Bisha Mine: In Eritrea, the Clocks Tick Differently

Development News

A visit to the Bisha Mine, 150 kilometers west of the capital Asmara

Bisha Mine in Eritrea
In the hunt for coveted raw materials, it is not only the environment that is often destroyed, especially in developing countries. Human rights are also falling by the wayside. Child labor in contaminated and insecure pits is just as much a part of this as the compulsory expropriation of peasants expelled from their land. International investors are using cunning – and often corruption – to find a way to circumvent taxation in order to get as much profit out of the country as possible. In Eritrea, the clocks tick differently.


The journey from Asmara to Bisha in the western lowlands of Eritrea takes just under 5 hours. Immediately after arrival, you will be taken to the safety briefing. In the mine and the processing plant apply to all strict safety rules: safety goggles, safety vest, sturdy shoes are as much a must as hard hat and earplugs.

We stay overnight. Our lodging, an air-conditioned room in an elongated building, is located in the center of a small village within the extensive grounds of the mine.

There, where also those 843 employees live, who do not come from the surrounding villages and towns. And not far from the sports field, the canteen, the in-house clinic, and the bar, where we should wash down the dust of the day with a beer in the evening.

“The business is doing well”

After moving into the rooms, we talk to the mine director. Managing Director Edward Mounsey, Operations Manager Anthony Kocken and Chief Service Officer Fesseha Ghebrehiwet present the company: In 2008, the Eritrean State granted BMSC the license to mine 80,000 square kilometers of gold, copper and zinc. In 2011, the mine went into operation. “Highly profitable”, as Mounsey says: [/ one_half_last]

“When we raised gold, the price of gold was at the top, when we promoted copper, the copper price was at the top, now zinc is being promoted – the world market price is high up,”

he reports with a grin. Of course, a little bit of luck is part of the business too. At present, the mine produces just under ten tons a day, the copper content is just under two percent, and the zinc content is six to eight percent. The port city of Massawa supplies markets in Europe and Asia. For the future, the CEO does not look black.

“In nearby locations like Asheli and Harena, which are also part of our license, we still have very good gold, copper and zinc deposits that we can mine in the future.”

At present, 1230 people are employed in Bisha, including 250 women – from the laundry assistant to the driver of a heavy transport vehicle in the open mine.

“Business is good, relations with the government are very good from the beginning – we are a reliable taxpayer in this country. We adhere to Eritrea’s national environmental and working standards – and meet the highest international standards, “

emphasizes Mounsey. Specifically, this means: Contaminated water from the production process is collected in a lake sealed with a thick plastic foil.

“We make sure that no sewage enters the area. This is checked every six months. An independent institute takes soil and groundwater samples in the area “, explains Kocken.

A cook earns more than a minister

Lucky ones can guess who has a job at BMSC. Even the basic salaries are – depending on the qualifications – well above the national wages. A cleaner receives as base salary 3000 Nakfa ($ 200) a month, an electrician 7500 Nakfa, a caterpillar driver at the 8000 Nakfa mine. With 4700 Nakfa, a cook in the company canteen earns more than one minister in the country. There are also paid holidays for night shift and overtime pay, depending on the length of service up to 30 days a year.

Every year, up to 15,000 Nakfa costs for any medical treatment are covered. For the 450 mine workers who come from the surrounding towns and villages, there is a free bus transfer, free breakfast, and lunch.

Employees who live in the mine receive three free meals a day at the canteen. The standards at the Bisha Mine far exceed compliance with elemental workers’ rights enshrined in the Eritrean Labor Proclamation, which also enshrines the principle of equal pay for equal work.

It is also part of the self-image of BMSC that the contact with the surrounding villages is cultivated and invested in the development of village structures and the environment, emphasizes Mounsey.

“In 2015, that was over $ 300,000.”

