Observations from the Field
Greetings from Guinea!
It’s 10 o clock in the evening as I write this post from the Hotel Yaskadi, an oasis of electricity, television, air conditioning and running water, hidden obscurely down the back alleys of Fria. This city, like every town or city I have been to in the last 8 days since leaving Conakry, is a mining community, with a population of around 100, 000 people nestled in the center of a valley, surrounded on all sides by the hills of Lower Guinea. It is about an hour and 45 minutes northeast of the capital and is the final destination on a field mission that has taken me almost 1,000 kilometers on smooth, newly paved roads, (thank you People’s Republic of China!), and given the tourist in me the opportunity to take a large number of pictures.
The trip has certainly been stimulating, but it has not been a vacation. One of my major projects as an intern here with Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in Guinea is to conduct a base study with the goal of better understanding the opportunities, conflicts, and needs of “key actors” in mining communities across the country. The results of the work done in this area will eventually inform future SFCG programs. These key actors are a diverse set, encompassing women’s groups, youth groups, local administrative and security authorities, community elders (predominantly sages), and mining company representatives.
Before going on, I'll provide some background information on the importance of mining in Guinea and how it relates to my mission. Natural resources are a very important component of the Guinean economy. Like many African countries, Guinea is well endowed with a number of primary resources that, for numerous reasons, are now the object of much interest from international buyers seeking to exploit the opportunities available here. Indeed, the country is already the second largest producer of bauxite, the primary ingredient in the creation of aluminum, in the world and also possesses large quantities of iron ore, gold and diamonds. All told, these resources account for nearly all of the country’s exports with bauxite alone making up over 80 percent of what Guinea sells abroad. Thus, the mines of Guinea are naturally enormous sources of wealth and employment— but mining communities are also areas of social tension, inequality and conflict.
To get a better sense of the landscape, myself and my friend and co-worker, Julien Bolamou, (also an intern here with SFCG) spent the last week leading focus groups, handing out questionnaires and conducting individual interviews in both French and two different national languages of Guinea, Susu and Malinke. I visited four mining communities in lower Guinea, and every time the SFCG car drove into town, I was surprised to find mayors, army colonels, prefects and all sorts of community leaders bend over backwards to accommodate our mission. As we visited more communities, I discovered that this was a reaction to the positive reputation SFCG had gained through previous programming in the country.
With the data collected from the first of three planned field missions now behind us, the digestion of information begins! I can say with certainty that the most difficult aspect of this field mission were the focus groups. We had only an hour and thirty minutes with 12 participants, who would, during that time recount to us all of their needs and preoccupations. Once the questionnaire was finished, we had to move onto the next group, unable to promise or leave anything but our contact information. When, for example, one women’s group told us they needed something as simple as ziplock bags to package dried fruit sold at local markets, I was torn thinking I could solve this problem for less than $20 at a grocery store in Canada. As clichéd as it sounds, these little needs and easy solutions are the daily frustrations of people here, that make the difference between one meal or two in a day. With no internet and no access to finance, I couldn’t help but think that micro-financing partnerships would make a world of difference in the majority of these communities. Most already have innovative business plans that are expressed convincingly. What they do not have are the means or the support to see them through.
With respect to the conflicts that exist— and there are many—few are straightforward. For example, the Compagnie Bauxite de Guinea (CBG) recently built a power plant in Kamsar, one of the communities we visited during our study, after several years of public pressure. However, the plant is not large enough to cover the entire community, which has ballooned in population to nearly 200,000 people, many of whom have migrated to the community seeking employment at the mine. The government has not been able to find the expertise required to operate the plant efficiently, leading to fairly frequent power outages. The limited coverage of the power plant, combined with frequent power outages, is a significant source of conflict in the community with locals predominantly blaming the CBG.
Most political science programs at the university level will have a course or two focusing on Corporate Social Responsibility, yet I found it hard to determine what an appropriate amount of “responsibility” should be on the part of CBG when confronted with realities on the ground. With so few jobs in the country, young men have migrated in their thousands to the community, raising tension between locals and “outsiders” who are all seeking the same jobs. Fault for this cannot be laid at the feet of the CBG. Nor can the increased power consumption this migration has stimulated. Similarly, with one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, the educational system in Guinea is one that has struggled, which makes people generally ill-suited for a job with the company. Clearly, the problems the country faces are daunting. These are not made any easier by a government that operates with extremely limited resources while facing a population tsunami as the Guinean birth rate remains very high at more than 5 children on average per woman as compared with Canada’s 1.6!
To be clear, I am notendorsing the actions of international mining companies! Mining representatives were the only group of people who made themselves consistently unavailable during our mission. Similarly, in the community of Fria where our mission ended, locals often swore and shook their fists at me, assuming I was a Russian. Fria has been in a four-month long strike with a Russian mining company named Russal, that operates an alumina facility in the community. All Russians were evacuated in May, after the company refused to discuss the issue of benefits with its local workers. Media reports suggest the company also left in protest against the country’s newly revised mining code—one that gives the national government a mandatory 15 percent stake in foreign owned mining companies with the option of an additional 20 percent buy in. The strike has created enormous feelings of resentment towards the company and unfortunately, to foreigners more generally. As a result, the attitude of locals towards the one foreigner still in the town was initially cold. Yet this hostility quickly turned into hospitality when I would yell out “Je suis Canadien!” Everyone has a soft spot for Canadians. Although optics aren’t everything, I thought that the Russian worker’s compound – the only modern building in the community, equipped with a swimming pool, deck chairs, air conditioned rooms and its own personal generator-- surrounded by barbed wire, high walls and local private security forces was imagery enough to re-affirm my general cynicism towards CSR and also the operations of massive international mining companies here in Guinea.
These are just a few of my experiences that I thought worth sharing. I look forward to writing more on my specific experiences here in Guinea, the politics of the country and my next field mission.
Until next time.