#Mauritania’s MCM: Digging for minerals, burying the truth

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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.

Buried Truth

Friends transport murdered mining worker Mohammed Ould Machdhoufi’s shrouded body

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”.

Mining workers’ union rep Ethmane Ould Kreivit

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.

Health Scares

Injured MCM mine worker Mohamed Ould Khatari

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.

Conspiratorial Cover-up

Typical scene from the MCM mining dump near Akjoujt

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.

Silenced Voices

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.

 

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#Mauritania News in Brief 7 August 2012

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The last news summary for Mauritania told of a tragic plane crash [fr] which claimed the lives of seven people, including members of the Air Force and customs officials, and the twist of fate which spared the life of one other. As I write, people are still posting tributes to the victims on a FaceBook event page [ar].

Protests followed death of  mining worker Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi

The people’s grief was amplified by another senseless death just days later, when the national guard staged a dawn raid on a peaceful sit-in by MCM copper mining workers, killing Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi and wounding several others. The authorities – already under fierce public scrutiny over the hiring of military personnel to serve commercial interests, the cause and circumstances of the crash, and the appointment of the Air Force squadron commander to the investigation committee – infuriated people by declaring the cause of death to be “unknown”.

Mining workers’ union rep Ethmane Ould Kreivit

MCM’s operating company, 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. This particular powder-keg is likely to reignite in the near future.

Tasiast gold mine is also run by a Canadian firm, Kinross Gold, which has witnessed a series of strike actions, and is currently trying a little harder than MCM,although that is a low bar. On Sunday 5th August, the company announced it would increase the supply of water for some households near the plant. The statement said this is standard practice designed to provide additional help to deal with the ongoing drought. However, if that is the case, I do wonder why they waited until so far into the rainy season to implement this measure.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-pMxb7hCfg]
This short video [ar] highlights the issues caused by the drought and water shortages

No clean drinking water for months, then .. floodwater!

On July 19th, there was another mass march demanding the departure of Aziz, and torrential rains wreaked havoc on rural communities, taking the life of an 18 year-old in Magta Lahjar who drowned while trying to escape the floods. People have been protesting all across Mauritania for many months because of water shortages, increased prices for potable water, lack of repairs to wells, unfair distribution of subsidised food and cattle feed, land disputes, corruption, labour disputes, and electrical power disruption in many parts of the country. The biggest recent power failure occurred at the beginning of August, affecting large areas of Nouakchott for extended periods, with hospitals, offices, stores and homes affected. On Sunday 5th August, an off-duty power company manager responded to a call for help but was electrocuted while trying to repair a relay. He died instantly. This husband and father of four daughters was known as a “good Samaritan” in the local community.

Also on July 19th came news that Mauritania had released some terrorist prisoners [ar] as part of the exchange deal for three European hostages kidnapped from their housing near the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria in October 2011.
Mauritania has lost some ranking in the media coverage of the unrest in Mali, and was not on the list of countries visited by French FM Laurent Fabius, nor one of Hillary Clinton’s stops on her tour of Africa.  Considering the travel advisories being issued this should not come as any surprise. The regime remains bullish, continuing to act and speak about the situation with complete disregard for the sovereignty of its troubled neighbour. Sunday night Aziz reaffirmed to his audience [fr] the country would not intervene militarily. Then on Monday, Algeria reportedly [ar] reversed its former, more conservative, position and announced willingness to deploy troops in cross-border raids against terrorist operations in northern Mali, in conjunction with units from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is presumably the action the US, via AFRICOM command, with backing from the EU – and France in particular – has been pressing for in their regular calls for “increased regional cooperation”. A dizzy political game is afoot, and has been from the start.
20th July saw the start of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims. Many food prices increased overnight, especially meat, and another increase in fuel prices added to the pressure of economic inflation. Despite the higher fuel costs and several fatal road accidents, the very popular but highly dangerous night-time antics of “Wacky Races” [fr] returned to Mauritania, along with evening matches of 5-a-side soccer.
There are some inspiring and very successful humanitarian initiatives for Ramadan, a traditional time of giving charity, and many events to help the hungry, sick and needy with strong donor support, especially from Mauritanian ex-pats in Angola, for a joint campaign launched by Bellewar Media TV, First Step for Development and Mauritanie Demain.
In a unique event that one might also class as an act of charity, former “Islamicist” leader Boumiah Ould Ebyah returned to Mauritania after many years in Kuwait, and immediately declared his support for Aziz. Within 6 days he had been appointed to a post in the president’s office!
The anti-pornography protesters (actually I am trying to train myself to call them “pro-morality” campaigners) resumed their protests in Nouakchott at the end of July. To my great surprise the police attacked them with tear gas and batons! Out again they went, and again the police attacked. At the start of August the group applied for a protest permit and it was rejected. The image on the right is of their application letter. Is it just me who finds the logo reminiscent of the Playboy Bunny, reversed?

Logos aside,  I am still completely confounded by this group being violently repressed. Does it mean the authorities are pro-pornography? How do we reconcile this with president Aziz’ “Defender of Islam” speech to the gathering which massed (with a speed I found highly doubtful) outside the palace, after abolitionist Birame Ould Obeid burned a few books containing the Islamic scholar Maliki’s works pertaining to slavery? Birame – in failing health, and 6 of his companions, are still in prison despite the charge of apostasy being thrown out by the judge. New charges of “acting against national security”were cited, although there has been no proper hearing. Their arbitrary detention has lasted 99 days so far and protests have continued throughout. There were additional protests after a radio programme discussing slavery, which resulted in the presenter being dismissed.

