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An entrance to an underground gold mine is seen in Langlaagte, South Africa.
Desperate Zimbabweans turn to illegal gold mining
20 November 2019, 8:02 AM

Under the blazing sun, a group of men use picks and shovels to dig up a bushy patch of land outside Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, stopping every few seconds to scan the soil for signs of gold.

The 13 men, led by one carrying a metal detector, left open gullies all over the area in Filabusi, about 80km (50 miles) south of Bulawayo.

They told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they would dig wherever their metal detectors sensed gold, clearing bush and burning grass if they had to – even on someone else’s property. None of the men had a mining permit.

“Whenever you hear of a gold rush, you know serious money is involved. People literally pick up gold nuggets,” said Thomas Ncube, one of the miners whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

With Zimbabwe going through its worst economic crisis in a decade, desperate citizens are turning to illegal gold mining to make a living, officials say, sparking fervent gold rushes that can lead to violence and drive people from their land.

The problem has gotten worse over the past year, warned Robert Msipa, a district officer with the government’s Environmental Management Agency.

“In some recent cases police have (had) to set up bases, as such gold rushes are punctuated with machete violence,” he said in a phone interview from Bubi, the district he oversees in western Zimbabwe.

A spokesman for the national police force in Harare declined to comment.

There are no official figures on illegal gold-mining activities in Zimbabwe.

But Msipa noted that since September 2018, eight gold rushes involving both licensed and unlicensed miners have been recorded in Bubi district, one of the most gold-rich areas of the country.

Locals in other parts of Zimbabwe reported similar spikes in illegal mining in their areas.

In the country’s western Insiza district, farmers described how in October illegal miners burned most of their grazing lands to clear the way for digging, and then left behind vast open pits that injured cattle who fell into them.

Small-scale and illegal miners sometimes also add mercury to the soil to separate minute gold particles from other minerals, farmers said.

“They burn grass for their metal detectors to work and use mercury which is very dangerous to our livestock and humans,” lamented villager Soneni Ncube.

BURNING FIELDS

Zimbabwe’s gold-mining sector accounts for about 40% of the country’s mineral output, according to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF), an umbrella body of gold miners’ associations.

That makes gold second only to tobacco in the amount of foreign currency it brings into Zimbabwe, said Dosman Mangisi, a ZMF spokesman.

The mineral-rich southern African nation sees the mining sector as the main driver for reviving an economy crippled by triple-digit inflation and high unemployment.

Prosper Chitambara, an economist and researcher at the Labor and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, said that the country loses up to $3 billion each year in potential earnings to illegal gold mining.

“That affects the fiscal capacity of the government to be able to invest in the socio-economic rights of its citizens,” he said.

For communities living on gold-rich land, the impact of illegal mining is often more personal and destructive, noted Jane Lusinga, the ZMF regional representative for women in the province of Matabeleland North.

She pointed to the latest gold rush at Lonely Mine, the site of operations for several small-scale mining companies in Bubi district.

There are no official figures on how many families have been displaced by recent gold rushes, said Lusinga, but she estimated about 3,000 illegal miners had descended on to the district over just a few weeks starting in September.

One group burned down a farmer’s mud-and-grass house, she said. “(The) miners then proceeded to dig up the hut’s foundation and the (farmer’s) entire fields in search for gold.”

That was one of several cases of families being displaced by illegal gold miners that the ZMF is investigating, she added.

The organization is holding regular meetings with miners, residents, government officials and traditional leaders “to try and see how we can lobby for a permanent solution to this issue,” Lusinga said.

‘ABOVE THE LAW’

Nhlanhlayamangwe Felix Ndiweni, the chief of Ntabazinduna village in Matabeleland North, said that his village is regularly inundated with illegal miners looking to strike gold.

“These gangs are armed and organised. It’s as if they are operating above the law … They seem to come and go as they please,” he said.

The ZMF said it does not have the resources to stop the sudden surge of illegal gold mining, or the violence and destruction that comes with it.

“There is nothing that can be done to lessen gold rushes in Zimbabwe,” said Mangisi of the ZMF. “(All) we can do is to mobilize and register illegal miners so that they can mine legally.”

Earlier this month, the government reaffirmed its aim to more than triple the revenue generated by Zimbabwe’s mining sector to $12 billion by 2023.

Those plans include a commitment to registering more artisanal miners to try to tackle the illegal industry, noted Mukasiri Sibanda of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, a non-governmental organization.

It is an important step toward helping Zimbabweans benefit from the valuable resources under their feet, he said.

“When you look at gold mining, and artisanal mining (specifically), it provides an opportunity for communities to directly own and control their natural resources,” Sibanda said.

“Through registering artisanal miners, communities can be empowered to develop themselves.”

Security
Mineworkers demanded more protection before Burkina Faso attack
19 November 2019, 12:56 PM

Five months before an ambush killed 39 colleagues, local workers at a Canadian-owned gold mine in Burkina Faso pleaded with managers to fly them to the site rather than go by a road that was prone to attacks, two people present at the meeting said.

