Today is Sunday, and after enjoying Vegemite on my toast and some time with Albert (one of the Zimbabweans working for Harry), I thought it might be a good day to explore a little. I had something in mind, and it wasn’t long before I came back to my air‐conditioned container to put some thoughts down
When you drive up to the construction camp at Deziwa, the road curves round the circular open area that outlines the discovery at Deziwa. There is a little rise, too small to be called a hill, but the trees shy away from this area, apparently because of its mineral potential, so it reminds me of a monk’s tonsure. If there is any justice in this country, at some stage in the future this will be the heart of an open‐pit mine that will generate thousands of jobs and will bring millions of dollars in revenue, taxes and royalties to the Congo, but that is indeed on the distant future
Years ago, Gécamines (the state owned exploration and mining company, and our so‐called partner) had dismissed Deziwa as a small scale artisanal site, with little value and no commercial potential. So, over the years since they put a few exploration trenches on the site(in the 1960s), there had been no further exploration and only small scale artisanal workings.
Pits and tunnels had been dug by local miners, who knew that there was at least some money to be made from the cobalt near the surface. Near the surface in this case meant pits and hand‐dug shafts up to 60 feet deep ‐ and that must have been hard work. What the local miners knew was that the presence of the small cobalt flower meant that, not too far beneath the surface, there was cobalt for the taking – and so they did. There are outcrops of native copper here, too (this region is called the Central African Copper Belt, after all) but I don’t think they were concentrating on that, as cobalt is presently worth four or five times the value of copper per pound. The miners were what I would call “illegals” but they were doing what they had done for many years – mining what they could to make a living.
Our company drilled the first hole on Deziwa in 2006, and since then we have proven up project with a value (NPV 15%) of $1 billion at today’s prices. That’s why our so‐called partner and others have been delaying development and trying to steal the project from us for the last two years – since two years ago tomorrow, in fact.
The ground in the center of the project site is covered with this small bluish‐purple flower that grows in a small bush that might be eight to ten inches tall. While the cobalt flower doesn’t look much like the cobalt flower design on one of the archetypal English teapots, it might be related to a cultivated European flower – I wouldn’t know! The flower is definitely more purple than cobalt blue, and within its small size (perhaps ¼ of an inch across) it has a dark purple four-pointed star shape surmounted by two to four smaller mauve flowerets, that appear to grow darker as they mature. (It reminds me of the Manuka flower on the “tea tree” I was familiar with in New Zealand. But while that tree, a bush really, might grow to five to ten feet tall in New Zealand, this plant looks to be limited to less than a foot in the poor soil and tough conditions of the African savannah.) The result of hundreds of these small bushes is to make a purplish haze on the small hillocks that occur naturally and on the piles of tailings (material left behind after being picked over or processed by the miners), where there is obviously enough of whatever nutrients exist that excite the cobalt flower to grow, even if the miners couldn’t make money from the rocks and dirt left behind that it grows on.
My colleague, Mike, had some experience of the cobalt flower when he was developing a mine at Dikulushi about a hundred miles from here in the early 2000s. (The Congo had been closed for business for several years from the late 1990s after the demise of Mobutu and after Zaire had ceased to exist, so when Australian and Canadian mining companies came back into the country they went for the easy projects, ones that didn’t take too much capital to get up and running, just in case things went pear-shaped again. The Copper Belt was an obvious place to begin, as Zambia was close by, just across the lake in the case of Dikulushi, which is where they had to retreat on more than one occasion when terrorists and rebels came too close for comfort.)
As one has to do anywhere in the world, the company had to prepare an environmental impact statement that addressed the impact the mine would have on the local population, the amount and quality of noise/air/water/soils at and surrounding the site, how reclamation would be undertake, the impact of the mine on animals (all pretty much food for prior generations of local people and not usually a factor in this part of Africa) and plants, plus dozens of other factors. It isn’t enough to simply provide jobs, taxes and revenue in any part of the world, be it in first, second or third‐world countries, and international mining companies take their corporate responsibility very seriously.
