Guinea’s quarry quandary

2009-11-21 13:12

AFTER a two-hour drive north from Conakry, through a landscape of dense forest and moss-covered rocks, the image on the face of Guinea’s bank note suddenly appears: the bauxite mines at Fria.

Three concrete blocks tower up, adorned with hundreds of balconies and almost as many satellite dishes. The French aluminium conglomerate, Pechiney, built these flats for its expatriate employees in 1958. France abruptly withdrew from Guinea shortly after that and Russian aluminium company Rusal bought this Guinean gem.

On the eighth floor of one tower, Bakary Kourouma, an engineer, shows me a picture the company presented to him in 2006 in recognition of his “outstanding service and contribution to the development of the factory”. Kourouma has been placed in charge of water and electricity for the town.

He earns about $180 (R1?362) a month, but after giving $40 to his mother; $20 each to his father, brother and sister; and paying for his travel to work and other expenses, he is left with just $22.

Kourouma’s bosses live in an enormous villa complex on the horizon, just visible from his balcony. Barbed wire protects the 40 Russians.

Sixty years ago this place was the small village of Kimbo. Now the village has been wiped off the map and replaced by a town of 60 000 built around Africa’s first alumina refinery.

In 1957 a group of Western businesses formed the Fria aluminium production company, although Pechiney was in charge of construction and operations. In 1973 it became Friguia, a joint venture, with Guinea holding a majority stake (51%). In 1997 Pechiney withdrew, selling the business to the state for the nominal price of $1. In 2003 the factory was privatised and sold to Rusal.

Under a cloud of bauxite dust, Fria resembles any European factory town with chimney stacks and blast furnaces, workers’ housing estates (varying in quality according to their qualifications), and community projects: a sports stadium, a swimming pool and youth centres – symbols of Pechiney’s paternalism.

Guinea has almost 16 billion tons of bauxite – an ore used to make aluminium. This is about one third of the world’s known reserves. It could continue producing at the current rate for another 1 600 years. This year bauxite, along with iron, diamonds and gold, provided 20% of Guinea’s GDP and 80% of its exports.

When commodity prices plummeted last year, management stopped replacing worn-out machine parts. “We’re having to make do as best we can, replacing one broken part with a part from another machine,” says an employee. “Suppliers have stopped delivering altogether because so many bills remain unpaid.”

The financial crisis is the reason the company gives for not raising salaries: it is one of the few employers in Guinea who do not pay the national minimum wage of $324. Its staff bulletin, The Voice of Rusal, urges the plant’s 1?200 employees and 1?600 subcontractors to take more responsibility. “If everyone took their responsibilities seriously, our refinery would run more smoothly,” it reported last year.

Instead of complaining about the poor state of the equipment and the remoteness of the Russians (who have given no management posts to Guineans), the bulletin says workers should ask themselves: “What can I do to help the refinery in this difficult time?”

A year earlier, when people in the town protested about frequent power cuts, Rusal organised a children’s drawing competition on the theme “How to save electricity”.

Ibrahima Diallo Taribé, a stationmaster who used to work for Pechiney, says he may not know much about the global aluminium market, but he does know that last year, Rusal became the second-biggest company in the sector. Its boss, Oleg Deripaska, is the 10th-richest man in Russia and is close to Vladimir Putin.

As Genady Ulyanich, the company’s head of communications, puts the finishing touches to the latest edition of The Voice of Rusal (which he sends to Russia for approval), he points out: “In Moscow they don’t realise that most workers here are fathers with dozens of mouths to feed.”

He predicts the Chinese will take over once Rusal leaves.

In April this year the workers at Fria went on strike. They appealed for help from Guinea’s new president Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. He took power from the late president Lansana Conté in a coup last December.

Camara rebuked Rusal, but told the workers to return to the factory. In June the lowest salaries were raised by $59.

But workers are not taken in by the company’s talk of belt-tightening: “The Russians say we have to accept bad living conditions if we don’t want them to leave – that’s blackmail!” says Mamadi Kourouma, a member of the factory’s main trade union, the CGSL. “When they came they promised to preserve our benefits. But all they talk about is making cuts. In the past our accommodation was maintained by the company, there were no power cuts and there was a grocery store where we could buy subsidised food.”

He’s 29 years old and only remembers the end of the Pechiney regime, but like everyone else he idealises the French company and resents the Russian one.

Many of the benefits the locals used to enjoy are being lost. While they have a brand new training centre, and accommodation remains free; the children’s nursery is closed, the swimming pool, athletics tracks and sports stadium have fallen into disrepair, water and electricity are now rationed and the bus service to Conakry has been subcontracted. The Pechiney hospital, as the locals still call it, long recognised as the best in Guinea, is no longer regularly supplied with medicine.

With the price of food and petrol going up, the people of Fria organised a demonstration in March in support of the new government, which had promised to fight corruption and renegotiate mining contracts. There has been no love lost between locals and Conté.

He had ruined the economy, selling off resources to foreign companies. His sons reportedly ran vast drug, prostitution and corruption rings. In 2003 Conté sold the Fria operation to Rusal for about $21 million, even though auditors had estimated its value at $258 million. In September this year a court in Guinea ruled that the sale was illegal. Rusal, supported by Moscow, has lodged an appeal.

The Russians are also in charge of exploiting the huge bauxite reserves at Kindia in Lower Guinea.

But crisis or not, every day, trains loaded with bauxite leave Fria for Conakry. When they arrive in the capital old men sit up and gaze with admiration at one of the last railway lines in operation. – The Nation

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