinum reserves than Russia. The country currently has the second known largest platinum reserves after South Africa. Experts say underfunding and limited exploration has over the years stifled growth of the mining sector.

The Zimbabwe chamber is on record saying it seeks to increase production to the targeted 500 000 ounces per annum requires the setting up of base and precious metal smelters and refineries, investment of $2,8 billion in mines, $2 billion in processing plants and between $200 and $500 million to ensure adequate power supply. Already, the country’s major platinum miners – Zimplats, Unki and Mimosa who are currently processing the metal in neighbouring South Africa – have undertaken to construct the refinery….

Miles Blessing Tendi, a lecturer in African history and politics at the University of Oxford, says there is no way to be certain if China knew about Mugabe’s fate but believes China’s respect for sovereignty would make their involvement uncharacteristic.

Excerpt, It gets ugly as Russia and South Africa gang-up against China over Zimbabwe coup, http://www.thezimbabwemail.com/, November 17, 2017

The Oil Curse – South Sudan

South Sudan’s oil fields have become a battleground in the struggle for power in Africa’s newest nation, encouraging Western nations and regional mediators to consider international monitoring of crude revenues as a way to remove a major bone of contention from such conflicts.  South Sudan sits on Sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest crude reserves, and its oil fields were early targets in fighting that erupted in December 2013 and has rumbled on despite two ceasefire deals and U.N. warnings that a man-made famine looms.

It marks an alarming slide into dysfunction by a nation whose creation three years ago the United States hailed as a foreign policy success. Instead of lifting the nation out of grinding poverty, oil is blamed for stoking a war…Diplomats and regional mediators said monitoring revenues was gaining traction as an idea for discussion, though the mechanics of such a system and how the warring sides would be pushed towards a deal have not been determined….

South Sudan’s oil output has tumbled by about a third to 160,000 barrels a day since the fighting began in December 2013, but it remains the main source of cash for President Salva Kiir’s government both by selling crude and by borrowing against future earnings, digging the nation deeper into debt.  As of June 25, 2013 South Sudan owed $256 million to China’s National Petroleum Corp, which has 40 percent of a venture developing South Sudan’s oil fields, and a further $78 million to oil trader Trafigura. [a Dutch multinational commodity trading company] It plans to borrow about $1 billion from oil firms in fiscal year 2014/15, equal to about a quarter of forecast revenues.

Rebel leader Machar, who was fired as deputy president last year, said oil sites would be a “legitimate target” unless funds were put into a neutral escrow account pending any deal.

But President Salva Kiir’s government says such outside intervention would violate its sovereignty and insists it has not bought arms since fighting began.  “We are not the protectorate of anyone,” presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said. “We have the right to buy arms, but we haven’t bought anything since December,” he said, despite rebel claims of weapon shipments arriving in recent months.  Kiir and Machar come from rival ethnic groups, and the conflict has re-opened deep ethnic divisions in the country.

Monitoring revenues is on the table for talks sponsored by the regional African grouping IGAD, though diplomats acknowledge it can only be part of a broader deal on how to share wealth and power in the divided nation…South Sudan has already lost billions of petrodollars in its young life. Kiir wrote to 75 former and serving officials in 2012 seeking the return of $4 billion that disappeared since 2005. No significant amounts were repaid, diplomats said.  Though the country – the size of France – has almost no roads and only a third of its 11 million people can read, South Sudanese now watch more wealth frittered away on fighting than on building roads or paying for schools….Fighting has killed at least 10,000 people, displaced 1.5 million and left a third of the population facing the prospect of famine as they have not planted crops…

But Western diplomats say pressure for a deal on oil monitoring needs to come from the region, led by heavyweight neighbours such as Kenya and Ethiopia.China, with its oil interests, would need to support the move, though diplomats said it had worked with the West during the crisis. Alongside China, other oil investors are India’s ONGC Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas.”  If they can get the oil sector right, share the oil revenues in a much more inclusive manner, then that will dictate the country’s future,” said Luke Patey, author of a book on Sudan and South Sudan’s oil industry.

Excerpts from South Sudan conflict drives idea of oil wealth monitoring, Reuters, Aug. 1, 2014]

Dumping Coal in the Sea

Until recently Colombia was lax in enforcing its environmental laws. So it came as a shock to the country’s mining industry when, in January, the government halted coal exports from a port operated by Drummond, an American miner, in a row over pollution. The suspension has been costly not only for Drummond: its operations generate $66m a month in royalties and taxes for the Colombian treasury.

The mining minister, Amylkar Acosta, confirmed this week that the government would let the company resume its exports later this month, when it completes improvements to the port facility to prevent contamination of nearby beaches. The government has been under pressure to take action since environmentalists photographed an incident last year in which more than 500 tonnes of coal were dumped into the Bay of Santa Marta to stop a barge from sinking. Last month six employees at the port were charged, and face possible jail sentences. Drummond has been fined $3.6m and told to clean up the mess.

The case is an illustration of how the government, having welcomed foreign miners, is now having to contend with public disquiet over both pollution and the way the country’s mineral wealth is shared. In an election in May, President Juan Manuel Santos will seek a second term. So he cannot ignore the “hostile” climate of public opinion on the issue, says Alvaro Ponce, a Colombian mining expert.

Protests by nearby residents have delayed several big projects, including AngloGold Ashanti’s proposed gold mine in Tolima province and Eco Oro’s planned gold and silver mine in Santander province. A study by Colombia’s national audit office, published in January, found that economic and social development in towns next to large mining operations is worse than in places where illegal coca crops are grown for making cocaine.

The environment ministry is seeking new powers to require licences for exploration as well as extraction. Mining firms grumble that the process of getting projects approved is already tortuous enough. This and the recent fall in world prices of some minerals mean that up to $7.3 billion of investments are stalled, they say. Mr Acosta says the miners must accept that besides getting their official permits, they have to convince local communities to accept their presence, earning a “social licence” to operate. “Without that, the projects become unviable,” he says.

The backlash against mining has been building for some years. In the mid-2000s, when commodity prices were booming and Colombia’s internal conflicts were subsiding, the government offered incentives for foreign firms to come in and create mining jobs. It awarded exploration permits for swathes of territory, including in areas hitherto off limits, such as the fragile páramo tundra in the Andes. “The floodgates were opened,” says James Lockhart-Smith of Maplecroft, a risk-analysis firm.

But Colombia’s regulators were ill-prepared. In 2011 the government stopped accepting new applications for licences while it dealt with a backlog of 19,000. It rejected 90% of these, then turned its attention to 10,000 projects that had already been given licences, finding that 92% were failing in some way to comply with their conditions.

Despite all the stumbles and setbacks, Colombia is getting somewhere in its drive to exploit its mineral reserves. In 2013 mining investment was $3.6 billion, 21% more than in 2012. Mining already accounts for 2.3% of GDP and 7% of exports, and foreign companies are still lining up to explore new prospects. By the standards of resource-rich emerging economies, it is a fairly well-run place, so the chances are that it will succeed in coming up with a licensing regime that eases public worries without deterring investment. As in richer countries, mining projects will still be welcomed, but not at any price.

Mining in Colombia: Digging itself out of a hole, Economist, Mar. 15, 2014, at 61