The Real Bisha Mine Story No One Wants You to Know About

Development News
Bisha Mine Eritrea
Journalist Martin Zimmermann, a profound expert on Eritrea, made a trip to the Bisha mine in Eritrea. He published his report on the German newspaper Spree Zeitung.

By Martin Zimmermann | for Spree Zeitung, (* Software translation)

In the hunt for coveted raw materials, not only the environment is often destroyed, especially in developing countries. Human rights also remain on the line. Child labor in contaminated and unsafe pits is just as much a part of the forced expropriation of peasants who are expelled from their country. International investors, with cunning and trickery – and often also by means of corruption – find every gap in avoiding taxation in order to generate as much profit as possible outside the country.

In Eritrea the watches tick differently. A visit to the Bisha Mine, 150 kilometers west of the capital city of Asmara. Below is a report by German journalist Martin Zimmermann.

The journey takes about 5 hours from Asmara to Bisha in the western lowlands of Eritrea. Immediately after arrival, you will be sent to the security office. In the mine and the processing plant, all strict safety rules apply: protective goggles, safety vests, sturdy shoes as well as a protective helmet and earplugs.

We stay overnight. Our lodging, an air-conditioned room in an elongated structure, is located in the center of a small village within the vast expanse of the mine. Where there are also 843 employees who come from the surrounding villages and towns. And not far from the sports field, the cafeteria, the company’s own clinic and the bar, where we were to rinse the dust of the day with a beer in the evening.

“The business is doing well”

After the rooms are occupied, the conversation with the mine management team is finished. Managing Director Edward Mounsey, Operations Manager Anthony Kocken and Chief Service Officer Fesseha Ghebrehiwet, describe the company: In 2008, the Eritrean state of the BMSC granted the license to 80,000 square kilometers of gold, copper and zinc. In 2011 the mine went into operation. “Highly profitable,” as Mounsey says:

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

He says, smiling. A bit of luck in the business of course, too. At the moment, the mine is producing almost 10 tonnes a day, the copper content is just under two percent, the zinc content is six to eight percent. The port town of Massawa supplies markets in Europe and Asia. For the future, the managing director does not see any black.

“We have very good deposits of gold, copper and zinc in nearby places like Asheli and Harena, which are also part of our licensing area, which we can promote in the future.”

Bisha Mine in Eritrea
View of the daily excavation of the Bisha Mine in Eritrea, 150 kilometers west of the capital city of Asmara. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

Bisha currently employs 1,230 people, of whom 250 are women – from the laundry assistant to the driver of a heavy-duty delivery vehicle in the open mine.

“The business is going well, relations with the government are very good right from the beginning – we are a reliable taxpayer in this country. We adhere to Eritrean’s national standards of environmental and working conditions – and meet the highest international standards,

Emphasizes Mounsey. In concrete terms, this means that contaminated water from the production process is collected in a lake sealed with a thick plastic film.

“We ensure that no waste water comes into the environment. Every six months this is checked. An independent institute collects soil and groundwater samples in the environment,

Explained Kocken.

Bisha mine in Eritrea
State-of-the-art technology in the control room of the mine. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

A Cook Earns More than a Minister

Bisha Mining Share Company BMSC has a job to be happy with. Even the basic salaries are – depending on the qualification – far above the normal wages. A cleaning power is paid as a base wage 3000 Nakfa (200 dollars) per month, an electrician 7500 Nakfa, a Caterpillar driver in the mine 8000 Nakfa.

With 4700 Nakfa, a chef earns more than a minister in the country. In addition to night shift and overtime hours, there is also paid holiday, staggered according to company affiliation up to 30 days a year. Annually up to 15,000 Nakfa costs are taken for a possible medical treatment.

Bisha mine canteen
The canteen is modern and has a lot to offer. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

For the 450 employees of the mine, which 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 in the canteen. The standards in the Bisha mine are far above the respect of elementary workers’ rights, which are laid down in the Eritrean “Labor Proclamation”, in which the principle of equal pay for equal work is also anchored.

Bisha mine canteen
In the Bisha mine, the cook earns more than a minister. (Photo: Martin Zimemrmann)

As a matter of course, BMSC also considers 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.”

In various villages fountains were drilled, the animals of the peasants can graze on the site of the mine, on which no degradation takes place, 2015 over 20,000 Neem trees were planted in the vicinity of the mine. This commitment to civil society is also exceptional for a mining company in a developing country.

Bisha mine canteen
The staff receive 3 complimentary meals per day. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

“No Slaves Work Here!”

And what about human rights? Against the company Nevsun is currently running in Canada a lawsuit by some Eritreans, which claim that they had to perform as part of their national service in Bisha “slavery”. However, not as employees of the BMSC, but by subcontractors, where they performed their legally regulated national service. Also, in the report of a UN Human Rights Commission, which accuses the Eritrean state of massive human rights violations based on anonymous interviews with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Djibouti, Eritreans have been forced to “dig tunnels for gold mining“. Faced with such questions, there are clear announcements in the discussion:

“This is absolutely not true. At Bisha, only workers who have completed their national service are employed,

Emphasizes Mounsey. The UN Human Rights Commission had not contacted the company despite the invitation by Nevsun, we learn.

“This is why Nevsun has been able to review the human rights situation in the mine by an independent commission of internationally recognized human rights experts,

Bisha processing plant
A modern processing plant. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

The managing director adds, summarizing the results: “No slaves work here!”

And what does Ghebrehiwet think of such stories? He did not feel like laughing when he heard such stories, he said,

“There is no tunnel here at all, this is a mine that works in open pit mining, you can see for yourself!”

Bisha processing plant
A modern day processing plant. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

A Large Dusty Hole in the Countryside

With Anthony Kocken we are on the way to the open pit mine – a large, almost 350 meters deep and about one kilometer long hole. There is no trace of gold rush romance. Also not by tunnels, in which mined underground. High-tech is king. Viewed from above, Caterpillars, excavators, drilling machines and trucks look like toy vehicles. 270 people work there.

“In the mine the employees have a week day shift with 12 hours daily, then 24 hours break, then a week night shift, then a week free”

Tells cocks. Security is also given here:

“Because an open mine changes constantly, a security meeting takes place before the beginning of a shift.”

Trucks transport the copper- and zink-ore-containing earth to the processing plant: crumbling and crunching the rock is finely crushed and brought into flotation containers via a conveyor belt. We go on well-secured bridges over the flotation vessels. Hot and stuffy is the air. Kocken explains what bubbles and foams among us in the kettles:

“Here the ore is separated from the deaf rock at different stages of processing – step by step until the highest possible concentration is achieved.”

BMSC Relies on Local Workers and their Qualification

This process is monitored and controlled in the control center on PCs and screens. Striking for us: Eritreans like Yosief Semere sit in the control center of the plant and also in other areas Eritreans working in a responsible position.

“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 were trained as mining engineers in Bisha.

“The training lasts three years – and the pre-education of the young people who all come from Eritrean Institute of Technology in May Nefhi is outstanding,

Says the Dutch mining expert. Two of them we meet in the mine’s laboratory. 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 continue our training in practice,

Say both. With the targeted training and support, BMSC creates the precondition in Eritrea that its own, qualified local workforce will be available to the mining industry in the future. This is an important step out of the dependency on foreign investors and experts, particularly in the booming mining sector in Africa.

A Clinic and Canteen Like from the Picture Book

After a short break, we continue to the hospital, which is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. A digital X-ray machine, an emergency room with a defibrillator and all necessary medical accessories, several sick rooms and a small dental clinic are accommodated there. The workers must undergo regular health checks. An ambulance is ready if an accident should happen. Only one patient can be seen sitting in the waiting room for routine examinations. “Fortunately,” says Kocken.

Bisha clinic
Health care is a priority in the Bisha mine. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

“We have very few accidents at work here.”

The clinic’s statistics shows: that there has been so far no fatal accident at the Bisha Mine. On average, the average number of registered unemployed per employee in the past two years was just two days.

Bisha mine clinic
The company’s own clinic has state-of-the-art medical equipment. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

“The main work here is routine examinations, health checks and in malaria season, the treatment of malaria cases”,

Explains Sara Tekle, who works as a medical officer in the clinic.

Now, it is late afternoon, we go to our accommodation, wash the dust off our body and join the workmen playing volleyball on a sports ground – Eritrean “work out” after a 12 hour shift. Then we treat ourselves to a dinner in the brightly clean canteen and end the day in the crowded bar with a beer and talks in a relaxed atmosphere end.

Bisha mine clinic
In the Bisha mine there have been so far few accidents. (Photo: Martin Zimmerann)

Of the women and men who sit here after the end of the evening, we do not hear a negative word about their work and payment. On the contrary, Yohannes, a young man, tells us the story of Halima, a woman from Akordat. In 2011, she started working in Bisha as a cleaner in and earned many times their original salary now after she became a machine operator since 2014.

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

Bisha mine
The excavators look like toy vehicles. (Photo: Martin Zimmermann)

Mining as a Driving Force for Economic Development

Back in the capital Asmara, we meet Gen. Sebhat Ephrem, the Minister of Mining and Energy. Raw materials are the main source of income for the country, he explains. However, mining alone could not live in the long term:

“With our resources, we need to be responsible in order to expand the infrastructure, the healthcare system and the education system”

He explains the government’s policy. Foreign investors, who want to exploit the land for a peanut, do not come here.

“We are working to extract raw materials in cooperation with Canadian, Australian and Chinese companies with partnership of 40 to 50 percent share – in addition, the state receives 10 percent more on the taxation of profits. The prospects for the future are very good “,

Says the minister. In Eritrea, the world’s largest deposit of potash (potassium chloride) has been discovered, which is the basic ingridient for the production of fertilizer for food production. Canada is World leader in mining and production of potassium chloride. However, potassium chloride is very cost-intensive since it requires underground construction.

In Eritrea, potash can be produced at low cost in open bit mining. According to a feasibility study, Eritrea is the world’s third largest producer of potassium chloride. Partners are already started to line up. Investors are welcome in Eritrea, but the government attach value to fair conditions, according to the minister. The Colluli project is a 50:50 joint venture between the state-owned Eritrean mining company ENAMCO and the Australian Danakali Ltd. “The commissioning,” says Sebhat Ephrem, “is to begin in 2019”.

At the airport in Asmara, we meet with Isaac Kefela, an internationally active auditor, before the return flight. When we talk about the visit to the Bisha mine, he tells what he knows from Tanzania. The state only had a 5 per cent stake 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, which has only changed the name, gets a further seven years of tax freedom!”,

He describes an example from the tricks of international investors. Almost none of the raw material wealth remains in the country.

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

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

Martin Zimmermann (journalist, born in 1955) is a profound expert on Eritrea. Since 1991 he is the chairman of the Eritrea Relief Society in Germany (EHD), founded in 1976 ( He has been visiting the country regularly since 1984. In the book “Eritrea – Aufbruch zur Freiheit” (1st edition, 1990), he reports on the basis of several visits to the territories of the independence fighters over the period of the independence war. Since the independence of Eritrea (1991), Zimmermann has visited the country several times a year.