Mining in Tigray: A Resource Curse Amid Genocide

Mining in Tigray: A Resource Curse Amid Genocide

Introduction

In early 2024, ministers from various sectors in Tigray’s interim administration convened to discuss the potential resurgence of mining activities in the region. Historically, Tigray has had the highest concentration of mining activity in Ethiopia and was, before the war, the largest gold producer in Ethiopia after Oromia. The region supplied 2,600 kg of gold to the central bank annually, equivalent to $100 million in export revenue. However, gold is not Tigray’s only natural resource. The region is also rich in gemstones, copper, granite, and potentially petroleum shales, which present a source of wealth hidden in the mountains of Tigray. 

At first glance, mining extraction and natural resource exploration might seem like great business opportunities. Such activities can portray themselves as a chance for Tigray to rebuild the economy after years of genocide, destruction, and devastation. However, this is not the case. The mining industry and its companies, most located in Europe and North America, have a long history of exploiting natural resources in Africa for profit while undermining the local population, and Tigray is no different. Beneath the surface of the mining industry lies a grim reality of abuse, health hazards, and economic disparity.

Canada’s Role

Awet Weldemichael, professor of history and global development studies at Queen’s University in Canada, said that the scramble for Tigray’s natural resources has been an ongoing process ever since the 1990s. He states that “Canada is one of the leading mining countries in the world” and that international laws and regulations in mining governance are often skewed to favor Canadian interests. This has led to the current mining situation in Tigray, where Canadian companies have taken control over land with valuable minerals and natural resources. Sidney Coles, a Canadian politician and gender equity consultant, states that the mining industry’s interest in Tigray is due to recent discoveries having an estimated worth of $4 billion. Tigray, which lacks the infrastructure and the knowledge to extract the resources, has to rely on Canadian and other Western entities for extraction. 

Canadian companies such as Sun Peak Ethiopia Mining PLC, WildSky Resources, and Matrix Mining Group have all been active in Tigray. Sun Peak Metals, whose President and CEO managed a mine in Eritrea that was accused of slave labor, identified 2.8 million ounces of gold and gold-equivalent minerals in Tigray and plans future work there. Also, in January 2024, Sun Peak claimed it aims to acquire a 51% stake in Axum Metals Share Company, granting the Canadian-owned company access to more mineral sites previously owned by Tigrayan companies. These companies’ interests and power within the mining industry are growing, and their land grabs cover thousands of square kilometers. By controlling swaths of land, resources, and areas inhabited by local communities, their power over Tigray increases. This can lead to significant shifts in local economies, environmental changes, and potential socio-political conflicts over resource management and land rights.

The interest that the Canadian companies show in Tigray’s natural wealth is entirely based on profit. An anonymous source in an article for The Reporter states that “The intention of Sunpeak’s latest statement is not starting activities in Tigray but keeping Sun Peak afloat on the Canadian stock market.” According to the article, reports have indicated that the company’s shares in Canadian stocks rose following its statement of resuming its work in Tigray. Sidney Coles made a similar remark, claiming that Canada and its companies create a facade of altruistic development projects in Tigray that aim to build local capacities but ultimately serve to secure Canadian interests and access to resources, resulting in profit for the companies.

The Canadian government has played a significant role in Tigray’s mining sector, involvement which dates back years and across multiple prime ministers. The Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) administers projects in the region that are overseen by the Canadian government. Since 2016, Canada has spent $12 million on Ethiopia’s mining sector. This was initially approved by the Harper government and has continued under the Trudeau government. While framed as support for responsible mining governance, this funding has primarily facilitated the operations of mining companies in Tigray, and by funding and supporting these mining ventures, the Trudeau government ensures that the wealth extracted from Tigray’s resources flows back to Canada. 

Lies and complicity when faced with the Tigray Genocide

While protecting Canada’s mining interests in Ethiopia, and specifically, Tigray, the gross human rights violations taking place as part of a genocidal campaign in Tigray were ignored.  While the United States and the European Union took steps to impose sanctions and cut off assistance to Ethiopia’s government, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to take action, instead releasing statements backing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and hailing his “contribution to regional peace and security.” Sidney Coles criticizes Canada’s silence on war crimes in Tigray, stating that  “[Canada] may be seen to be protecting its development aid investment and the interest of Canadian mining companies with licenses to operate in the region,” at the expense of human rights and the people of Tigray.  

Canada’s participation in Ethiopia’s mining industry has ostensibly been guided by Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), a policy developed by the liberal government to integrate gender equity and empowerment of women into its foreign aid. Yet Coles asserts that “the project has fallen short of every gender equity mandate it set out for itself.” The Canadian government is portraying itself as feminist and a defender of women’s rights with their exploitation work in Tigray while encouraging a war that led to the mass rape of an estimated 120,000 women and girls in Tigray between 2020 and 2022. Additionally, the mining sector in Tigray can be violent for women, yet the Canadian government did no work or assessment on this. Canada’s government and companies are overseeing the Tigray genocide and the current suffering of its people to ceaselessly continue their extraction of resources, and due to these companies’ careless and reckless work, the general health of Tigray has deteriorated.

