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Mining a Heart of Gold? Slave Wages and Humanitarianism in Africa

What do you call people who try to make people believe what they say but ignore the results of what they do? How about spin-sploiters?

After a few years of research I have come to realize that there is a long and ignoble history of Westerners exploiting Africans while touting humanitarian objectives. Unfortunately, this practice is not confined to the distant past.

A leading Canadian NGO official, who then founded Québec’s largest mining company, provides a recent example.

In a 2012 Gold Report interview titled “First, Do Good When Mining for Gold: Benoit La Salle” the President of the Société d’Exploitation Minière d’Afrique de l’Ouest (SEMAFO) boasted about the company’s social responsibility. La Salle said: “SEMAFO is not a company that mines gold, ships it out and, once that is done, breaks down camp and leaves. People see SEMAFO as being a very good corporate citizen. Today, many people believe that the CSR report is more important than our annual report.”  This is a startling claim for an individual obligated to maximize investors’ returns but a cursory look at the company’s record suggests it has little basis in reality.

Those living near SEMAFO’s Kiniero mine, reported Guinée News in 2014, felt “the Canadian company brought more misfortune than benefits.” In 2008 the military killed three in a bid to drive away small-scale miners from its mine in southeast Guinea. BBC Monitoring Africa reported “the soldiers shot a woman at close range, burned a baby and in the panic another woman and her baby fell into a gold mining pit and a man fell fatally from his motor while running away from the rangers.”  Blaming the Montréal-based company for the killings, locals damaged its equipment.”

In September 2011 protests flared again over the company’s failure to hire local young people and the dissolution of a committee that spent community development monies. Demonstrators attacked SEMAFO’s facilities, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.  Some also targeted a bus carrying company employees, prompting the authorities to evacuate all expatriate staff to Bamako in neighbouring Mali.

In 2014 the Guinean government’s Comité Technique de Revue des Titres et Conventions Miniers concluded that the Montréal firm evaded $9.6 million in tax.  The Comité Technique also found that the company failed “to produce detailed feasibility studies” and was not “in compliance with new measures in the 2011 mining code.”  The Comité Technique recommended that SEMAFO be fined and stripped of its mining rights in the country.

To the east, SEMAFO opened the first industrial scale gold mine in Niger. A 2007 Montreal Gazette business article headlined “Local Miner a Major Force in Niger: It’s not every day we receive a press release from a gold mining company that includes a warm personal message from the prime minister”, reported on the close ties between SEMAFO and Hama Amadou, then Prime Minister of Niger. “We work very closely with him,” said La Salle. “We’re part of his budget every year.”

La Salle described how the prime minister helped his company break a strike at its Samira Hill mine in the west of the country. “He gave us all the right direction to solve this legally,” La Salle said. ‘We went to court, we had the strike declared illegal and that allowed us to let go of some of the employees and rehire some of them based upon a new work contract. It allowed us to let go of some undesirable employees because they had been on strike a few times.” (In mid-2008 SEMAFO’s preferred prime minister was arrested on corruption charges stemming from two unrelated incidents.)

The bitter strike led to a parliamentary inquiry regarding environmental damage caused by the mine, lack of benefits for local communities and treatment of miners. Opposition politicians accused SEMAFO of paying “slave wages”.  “The wages are very low,” explained Mohammed Bazoum, deputy chairman of Niger’s main opposition party in 2009.

SEMAFO was also accused of failing to pay both taxes and dividends to the government. Despite owning a 20% share in the Samira Hill mine, the government received no direct payments from the Montréal-based majority owner between 2004 and 2010. “Since this company started its activities, Niger has not seen a single franc despite its being a shareholder,” noted Abdoulkarim Mossi, head of a government committee set up to tackle economic and financial irregularities in the country.

Next-door, the company was close to President Blaise Compaoré who seized power in 1987 by killing Thomas Ankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara”, who oversaw important social and political gains during four years in office. La Salle worked closely with Compaoré for nearly 2 decades, traveling the globe singing the Burkina Faso government’s praise. After leaving office the Prime Minister between 2007–2011, Tertius Zongo, was appointed to SEMAFO’s Board of Directors and at a September 2014 Gold Forum in Australia SEMAFO officials lauded the government as “democratic and stable”.  The next month Compaoré was ousted by popular protest after he attempted to amend the constitution to extend term limits.

After ending Compaoré’s 27-year rule community groups and mine workers launched a wave of protests against foreign, mostly Canadian, owned mining companies. In a Bloomberg article titled “Revolt Rocks Burkina Faso’s Mines After President Flees”, SEMAFO’s director of corporate affairs, Laurent Michel Dabire, said the company was looking to fund a new police unit that would focus on protecting mining interests in the country.

SEMAFO is an outgrowth La Salle’s work for Plan Canada, part of a $1 billion a year global NGO. La Salle said that SEMAFO “was created in 1995 during my first visit to Burkina Faso as part of a mission with the NGO-Plan. I am the president of the administration council of Plan Canada and a director of Plan International. So, after the Plan organized visit to Burkina Faso provided me an opportunity to get close with national authorities, I decided to create SEMAFO to participate in the development of Burkina Faso’s mining industry.” As Plan Canada’s designated Francophone spokesperson, La Salle got to know Compaoré. “The president turned to me,” La Salle told another reporter, “and said that I should come back to his country with Canadian expertise to help his country develop its mining sector.”

La Salle procured mining expertise while Compaoré granted the Canadian a massive stretch of land to prospect. “The land package we have is way beyond what you’d see anywhere else in the world,” La Salle boasted.

Compaoré was good to La Salle. The Canadian ‘humanitarian” made millions of dollars from Burkina Faso’s (and Niger and Guinea’s) minerals. When he resigned after 17 years as president of SEMAFO in 2012, La Salle received a $3 million departure bonus, which was on top of his $1 million salary.

La Salle is just one in a long line of Westerners who’ve asked the world to believe what they say but ignore the actual results of what they do — a “spin-sploiter” — publicly professing humanitarian ideals all the while exploiting Africa.

 

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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