My Visit to the Bisha Mine
By Louis Mazel – U.S. Chief of Mission in Asmara,
I had the opportunity November 21-22 to visit the Bisha Mine along with my Deputy Lori Dando and her husband. I have been wanting to visit the mine for some time as it is the only mine currently operating in the country (although the Zara Mine should come on line soon) and is a major contributor to the Eritrean economy. I was joined on the trip by diplomats from Canada, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nations.
For me, the visit was a real eye-opener. The Bisha Mine is a modern, well-run facility that currently employs 1400 people, of whom 90 percent are Eritrean. Twenty percent of the employees are women and the Bisha facility is creating employment opportunities for people in neighboring towns and villages, who otherwise would never have opportunities to work in the wage economy. Most people in neighboring towns and villages are subsistence farmers and herders. One woman, who began as a cleaner at the mine, is now driving one of the heavy Caterpillar trucks (American made!) that carries copper ore to the crushing plant. That is what I call creating opportunity! The mine also pays some of the highest wages in the country and employees at the mine have Western protective gear and safety rules equaling anything you would find in Canada or the USA.
Our first stop during the visit was a training session for the mine’s security section on human rights, including Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights in the Extractive Industries as developed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The security team working at the mine has developed good relations with local police and security officials and they work in a collaborative manner. The guards at the mine are not armed and there have been no security incidents at the facility involving the local population.
We were briefed on how the Bisha Mine hires its staff and were told that the mine ensures that all of its employees are demobilized from National Service and have a certificate of release on file. The mine also puts into its contract with sub-contractors, including the trucking company that delivers the copper to the port of Massawa, that workers employed by sub-contractors must be demobilized from National Service. The mine conducts periodic audits of these sub-contractors personnel records to ensure that this requirement is being met.
We also had an opportunity to visit the health clinic at the mine and receive a briefing from the doctor and medical staff working there. It is one of the most advanced clinics in the country and has the only digital x-ray scanner in the country. I was very envious, because the availability of digital scans is a requirement for the Consular Section of the Embassy to do immigrant visa processing.
The huge open pit-mine, which I observed from above, operates 24/7 and is currently finalizing its copper phase. The gold phase of mining was completed almost two years ago. After the copper phase is completed, Bisha will move into the zinc layers. Following the visit to the mining site, we then visited the crushing plant and the copper slurry facility where the final product (copper slurry) is prepared for export. The new zinc processing facility was recently installed and will be operational in the coming year when the main mining product will shift to zinc.
Some 30-40 trucks travel from Bisha to the port of Massawa every day carrying huge containers of copper slurry that is then exported to various processors around the world. Drivers of these trucks have strict requirements on the hours they can operate and the number of hours every day they can drive, in order to eliminate the problem of driver fatigue. The yellow Chinese-made trucks with their grey containers of copper slurry are always visible on the roads going to and from Keren and on the road heading down from Asmara to Massawa. Drivers are monitored via tracking GPS systems to ensure that they follow the rules regarding vehicle safety.
The Bisha Mine is also making efforts to be a responsible neighbor and partner. This year it is planting 20,000 seedlings (all indigenous varieties) to replace trees that were removed during the open pit mining process. The company has pledged to plant five trees for every one tree removed. In addition, the Bisha Mine is embarking on community corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in neighboring communities, primarily in repairing dams and canals and refurbishing watering points for livestock.
Before returning to Asmara we stopped in the village of Tekreret where we met local leaders, witnessed a lovely coffee ceremony, and did a bit of sword dancing with some local youth. They also dressed me in traditional Tigre clothing.
In sum, I saw a Western mining company that is creating jobs, investing in local people, mining responsibly, respecting human rights, acting as a good neighbor, and contributing to national development in Eritrea. I hope this will become a model for future mines operating in the country.
Mr. Louis Mazel is the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, Eritrea