The employees wanted the same protections as expatriate staff who had been flying to the mine in helicopters since three workers were killed in two earlier attacks in August 2018.

Shortly after those deaths, the mine’s owner, Quebec-based Semafo Inc. said it had added a military escort to bus convoys taken by Burkinabe workers to the site each week.

But local employees of Semafo and its Accra-based contractor African Mining Services (AMS) did not think it was enough in an area notorious for bandits and jihadists.

On November 6, attackers blew up an armored vehicle escorting the workers’ convoy and opened fire on their buses, killing 39 people and wounding 60 others. It was the worst attack the West African country has seen in years.

The local employees at AMS expressed their fears at a June meeting attended by four miners representing the local workforce, an AMS manager and two AMS human resources representatives, according to two workers who attended.

“I said ‘do you want them to kill us before you take action?’,” said Samuel Kabre, who was at the meeting. “They (AMS management) said locals weren’t the target, but we were the target.”

The second source, who no longer works at the mine, declined to be named.

AMS and its parent company, Australia-based Perenti Global Ltd. PRN.AX, did not comment on the meeting, or whether employees’ concerns were relayed to Semafo. Semafo did not have a representative at the meeting, the sources said.

In a statement responding to questions from Reuters, Perenti said that according to its intelligence, military and government personnel were considered the likely target of armed raids, not local workers.

It said that security matched the level of threat identified by intelligence sources and international security firms.

“The scale and focus of the attack was unprecedented and not seen before in this region.”

Semafo representatives did not respond to calls and questions delivered to the company’s offices in Ouagadougou and its Montreal headquarters.

A representative with law firm McMillan LLP Inc., which is listed in past security filings as counsel for Semafo, referred questions to the company.

BODY ARMOUR LEFT UNUSED

AMS hired mining consultant Patrick Hickey in March to draw up a proposal to fly all staff to and from the mine once a runway had been built there, Hickey told Reuters.

On June 13, he sent his proposal to officials at Perenti, which was then called Ausdrill, according to an email seen by Reuters.

John Kavanagh, AMS’ former chief operating officer of African operations, presented the plan to Semafo soon afterwards, according to Hickey, who said he was not privy to Semafo’s response.

“Things were changing, and more and more we were going to have to fly employees out in Burkina. Not everyone had come to terms with that yet,” Hickey said.

Kavanagh did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment. Perenti and AMS declined to comment on Hickey’s plan, if it was shared with Semafo or what the Canadian company’s response was.

Around the time of the June meeting, Perenti sent bullet-proof vests for Burkinabe workers to wear on the journey to and from the mine, Kabre and his former colleague said. Perenti confirmed that body armor was offered to staff.

But workers refused to wear it, fearing the expensive kit would attract armed assailants seeking to steal it. The unused vests are piled up in an office at the mine, they said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kabore has referred to the assailants as unidentified “terrorist groups”.

Groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda operate in the country and have carried out similar attacks over the past year, security officials in the region have said.

CONTRASTING PLANS

After the ambush, Semafo suspended operations at the mine in Burkina Faso’s Est region and said it would not resume them until security in the area was assured.

The company had this year started building an airstrip to increase transport capacity at the site. But initial plans included flying only expatriate employees and some high-level local staff, according to company documents and a former Semafo employee.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by Semafo in early May and seen by Reuters shows that the runway would be used by a single-pilot Cessna Grand Caravan plane that could hold 9-12 passengers.

That plane was suitable only for flying a small number of employees, not a workforce of hundreds, said the former Semafo employee. “You would need to add additional planes.”

At the time, the company intended to fly the plane three times a week, the source said. He did not know if the plan had been altered since May.

AMS and Perenti declined to say whether they supported Hickey’s proposal to fly all employees.

His plan called for two Beech 1900D propeller planes and a crew of four pilots to make multiple trips each week at an annual cost of between $3.4 million to $3.8 million, according to the emailed proposal seen by Reuters.

Flying only senior management and expatriate staff would cost $1.5 million to $2 million, the proposal said.

The runway was still under construction at the time of the November ambush, Kabre and the former mine employee said. It was not clear when it would be finished.

SAA Flight
SAA to resume some regional flights despite strike
18 November 2019, 1:44 PM

Embattled South African Airways (SAA) said on Monday it would resume flights to six African destinations, as not all unions and union members had joined the strike over wages currently in its fourth day.

State-owned SAA has cancelled hundreds of flights since the strike began on Friday, saying the stoppage is costing R50 million per day and jeopardizing talks with lenders.

The strike has cast doubt on the very survival of the airline, which hasn’t turned a profit since 2011 and is reliant on state bailouts.

“SAA is pleased to announce its intention to resume flights to six destinations on the African continent, namely Accra, Lagos, Lusaka, Maputo, Windhoek and Harare, with effect from Tuesday,” it said in a statement.