Protest demanding release of jailed abolitionists

Students continued to face problems in the past month: detention of medical students who protested their expulsion; increased fees for some foreign students; denial of passports and travel papers for students not receiving grants; expiration of travel documents leaving students stranded in Morocco; and a reduction in the number of sponsored places in Mauritania. Plus, the next batch of higher education students will be small – the pass rate for the Baccalaureate exams was only 9%.

Another protest group which reappeared in the past week or so is the unemployed graduates, who gained a lot of attention after storming the grounds of the presidential palace in May, and then beginning a hunger strike. Fishermen, sailors and dock workers in Nouadhibou all held protests in the past 10 days. For my next update, I may save a few hundred words and post only names of groups that do not protest!

Messaoud Ould Boulkheir

Under “disappearances” we can list the “initiative” of Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who had been waving a reconciliation plan at the opposition, just to fill in some time until the government announced plans to hold an election, or some elections, in 2 or 3 or 4 month’s time, depending on whose statement is quoted. Once the election announcement was ready – just after agreeing a new fishing deal with the EU – Aziz rejected Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s initiative: a clumsy political manoeuvre designed to appear like a crushing blow to both Ould Boulkheir and the opposition coalition. Meanwhile, the new EU fishing agreement is being widely condemned by many industry groups. The president of Europêche, Javier Garat, said last week that the “unaffordable” deal will cause the loss of 10,000 jobs and 60 million Euro. Meanwhile, the president of the Shipowners’ Association of Marín, Andrés Guiance, warned that the EU agreement with Mauritania will make Marín “a dead port.”

Senussi just another pathetic coward and fraud

Senussi

Former Libyan chief of intelligence Senussi is still “held” in Mauritania and Aziz says he will not be released until he stands trial for illegal entry. Until that fabled day, he is valuable ante for Mauritania in a game with France, who say they want him to serve a life sentence issued in absentia, and Libya, who could try him as part of the former regime. I imagine him enjoying the sort of 5-star hospitality Mubarak had during his sejourn. Certainly I doubt that he is under torture. Sadly, the same is not true for 5 youths arrested in a small southern town near Selibaby, who were subjected to Guantanamo-style “jaguar” torture methods while detained on suspicion of a minor burglary of a local store on July 23. Three of the youths were jailed, and the other two released without charge. One of those released is now suffering memory loss and needs hospital treatment.

Armed guards provide crowd control for Aziz speech

On Sunday 5 August, president Aziz hosted a “Meet the People” event in Atar. Thousands waiting in the heat of the night for his midnight appearance, watched over by armed plain-clothed security and assembled media representatives. The coordination of oppostion parties was conspicuous in its absence. Not surprising since they all signed a pledge on Friday 4th August to continue to demand Aziz step down, and refusing to entertain any dialogue, or elections, as long as he remains in power. Aziz responded on Monday 6th August, saying he would not leave except though the ballot box. Not so much absent as invisible, the audience was dominated by Arab Moors. Black Moors, Haratines, and those of black African heritage were present – in servile roles cleaning, preparing, serving food and of course staffing security.

Police [anti] graffiti efforts

Opposition campaigners were in action the night before, and police were tasked with removing the graffiti which had been liberally applied to walls, signs, and even state vehicles. The photos of police in action (left) make them look a little bit like perpetrators!
None of these interesting anecdotes merited comment on Ould Abdel Aziz’ new Twitter account (using Hootsuite) or Facebook page (no link – but trust me, you’re not missing much), which were created after a meagre effort via iPad by one of his cronies, Sidi Mohamed Maham. Sidi’s task was to engage with “the young people”, confiding how he had “just been speaking with the president”, who told him “his door is open to anyone who wants to talk”. The boring foray into Twitter immediately spawned a more entertaining mirror using the new hashtag coined for his Atar speech. FaceBook is still the most popular platform by far, but Twitter is seeing increased activity thanks to a useful Arabic guide produced by the Mauritanie Demain FaceBook page admins. There was a sustained flurry of angry tweets shooting down each lie as soon as it was uttered. Aziz provided plenty of ammunition: there is no slavery, just poverty, and that is being eradicated, there’s no drought, there are no political prisoners, there is no repression, he was right to cross into Malian territory in pursuit of suspected terrorists, there is a balance of payments surplus, everything is wonderful, and so on. While taking questions by phone, a caller who made a criticism was cut off mid-sentence and Aziz declared the caller had “decided to end the call himself”. When the TV broadcast was disrupted, instead of just blaming a technical error or electrical power issue, Aziz claimed the opposition were responsible, and had bought sophisticated electronic equipment for the purpose.
Aziz also spoke proudly of the importance of Mauritanian media and the “freedomof the press”. Only seven media outlets were invited to attend, and even they had a hard time. The photographer from alakhbar.info was detained by presidential guards [ar], who erased all his images, presumably because he had filmed some protesters. At least Al Jazeera managed to get in a question: their reporter asked if Aziz would be the first Arab leader to step down peacefully. I understand his response was in the negative.
As happened last year, activists were highly motivated against this Aziz speech, with at least two FaceBook events, teams coordinating the sharing of information between different social networks, and many amusing – and angry – posts and images that are so characteristic of Mauritanian youth. There was a protest outside the TV station HQ in Nouakchott and a brave protester who called for Aziz to quit after the speech [ar] in Atar (and was immediately arrested). Sunday night was also the anniversary of the historic “Battle of Badr”, and this coincidence generated much commentary about the president’s son, Badr, and the incident where he shot a young girl while out joyriding late one night but got off with a token fine. By all accounts she is still paralysed.
There was another serious note to some of the objections being voiced: Aziz had chosen the home town of the slain mining worker Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi for his political carnival.

Poster art from an anti-Aziz event on FaceBook