Wells have been drilled in various villages, and the animals of the farmers can be grazed on the area of the mine, where there is no mining. In 2015, more than 20,000 Neembäume were planted in the vicinity of the mine. This commitment to civil society is also extraordinary for a mining company in a developing country.

Bisha Mine cantin
(Photo: Martin Zimmerman)

“No slaves work here!”

And what about human rights? Nevsun is currently facing a lawsuit filed by some Eritreans in Canada alleging that they had to do “slave labor” as part of their national service in Bisha. However, not as employees of the BMSC, but of subcontractors, where they provided their legally regulated National Service. The report of a UN Human Rights Commission based on anonymized questioning of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Djibouti also accuses the Eritrean state of gross human rights violations, says Eritreans were forced during their National Service to “dig tunnels for gold mining” , Confronted with such questions, there are clear announcements in the conversation:

“That is absolutely not true. Bisha employs only workers who have served their National Service “,

emphasizes Mounsey. The UN Human Rights Commission has not contacted the company despite Nevsun’s request, we learn.

“That’s why Nevsun has reviewed the situation of human rights in the mine by an independent commission of internationally recognized human rights experts,”

adds the CEO and brings the result to the point:

“No slaves work here!”

And what does Ghebrehiwet think of such stories? He does not feel like laughing when he hears such stories, he says:

“There is no tunnel here at all, it’s a mine that works in opencast mining, you can see that for yourself. Welcome to the slaves of Bisha! “

Bitter irony resonates in this sentence, which Milena Bereket, a young Eritrean, greets us early in the morning at the entrance to the mine. Not without reason: The Bisha Mining Share Company (BMSC), a joint venture company formed by the Canadian company Nevsun Resources Ltd. 60 percent and the state-owned Eritrean mining company ENAMCO hold 40 percent of the shares, faces severe criticism.

Something else distinguishes the mine from other mining companies in Africa: In July 2017, the workers founded a union, the “Bisha Workers Union” (BWU), in which today, according to Petros Tesfaldet, the chairman of the BWU 86 percent of the 1253 employees are organized. The BWU has an office within the mine.

The company is accused of serious human rights violations in a UN report. Does the Bisha Company have something to hide? Well, the fact that we, as journalists, get a permit to visit within only two days, surprised us as much as it did afterward, leaving us completely free during our stay in Bisha, except for the tour of the mine and the production facilities could move and talk to anyone. There were no restrictions when photographing. In Bisha, nobody has anything to hide.

A big dusty hole in the landscape

With Anthony Kocken we make our way to the Tagebaumine – a large, almost 350 meters deep and about one-kilometer long hole. From Goldgräberromantik here is no trace to see. Not even tunnels that mine underground. High-tech is the trump card. Viewed from above, Caterpillar caterpillars, excavators, drills and trucks look like toy vehicles. 270 people work there.

“In the mine, the employees have a day shift of 12 hours a day, then a 24-hour break, then a week night shift, then a week off,”

tells Kocken. Safety is also important here:

“Because an open mine is constantly changing, a security meeting takes place before the start of a shift.”

Trucks cart the copper and zinc ore earth to the processing plant: Crushing and crunching, the rock is finely ground and transported via a conveyor belt into flotation tanks. We walk on well-secured bridges over the flotation tanks. Hot and stuffy is the air. Kocken explains what bubbles and foams among us in the cauldrons:

“Here, in different stages of processing, the ore is separated from the dead stone – step by step, until the highest possible concentration is reached.”

(Photo: Martin Zimmerman)
(Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

BMSC focuses on local workforce and their qualification

This process is monitored and controlled in the control center on PCs and screens. Remarkable for us: Eritreans like Yosief Semere are sitting in the control center of the plant, and Eritreans are also working on responsible positions in other areas.

“Approximately 37 percent of the employees in leading positions are Eritreans,” says Kocken. “We attach great importance to the training of our employees.”

Currently, 72 Eritreans are being trained as Mining Engineers in Bisha.