Profit and exploitation

As previously stated, profit from natural resources is the primary motive driving foreign corporations’ involvement in Tigray. The immense revenue generated from Tigray’s gold, copper, gemstones, and marble primarily benefits these companies while often leaving the local population with little to no economic gain. The revenue from natural resources should go to the suffering people of Tigray, not to wealthy corporations in North America, yet the presence of Western mining companies will hinder this. The companies claim to work for the development of the region and help with foreign investments as long as they are permitted to have licenses for the extractions. However, development is far from equitable and often fails to benefit the local communities meaningfully. Alden Young, Professor in African History at Drexel University, spoke to Al Jazeera about the exploitation of African resources by Western companies. He says, “The majority of private capital [of the companies] is allocated to the developed countries: Europe, North America, Japan, and then whatever small slither of capital is left is allocated to [Africa].” The notion that mining will provide vast economic growth to Tigray remains an illusion rather than a reality. Like countless others before it, Tigray is at imminent risk of falling victim to the “resource curse,” a phenomenon where resource-rich countries and regions are left with little to no control over their natural resources while companies from wealthier countries manage them.

Although a plurality of the Western corporations exploiting Tigray’s resources are Canadian, many other Western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, also have mining companies working in Tigray. A direct consequence of Tigray opening up to Western companies mining on its land is that a complicated network has developed among powerful individuals within the companies. The anonymous source from the Reporter says: “Most of the companies are created intentionally with offshore accounts just to keep the mining projects in the hands of a few people. Shares of the same mining projects have been sold and resold between phony licenses for years.” This ensures that rich Western companies have power over Tigrayan resources, creating difficulties for local stakeholders in reclaiming them.

The Tigray genocide and post-conflict struggles 

The genocidal war waged on the people of Tigray halted all mining activities, and Western companies stopped their business in the region. Mass killings, weaponized sexual violence, starvation, and drought became a method of warfare for the Ethiopian government and its allies. Atrocity crimes have even continued after the November 2022 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, and people have been suffering immensely amid a humanitarian and health crisis.  Yet, due to the greed of Western companies as they resume their extraction of Tigray’s minerals, they purposefully ignore the immense struggles of the Tigrayan people.“We are very happy that the Tigray region is again peaceful and stable,” says Greg Davis, CEO of Sun Peak, while completely overlooking the reality on the ground where nearly a third of Tigray’s land is under occupation, millions of its people are displaced and 800,000 dead. “We are looking forward to the resumption of exploration work and drill testing our high-priority copper-gold VMS targets” he continues, with complete disregard for the struggles of the local community. 

The Public and Environmental Health

A geology specialist who works at the Tigray Land and Mining Bureau emphasized the damage that these companies do to Tigray’s environment. He says that Tigray’s lack of formalized rules and regulations concerning mining, along with a lack of supervision over the mines, pose a serious risk to local communities’ general health and environmental health more broadly. He states that the utilization of chemicals, such as mercury, poses a threat to miners and local communities. Around the area of Lega Dembi in the Oromia region, gold mines have contaminated the drinking water with the same chemicals currently used by the mining industry in Tigray.  Lega Dembi has the highest rate of birth defects in Ethiopia, proving that the effect that these unsupervised mines have on the local population can be severely damaging. 

Fiseha Meresa, Director of Licensing and Administration at the Tigray Land and Mining Bureau, highlights additional environmental concerns such as water and soil erosion. Reports even show that due to the power that these companies yield, communities and people in Tigray risk being displaced by land expropriation for mining roads, power lines, and new rail beds that all serve the mining companies’ interests. With millions of Tigrayans already displaced, these actions exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and further disrupt the social fabric. The weak regulations are seen as a golden opportunity for these companies to exploit Tigray’s resources as they can with as little concern as possible for Tigrayans.

The spokesperson from Global Affairs in Canada stated that the government is working to support responsible natural resource management that works to respect human rights, the environment, and local communities. However, Jamie Kneen, Co-Manager at MiningWatch, who oversees the work mining companies do around the world, states that there is an “astonishing cynicism of the Canadian government to go out and promote mining investment and mining governance initiatives, as they do in many parts of the world, knowing what they’re doing is facilitating social disruption and environmental disruption.” This remark underscores that the actual negative impact on the ground does not reflect the promise of their written policies.

Reactions to Growing External Mining Interests

Within Tigray, there have been strong reactions regarding the activities of mining companies. Local communities have expressed growing concerns and frustration over the mining operations and their lack of benefits from the resources. District authorities have reported that these confrontations often result in violent disputes, prompting police investigations. There have been “heightened tensions between investors and the local community, particularly unemployed youth.” A new study reported by Addis Standard highlights that over 81% of Tigray’s youth suffer from unemployment, making the resolution of these issues unlikely in the near future. 

However, protests against the exploitation by these companies are not limited to the local communities but also include significant activism from the Tigrayan diaspora. Tigray’s expatriate community has organized numerous protests in cities around the world, drawing attention to the environmental degradation and economic injustice faced by their struggling homeland. These demonstrations have been instrumental in raising international awareness of the issues.

Despite the reactions, the interim regional administration of Tigray has not addressed their people’s concerns. They continue to issue licenses to the companies, and the lack of regulations contributes to the ongoing problems. Various Tigrayan politicians are part of a complex network between powerful individuals in these companies. The Reporter states that TPLF officials are included in a “complicated web of share transfers” where the officials receive leverage from the companies in exchange for ensuring their presence in Tigray. Their complicity and lack of meaningful action to protect the local population’s interest are alarming, making the resolution of these issues seem difficult. 

Conclusion 

The presence of Western mining companies in Tigray epitomizes a troubling pattern of foreign intervention and economic disparity, benefiting no actor other than the foreign corporations themselves. While the wealth in minerals and other natural resources could potentially aid in Tigray’s recovery and development, the current approach benefits foreign corporations at the expense of the local population. Without stringent oversight, genuine environmental protections, and a fair distribution of wealth, the promise of prosperity from Tigray’s natural resources will remain an elusive dream for its people. Only through significant reforms and equitable management can Tigray avoid the “resource curse” and hope to truly benefit from its natural wealth.

Christian Y. – Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2024

 

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