The airline said it would re-book passengers on regional routes that remained affected, while domestic passengers would continue to be transferred to sister airlines Mango and SA Airlink. It added international flights were operating on schedule. In the past decade, South Africa’s troubled flagship carrier has lost its place as the continent’s biggest airline while taxpayers bailed it out to the tune of more than R30 billion since 2012.

Cost-cutting decisions that are urgently needed to turn it around have been put off for years in a country where job cuts are a hugely sensitive issue.

“We fly to approximately 20 different destinations on the continent. So it’s hard to say for sure right now how many of the flights are still affected,” SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said.

Tlali said negotiations on wages, job cuts and other labour issues were ongoing.  Zazi Nsibanyoni-Aniyam, president of the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA) union also said that talks were ongoing. SACCA together with the National Union of Metal Workers South Africa(Numsa), called for the strike on Friday.

“We’re still in talks with SAA management right now. We’ll see what happens. Those negotiations are about in-sourcing,” Nsibanyoni-Aniyam said, adding a court case to try to block staff layoffs was still in the process.

On Sunday, Numsa and SACCA threatened an industry-wide secondary strike involving other unions, private airlines and related businesses. Neither was available to comment on the plans to extend the strike.

But fellow union Satawu, which represents the rest of employees at the state airline and has so far opted against industrial action in the same wage negotiations, said it had not been approached to join the strike and was unlikely to do so.

“If we were to go on strike at this point it would not be legal,” said Satawu spokesperson Zanele Sabela, whose union along with the Aviation Union of Southern Africa (Ausa), represents about 40% of SAA staff.

She added that Satawu and Ausa had rejected the 5.9% wage offer, but would not join Numsa in the strike until Friday.

Trump hails ‘cash’ to farmers, US aid in China trade war
17 November 2019, 7:47 PM

US President Donald Trump on Sunday welcomed a “cash” payout to American farmers before the Thanksgiving Day holiday, that he attributed to China tariffs, but that money actually is part of a US government aid package.

“Our great Farmers will recieve (sic) another major round of ‘cash,’ compliments of China Tariffs, prior to Thanksgiving,” he wrote on Twitter.

“The smaller farms and farmers will be big beneficiaries. In the meantime, and as you may have noticed, China is starting to buy big again. Japan deal DONE. Enjoy!”


See Trump’s tweet below:

The US Department of Agriculture said on Friday it will begin making a second round of 2019 trade aid payments to US farmers next week.

The payments are the second part of a three-tranche $16 billion aid package announced in May to compensate farmers for the US-China trade war. China imposed tariffs on key U.S. agriculture exports including soybeans and pork last year after Trump’s administration levied duties on Chinese goods.

The United States and China are trying to negotiate a phase one trade pact to end the tensions, but it is unclear when it might be finalized.

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu.
Last remains of Ethiopian plane crash victims buried
16 November 2019, 1:55 PM

The last remains of 157 people killed aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane in March were interred at the crash site this week, farmers and families told Reuters, but some relatives were upset they had been unable to take part in the ceremony.

Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Stumo was killed, said an email was sent to some families — but not all — notifying them of the burial just two days before it happened.

“By the time the burial took place I was just wiped out; I was just glad they were doing it. I was tired of it not being done,” said Milleron. “But a lot of people didn’t feel like that. They hadn’t been aware of what was happening.”

Ethiopian Airlines did not return calls seeking comment about why some families were not told in advance.

Families have been begging the airline to fill in the crater left by the March 10 crash, which still contained remains too small to be recovered.

Milleron said on Saturday that locals had been burying remains exposed by rains in small mounds of earth. She herself found a bone at the site when she visited Ethiopia to collect her daughter’s remains in October, which she told the airline about in an email.

The force of the impact meant no complete bodies were recovered; partial remains were tested for DNA and finally returned to families last month.

As the burial took place on Thursday, a US embassy representative present kept Milleron updated by text: “Now they’re laying the coffins down, now they’re putting earth on them…”

“I became a blubbering mess,” she said.

Milleron said the lack of notice of the burial ceremony had raised tensions between the families and Ethiopian Airlines.

Representatives of the airline and of Boeing and some embassy employees were there. The Boeing representatives were on a prearranged trip to discuss community projects, Milleron said.

Boeing manufactured the 737 MAX 8 plane, which nosedived shortly after take-off. A preliminary investigation pointed to a malfunctioning anti-stall system known as MCAS, which was also implicated in the crash of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia five months earlier. All 189 people on board that flight were killed.

Tesfaye Mulatu, a farmer near the crash site, said he had seen a helicopter arrive and cars bring caskets on Thursday. The crater left by the impact has been filled in, he said.

“Now, the area looks a football field,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Some bereaved families have formed associations and hope to use funds from Boeing to build a memorial. The manufacturer will make $100 million available, with half going to families and half to projects in local communities.

“We continue to offer our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 and we are committed to helping those affected by these tragedies,” Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said.

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