“The training lasts three years – and the education of the young people, all from Mai Nefhi College, is outstanding,”

says the Dutch mining expert. We meet two of them in the mine’s lab. They tell us how the zinc ore content in the stone is measured.

“We are very glad that we have found well-paid work here and can continue our training in practice”,

say both. With its targeted training and support, BMSC creates the prerequisite in Eritrea for future provision of its own, qualified local workforce for the mining industry. Especially in the booming mining sector in Africa, this is an important step out of dependence on foreign investors and experts.

Clinic and canteen as if from a picture book

After a short break we continue to the company clinic, which is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. A digital X-ray machine, an emergency room with defibrillator and all necessary medical supplies, several sickrooms and a small dental clinic are housed there. Workers have to undergo regular health checks. An ambulance is ready, should an accident happen. Only one patient is seen sitting in the waiting room for routine examination. “Luckily,” says Kocken.

“We have very few accidents at work here.”

The statistics of the clinic prove: There was so far no fatal accident at the Bisha Mine. On average over the past few years, almost 2 days of incapacity per employee were recorded per year.

“The main work here is routine check-ups, health checks and in the malaria season the treatment of malaria cases”, explains Sara Tekle, who works as a medical officer in the clinic.

Meanwhile, it’s late afternoon, we go to our accommodation, wash away the dust and join the workers who play volleyball on a sports field – Eritrean “work out” after a 12-hour shift. Then we treat ourselves to a dinner in the sparkling clean canteen and let the day in the fully stocked bar with a beer and talks in a relaxed atmosphere end. From the women and men who sit here after work, we hear no negative word about their work and pay. On the contrary. Yohannes, a young man, tells us the story of Halima, an Akordat woman.

“Everybody has a chance for the future”, he says.

Bisha mine
Healthcare is a priority at the Bisha Mine. (Photo: Martin Zimmerman)
At the Bisha Mine, there were only a few accidents at work. (Photo: Martin Zimmerman)

Mining as a driving force for economic development

Back in the capital Asmara, we meet Sebhat Ephrem, Minister of Mines and Energy. Raw materials are the country’s most important source of income, he explains. But mining alone can not sustain the country permanently:

“We need to use our resources responsibly to build infrastructure, health, and education,”

he explains the politics of the government. Foreign investors who want to exploit the country for a sandwich do not get involved here.

“We are working on mining commodities in consortia with Canadian, Australian and Chinese companies with holdings of 40 to 50 percent – plus the state gets 10 percent on the taxation of profits. The future prospects are very good “,

says the minister. Eritrea is home to the world’s largest potash (potassium chloride) deposit – the basis for producing fertilizer for food production. The world leader in the extraction and production of potassium chloride is Canada. However, there potassium chloride is promoted very cost-intensive in underground mining.

In Eritrea, potash can be mined inexpensively in surface mining. According to a feasibility study, Eritrea would be the third largest producer of potassium chloride in the world right from the start. Partners are already in the starting blocks. Investors are welcome in Eritrea, but the government attaches importance to fair conditions, the minister said. The Colluti project is a 50:50 joint venture between the state-owned Eritrean mining company ENAMCO and Danakali of Australia.

At the airport in Asmara, we will talk to Isaac Kefela, an internationally active auditor, before returning home. When we talk about the visit to the Bisha Mine, he reports what he knows from Tanzania. The state has there only a share of five percent in the mining companies. In addition, investors are granted tax exemption for seven years.

“After seven years, they simply change their name – and the company that just changed the name gets another seven years tax exemption!”,

he describes an example from the bag of tricks of international investors. In the country, therefore, almost nothing remains of the abundance of raw materials.

“Bisha and all of Eritrea’s handling of raw materials is a very good example of how African countries really can benefit from mining and their natural resources”,

says the auditor. And: It is also an example of how foreign investors can do good business in a fair partnership.

* Software translation from German