The South African experts were concerned that the company protect and preserve the “very rare cobalt flowers” that they found on site, and so the company spent thousands to transplant these flowers to a safe location. They dug the plants up, along with the underlying soil down20 feet or so and carefully planted them elsewhere, well away from the impact of the mine and surrounding infrastructure, and there they flourished. Of course, the cobalt flowers also flourished all across the region wherever there were sufficient supplies of cobalt and other minerals in the ground, and the local artisanal miners could have told the “experts” that. Experts – you’ve got to love them!
There were experts in the area recently, along with journalists and a television crew from the British program Panorama. They came in and left quickly, but they got what they wanted, which was documentary evidence of mining companies pumping untreated, toxic chemicals into the local rivers and employing child labor in their mines. The attempt in this case was to smear the giant (and very rich) Swiss trading/mining company Glencore, which has operations abutting our property, although they were doing their program on properties closer to Kolwezi, the very old mining town 35 km from here. I haven’t seen the program (because of insufficient bandwidth here and wanting to keep my blood pressure under control), but from the reviews I have read and the various website posts, it seems like an Avatar‐like anti‐mining rant, so I won’t be rushing to see it. Besides, the truth is always a lot more complex, and it reminded me of what Tom Clancy said “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” It may have made sense for television, and it probably resulted in increased donations for some of the NGOs like Oxfam, but it is a long way from the reality that I see here in Africa.
Sure, Oxfam probably does some good work, but the NGOs and television programs and Avatar‐like movies make fun of the mining companies, those companies that also built schools, roads and medical clinics while providing power and clean water, and then they encourage the locals to throw out the mining companies. That their “evidence” and expert knowledge is based on lies and half‐truths are not considered – fiction makes better television than reality, I guess.
The last time I was here, Harry took me to his project at Kisankala, where he has installed a plant to recover copper and cobalt in and around an old mine site. The place is alive with artisanal miners and we drove through a couple of their villages (“digger villages”, Harry called them) on the way.
(I am usually careful not to be seen taking photos without permission, so we drove past the people in the town, past the ragged children playing in the dirt, past the stores and theaters and pubs and brothels that make up a frontier‐type mining town, and I took the picture above on the outskirts of the village. It’s typical, although the newer part of the town had more people and more garbage.)There are other operations in the area, and Harry looks across at a Chinese operation just up the valley.
Harry is partnering with some Lebanese businessmen from Kolwezi, and they already work with the locals: every day the artisanals bring their bags of product, it is weighed and sampled and the workers are paid in cash that day. In contrast, the Chinese operation has been fenced off and the artisanals who were working there have moved to Kisankala and elsewhere. The miners (diggers and washers, really) are transient and they move where they can get onto a property, so their towns come and go. There aren’t any schools in these areas, and the children do what they can until it’s time to assist with the work. If this was a new mine, the project development plan would provide for housing, schools, medical clinics and the like, but in these informal developments there is nothing –villages come and go, and the government takes no notice. Meanwhile, the artisanals dig and collect what they can in the open pit of the old mine, and then they wash the material in the stream and concentrate the material for sale.
Harry is in the process of installing a washing/concentrating plant and he will work alongside the artisanals who will have designated areas where they can work. They will also be provided with some higher grade stockpiles collected from the pit, a concreted area to work and a water supply for washing the material. There is proper security and a police presence at the project, and rules will be implanted to keep women and children away from the site. How successful it will be waits to be seen, but there is a lot of goodwill for the sort of approach Harry has taken, whereas the Chinese operation is not popular local (although it probably has good political cover in the capital).
It is interesting to think of what a television crew, coming in at the invitation of an NGO, would see here and what they would say. The lack of schools and other facilities in the informal tent village would not be newsworthy, I suppose, and they would not stay to build anything – they would have to get back to Europe to sell their stories – the journalists to the network and the NGOs to provide material for another fund‐raising campaign. Meanwhile, our project at Deziwa languishes and the cobalt flowers flourish.
We would like to invest capital of around $500 million, creating thousands of jobs directly and indirectly and providing income, tax and royalty revenue to the country. Will we have the opportunity, or will the James Cameron’s of the world make more movies about other projects they have defeated? I note that the making and viewing of movies, and everything else we do for that matter, are all dependent on mining – if it doesn’t exist in nature and can’t be grown, it has to be mined. Think of that when you brush your teeth tomorrow, when you drink your coffee in its lovely mug (perhaps with the name of an NGO on it), when you turn the power on or off, when you drive or fly to work…Thank mining!