High on the very long list of taboo subjects in Mauritania is any shadow of doubt or suspicion concerning the cash cows of the mining industry. A recent post highlighted just some of the issues with Canada’s Kinross Gold. Now it’s time to put First Quantum Minerals‘ subsidiary Mauritania Copper Mines (MCM) under the spotlight. The Guelb Moghrein copper-gold operation near the town of Akjoujt in Mauritania, 250 kilometres north-east of the nation’s capital, Nouakchott, is 100% owned by MCM.
The problem is not that no one dares to speak out about the unfair recruitment practices, inadequate labour conditions, low rates of pay, corrupt financial dealings or environmental pollution; it is that whenever anyone does try to confront these issues, they are ignored or silenced. And that includes being killed in cold blood, which is what happened to Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi, when the national guard staged a dawn raid on a peaceful sit-in by MCM copper mining workers, killing Ould Machdhoufi and wounding several others. The authorities infuriated people by declaring the cause of death to be “unknown”.
First Quantum Minerals of Canada, then aggravated the situation by issuing a press release that made no mention of the death or injuries, and claiming the strike was illegal. Several workers, including union leader Ethmane Ould Kreivit, were attacked in a subsequent protest, and jailed for several days. On his release, the union leader was prevented from entering the workplace. When agreement to return to work was finally reached, MCM deducted more days’ pay than had been lost. Mr Krevit was then sidelined from official meetings and unfairly dismissed. He is now in the process of taking legal action against MCM and remains one the most active and engaged union leaders in the country.
A general and persistent lack of concern for worker health and safety is illustrated by the case of MCM mine worker Mohamed Ould Khatari, who developed painful skin lesions after being exposed to a powdered chemical at work, and was told to take a couple of painkillers. Additional risks to the environment and the health of the local population and livestock can not be ignored. There are reports of elevated incidence of maternal and child heath problems, including miscarriages, infant deaths, asthma, headaches and other debilitating illness, among the population close enough to the mine to be affected by soil, water or air-borne toxins. Several herds of camel have been wiped out by sudden and mysterious fatal diseases. The typical response to these problems is to repeat benevolent-sounding statements reminding us that MCM has built a hospital or that the government has plans for veterinary care provision. But the hospital stands empty, and the sparse veterinary care is restricted to vaccination programs against cattle disease, not treatment for arsenic, cyanide or other chemical poisoning.
As an example of the system’s obvious compliance in covering up valid concerns, I cite the example of an unresolved court case brought against MCM five years ago for creating an environmental hazard. The court ordered an investigation by three experts but mandated the plaintiff to bear the entire cost – an unprecedented situation. According to the lawyer for the case [ar], Ahmed Ould Mohamed Lemine, the medical expert refused to prepare a report at all, and was openly supportive of the defendant, MCM. However, the agricultural expert presented his findings, which established the presence of contamination in the region, and negligence on MCM’s part to enact safeguards to limit the spread of toxins, but his report was ignored by the authorities. The lawyer points out that this report also reveals that there is no environmental strategy or plan in place, despite claims that US$925,000 has been allocated to post-operation restoration.
The third expert identified risks from industrial wastes but required further laboratory analysis which is not available in Mauritania. No further action was taken because no one is willing to bear the costs. The president of MCM, Philippe Pascal, had promised in June 2012 that an environmental study would be published within two months. The report has not materialised. As I write, the 2nd Mauritanian Mining & Oil and Gas Conference & Exhibition opens at the Palais des Congrès in Nouakchott. I hope the delegates from MCM and Kinross will attend Wednesday’s sessions on the importance of health and environmental safety.
Consider the current campaign initiated by activists wishing to bring these issues to the attention of the country, the region, and the world. They devised a week-long “blogathon” which has received numerous mentions from certain news sites in Mauritania, but not in the sites that carry advertising paid for by MCM or Kinross, and none from sites owned or operated by the “big tent” elites who also benefit from patronage of these major foreign companies.
Al Jazeera, Radio France International and Reuters have all confided in Mr Lemine that the state refused to grant them permission to visit either MCM in Akjoujt or Kinross Gold in Tasiast. He regards this as significant and potential proof, not only of the existence of problems and scandals, but of collusion between the mining companies and the state. As for rest of the international media, it’s the same as any other week. If it doesn’t concern a terrorist threat or a Libyan fugitive from justice like Al Senussi, no one is interested. But from an ecology, environment, or labour activist standpoint, these mining companies are also terrorists and fugitives from justice in their own way.