Notes on the Economy of Life: The Contested Mountain
He reached over to borrow a pen in his friend's hand. Holding it up, the chieftain emphasized each word as he asked, "If you take my pen, and you give me money for its cost, have I been compensated for my pen?"
A few hours earlier, we were bumping down a dirt road to visit Sanje Hill Iron Ore Mine. Opened just a few months before, the Council of Churches in Zambia selected it and the surrounding villages for our GEM School exposure trip. Mining and other extractive industries represent 80% of Zambia's GDP, making it an important example of the local and national economy.
I would not have anticipated just how well it managed to hold the different threads of our studies together.
Over these two weeks, we're developing competence in economics, emphasizing the outsized and mind-whirlingly complex role of finance across the global economy. We're attempting to think about these things within a theological frame, to recognize that economic theory and policy are not value-free discoveries of natural law but, rather, value-laden beliefs and recommendation with moral consequences. We are analyzing economic policy with a critical view towards its contribution to socio-economic justice, ecological health, peace, and joy.
Arriving at the mine, we were greeted by massive, modern technology -- quite a stark contrast to the straw-roofed huts and vast plain just across the street. A significant deposit of high grade iron ore, left behind by an ancient volcano (the small peak in the center of the image above), motivated a Zambian owned corporation named Universal Mining and Chemical Industries to set up the operation with Chinese financial backing.
Hoping back in our van with one of the site engineers, we circled the peak and heard about their processes.
I'm skeptical of mining in the general way typical to progressive punks, but had no anticipation of some unique animosity at work. That changed as we climbed the hill. Looking out my window, a cemetery marking poked out of the brush, stranded between a network of roads patrolled by massive dump trucks and earth movers. Someone's ancestor was barrier in this midst of this torn up earth.
Reaching the top, the engineer somewhat uneasily mentioned that the mountain was a shrine for the local people. "I have not seen a spirit," he said, "but I know they are here."
Rounding another curve, we stepped out at the lime kiln. Between bands of iron, limestone deposits filled the mountain, and these too were valuable once processed: sold as fertilizer to farmers needing to correct pH imbalances in their soil. Mixed messages came. Reassurances that the women (only women work their, shoving stones, and moving them by wheelbarrow) were "very happy" and grateful for a good job. Then warnings to temper our expectations: "this is a bad place." And so we watched the women work with masks over their faces as smoke rose above and blew between them.
We asked more questions about the local people. Were they being employed here? Oh yes, most workers walk just a short distance in. Have they been reimbursed for their land? Oh yes, we are helping them relocate, paying them back, and investing in their community with roads and other services. What are the working conditions? Oh, only eight hour days, six days a week. Do you do health screenings? Oh yes, everyone has a special screening before coming to work here.
But the crux was coming into view: this place, sacred and ancient, reduced to commodity, was being scraped into dust along with its people.
Leaving the mine, we arrived at a large gathering of the local people, convened to speak with us about their experience of the mine casting shade over their family homes.
Formal ceremonies began, moving around the circle shaking hands with each person (in the endearing flip-back-and-forth-around-the-thumb manner of east Africans), and an exchange of introductions, beginning with the chieftains of the five villages -- introduced as "His/Her Highness _____."
After a couple brief speeches to kick things off, we broke out by village, a few of our students dividing between the smaller circles. Here, we could ask our questions to the other side.
Do any of you work in the mine? Of more than 400 of us in these villages, only 20 have been hired. The rest come from outside. What is it like there? I work night shifts on security, twelve hours, six days a week. It is very hard. Have you been compensated for your land? Only a few have. But we do not want to go. This is involuntary displacement.
We were told the mountain is sacred, that it is is your shrine -- what does it mean for it to be mined? It is terrible. It is the place of our ancestors. It is holy. It is where we go to pray and ask for the drought to break. It is like losing ourselves.
Where will you go? That is the question. We do not know. They mining corporation was supposed to help us find a spot. They have not done this. We protested and brought out media, but strings were pulled and it never aired. We do not have the financial resources for a lawyer. We do not want to go, but if we must go, we believe it must be into better circumstance. The mine should help us build better homes, a school, a health clinic, and roads. They have done none of this.
And the chief reached over to borrow a pen in his friend's hand.
Holding it up, he emphasized each word as he asked, "If you take my pen, and you give me money for its cost, have I been compensated for my pen?"
"No. I still do not have my pen."