Sunday, May 23, 2010

When Africa Raids Africa

So often there is a lot of attention on the Chinese here in Africa as a country that is here to loot and plunder, thinking little about environmental or social concerns. I remember an Economist issue I received one week in college that presented on the front cover China to be "the new colonists". In a lot of ways this is true, as I noted in a posting in late January. In Maputo I talked with John van Duursen, a co-founder of the BiD Network who has recently started up a business-driven conservation challenge in partnership with World Wildlife Fund. He explained the unsustainable logging practices in Africa by the Chinese - for example, clear cutting entire 100-year-old mahogany forests that he has seen.

About a week ago, during a game of pool in which I was teamed with my flatmate and was an utter embarrassment, we met Abou (pronounced like the monkey in Aladdin), "Cool", and one other guy whose name I can't recall. They were all involved in gemstone mining. Apparently, Mozambique has recently come into the spotlight for gemstones like ruby and tourmaline. They kept talking about aquamarine. They were explaining to us that they've only been in town for a few weeks and said, basically, "once I get that score, I'm out of here. All it takes is one rock." They've got Mozambicans out in the bush looking for them.

Now, I don't know what kind of practices are being employed in this mining operation and if or what kind of concessions are being given to the government, but what makes this all the more interesting is that they are all Africans. Abou is half Malian, half Zambian; Cool is French but both parents are from Zambia; and the other guy, I believe, is Mozambican. All with some connections to Europe, they carry a European sense of sophistication, though at the core you can tell they are African. They complained about life in the West, how they didn't feel "free", and their desire to come back and live in Africa. To me, gemstone mining comes with negative connotations. But as I said, I don't know if they are doing this legally or illegally, so all else being equal, I have no qualms with Africans (or those with African heritage) getting in on the loads of opportunity here. Right now, the vast majority of businesses here are owned by Indians or Indian-heritage Mozambicans, with the black Mozambicans serving as the workers. The Chinese, of course, are here too. Maybe gemstone mining isn't the ideal industry, but the country could definitely use more examples of native Mozambicans to serve as entrepreneurial examples.

We caught up with them this weekend, and made plans with Abou when I saw him in a restaurant. He greeted me in a hilarious white shirt studded with shiny fake gemstones in place of buttons (it was kind of like a banker wearing a tie made from stitched-together dollar bills). They had still failed to find anything, but remained hopeful. Regardless of whether there is even a serious moral question to be posed here, it is so fascinating to see yet another avenue of opportunity in Mozambique that is just now becoming explored. A 2-gram ruby, they told us, would fetch you $72,000 in the States, and Andrew and me, holding US passports, were in the perfect position to get into the trade. We'll see how my other job prospects pan out first, but hey, it's always good to have options.


  1. Uh, I assume you've seen this:

  2. Yea, it's a lot like that except a lot less warfare/killing (nothing I've heard of, at least) and none of Leo's stunning looks. After reading/hearing about the gems in Africa, I think for me the biggest thing was just how crazy it was to actually meet people involved in it.