The Gold Slaves of Mozambique

From Der Spiegel,

“Nightfall brings welcome cooler temperatures to the foothills of the Chimanimani Mountains in western Mozambique. But it also brings the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito from the nearby swamps. The mosquitoes come in thick swarms. The young men in the mining camps use fire in a vain attempt to protect themselves against the deadly insects. When their firewood is too damp they burn plastic, and soon campfires blaze throughout the camp, filling the air with endless plumes of acrid smoke. The soft, green hills surrounding the provincial capital Manica have been transformed into giant, squalid camps. Small settlements have sprung up along the Revue River, collections of huts made of plastic tarps, corrugated metal and bamboo. But many people simply sleep on the ground, wrapped in rags and covered with moth-eaten blankets. Their diet consists of roots, grass and insects. During the day, they crawl across the loamy ground, digging with their bare hands. A few have spades and pickaxes. Many begin work at four in the morning. Some just lose their minds here, others lose their lives.”

ChimanimaniSo opens the article depicting the desperate masses coming from Zimbabwe in hopes of digging gold, which would make them rich. The conditions in Chimanimani are horrific, between malaria and other disease, absolute poverty and desperation, malnutrition and overcrowding. Der Spiegel has an incredible slideshow of photos taken by Toby Selander, such as the one on the left, which shows a man digging eight meters below the surface, with the constant risk of collapse that might kill him. And as the situation gets worse in Zimbabwe (how worse can it possibly get?) with 80% unemployment and political chaos, the numbers of migrants are swelling. The situation is so bad that Mozambique, helpless to deal with the influx, has simply given up and waived visa requirements.

In this context, it is not difficult to imagine that rumors of gold finding right across the border would attract desperate people. Instead, what these migrants find is slave labor, never-ending toiling in dreadful conditions and not much to show for their efforts. But, as in many parts of Africa, once people have left for better economic conditions, it would be too shameful to go home empty-handed. So they stay, and keep hoping that somehow, luck will strike. The land itself belongs to Mozambicans who divide it into claims leased to Zimbabwans who dig and promise them a share of their find in exchange. If that weren’t bad enough, add violence and corruption to the mix:

“Lawlessness and naked violence prevail along the Revue River. Troublemakers are driven out. Sometimes policemen or soldiers raid the camps, beating the inhabitants and demanding their share. Alec Pot’s partner, Widson Muchehuwa, is bent over with pain. He was recently roughed up during one of these raids. His tormentors screamed that he brought bad luck and should go back to Zimbabwe — otherwise, they said, they would kill him. The hunt for gold is, of course, illegal. In theory, the precious metal belongs to the Mozambican government. But the police and military are apparently unable to control the gold rush.”

What of the lucky ones, those who find gold, what then? Most of them sell their find to Mozambican dealers for $20 per gram. In turn, these guys sell them to Lebanese, Israelis and Europeans buyers for $27 per gram. The gold then finds its way to Europe where it is sold for a very high price. This trade is illegal but, obviously, who cares? Business is good and will remain so as long as there are people in the world desperate enough to do the heavy lifting for a penance.

Other trades also flourish around the digging camps… with a lot of men without their wives and families, can you guess which trade? That’s right, prostitution, mostly from women from Zimbabwe (everybody needs cash there). Desperate men dig for gold, desperate women sell their bodies.

And then, of course, there is the environmental damage done by such unregulated mining:

“The Mozambican authorities have mounting reservations about the illegal mining. Because the gold-bearing earth is washed in the rivers, causing them to silt up, drinking water is already becoming scarce in the region.The barren, pockmarked landscapes that have developed in the Chimanimani Mountains also pose problems. The prospectors sometimes dig shafts that are 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) deep and are connected by an elaborate tunnel system. Once a mine has been exploited it is simply left open. This leads to recurring mudslides during the rainy season, sometimes burying prospectors.”

The few dollars that prospectors might make in a day are often spent on prostitutes and will not solve anybody’s poverty problem. This is a trade in very high need for global regulation because it is humanly, socially and environmentally disastrous, as a Spiegel interview with mining expert Keith Slack shows:

“There are no proper environmental standards, there are not enough laws which could protect the rights of the local residents. Take Guatemala, for example, where the rights of the indigenous people, who live in mining areas, are not taken into consideration. The mines spread over vast areas, also over the sacred sites of these people. They can be up to two kilometers wide and one kilometer long, and one can even see them from space. But once the land is gone, it has been destroyed forever. (…) Enormous quantities of poisonous chemicals are used, particularly cyanide, which separates the gold from the stone. It is estimated that gold mines worldwide use 182,000 tons of cyanide each year — a gigantic amount. (…)It gets into rivers as well as groundwater and can kill fish. The water is no longer drinkable or usable for agricultural irrigation. Sometimes even minimal standards are lacking. In Indonesia, the toxic mining waste is simply dumped into the ocean.”

But but but… poor people need to pollute the environment because it gives them jobs, allows them to get more control over their lives and helps their countries participate into the global economic system through the exercise of their comparative advantage… right?? right?? Nonsense, says Slack:

“The modern large mines are mostly on the surface and employ only a few people. The mines can be highly profitable, but the locals very seldom see any benefits. And, of course, there are also problems with working conditions and low wages in the mines. (…) We are particularly concerned because there are clearly double standards. In Europe and the United States the companies would never exhibit the behavior they get away with in developing countries.”

There are no standards in the gold trade, labor or environmental. It is the law of the jungle (also known as savage capitalism). We need global fair trade standards. As Slack’s interview shows, governments and companies are not exactly willing to do anything about the situation, so, it has to be a convergence from above (global institutions) and below (global civil society).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *