Disaster capitalism strikes at the heart of African mining

A key focus of my forthcoming book and film about disaster capitalism is the way Western resource companies exploit poor nations and often commit human rights abuses in the process (I’m looking at Papua New Guinea and Haiti).

Here’s an interesting Human Rights Watch report about Eritrea:

International mining firms rushing to invest in Eritrea’s burgeoning minerals sector risk involvement in serious abuses unless they take strong preventive measures. The failure of the Vancouver-based company Nevsun Resources to ensure that forced labor would not be used during construction of its Eritrea mine, and its limited ability to deal with forced labor allegations when they arose, highlight the risk.

The 29-page report, “Hear No Evil: Forced Labor and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector [2],” describes how mining companies working in Eritrea [3] risk involvement with the government’s widespread exploitation of forced labor. It also documents how Nevsun – the first company to develop an operational mine in Eritrea – initially failed to take those risks seriously, and then struggled to address allegations of abuse connected to its operations. Although the company has subsequently improved its policies, it still seems unable to investigate allegations of forced labor concerning a state-owned contractor it uses.

“If mining companies are going to work in Eritrea, they need to make absolutely sure that their operations don’t rely on forced labor,” said Chris Albin-Lackey [4], business and human rights senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If they can’t prevent this, they shouldn’t move forward at all.”

Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest and most repressive countries. In recent years the country’s largely untapped mineral wealth has provided a badly needed boost to its economic prospects. The Bisha project, majority owned and operated by the small Canadian firm Nevsun Resources, is Eritrea’s first and so far only operational mine. It began gold production in 2011 and produced some $614 million worth of ore in its first year.

Other large projects led by Canadian, Australian, and Chinese firms are in the pipeline, however. Numerous exploration firms are scouring other leases for new prospects.

Eritrea’s government maintains a “national service” program that conscripts Eritreans into prolonged and indefinite terms of forced labor, generally under abusive conditions. It is through this forced labor program that mining companies run the most direct risk of involvement in the Eritrean government’s human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has documented [5] how national service conscripts are regularly subjected to torture and other serious abuses, and how the government exacts revenge upon conscripts’ families if they desert their posts. Many Eritreans have been forced to work as conscript laborers for over a decade.

Most national service conscripts are assigned to the military, but others are made to work for state-owned companies. Some of those companies are construction firms that the government pressures international companies to take on as contractors.

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