Several months ago ZAM published a nuanced report on the operations of ruby multinational Gemfields in Mozambique. Whilst highlighting forced removals of villagers and murders of artisanal miners by local police, the article took care to do justice to Gemfields. Ethical mining in a country ruled by a criminalised and ruthless regime was surely a challenge. To our surprise, instead of engaging on the issues, Gemfields has consistently attacked us and our reporters ever since.
At times I have felt sorry for the extractive industry in Africa. Shell can’t help it when Niger Delta warlords make a business of cutting pipelines and extortion, can they? Isn’t it up to the Nigerian government to protect its citizens from pollution? I used to feel similarly defensive about Gemfields, the ruby colossus of Mozambique. It was Mozambique’s greedy elites setting their police on villagers to chase them off the ruby fields; it was Mozambique’s Special Forces shooting artisanal miners. Not Gemfields.
Our article ‘The Ruby Plunder Wars of Montepuez’ was therefore rather nice to Gemfields. We put the blame where it mostly lay: with the criminalised and ruthless Mozambican state.
You’d expect the mining company, headquartered in London, if not to be exactly grateful, at least to see how unusual this article was.
Here was, finally, an attempt to understand the problem of Corporate Social Responsibility in a context of thoroughly evil local governance. This was the intro: Western multinationals are often blamed for a lack of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility.’ But an investigation into ruby mining in Mozambique shows that it is hard to blame just one side when the rulers in the ‘partner’ country abuse their own citizens. In Montepuez, the richest ruby deposit in the world, a local General pockets his proceeds of an UK-Mozambique ruby mining partnership while artisanal miners get shot by local Special Forces. And whilst the multinational’s headquarters respond to questions and concerns, the Mozambican government simply stonewalls.
As we were publishing the report, in ZAM and AIPC discussions we toyed with the idea of talking to multinationals like Gemfields even after the publication. Maybe, if we stopped blaming the private sector for everything, they could be turned into something akin to allies vis a vis the corrupt and criminal regimes that rule in so many resource-rich African countries? We didn’t really think that they would be convinced easily. We also didn’t think that they would attack us.
But they did. The Gemfields contingent of lawyers and PR people –together probably costing a multiple of all Montepuez citizens yearly income added together- first started with another version of the article, which was published elsewhere. This other version –in the South African Mail & Guardian- could be read as accusing the ruby mining company itself of murder. So I still sort of understood it when Gemfields went to the SA press ombudsman and managed to wrangle an apology.
Of course, even if it was true that they were not directly guilty of murder, they should take responsibility. Responsible people are concerned with what happens under their watch. They don’t nit-pick about technicalities and they don’t call a reporter -Estacio Valoi, -who has documented the devastation in the tormented communities of Montepuez for close to three years now, at great risk to his own safety- all kinds of names.
But then again, Gemfields is a multinational, so maybe to expect that much responsibility so soon was way too much. Baby-steps.
I don’t know what a powerful multinational can do when confronted with human rights abuses in the country where they make a lot of money. Maybe Gemfields could try to find out why villagers say that they are being shot at. Maybe they could have urgent meetings with the Mozambican government. Maybe they could start proceedings to relieve themselves of their Mozambican shareholder and representative General Pachinuapa, by all accounts a major local warlord in Montepuez, from their operations. Maybe they could come up with a Corporate Social Responsibility policy that makes an actual difference. Not that lame ‘I give you a water well that will break down in two months but my PR brochure will show it as brand new’ kind of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Again, it was too much to expect.
After Mail & Guardian, they went for us. We were made to deal with Brian Cattell, a PR man who, according to his email address, works for a PR company called ‘Harmony Consult’ in London, UK. Brian sent us a dozen emails, polite to the point of slimy, every one slightly more nit-picky than the previous one. Could we take the story down whilst we ‘resolved’ our ‘dispute’? If not, could we correct five thousand little things, up to changing neutral words that had nothing to do with the ‘dispute’ altogether? Could we please doubt the words of the parents of murdered artisanal miners, since they did not have ‘evidence’ that their sons’ bodies had been found on company fields? Could we remove interviews with villagers because –said Brian- it wasn’t true what they said?
Embarrassing as it is to admit, we were still nice. We agreed to correct a number of minor inaccuracies, -none of which had any bearing on the overall truth of our report-, and issued an apology. We didn’t mention publicly –though we had a good laugh about it in the newsroom- that Brian had attacked a certain paragraph that was a verbatim Gemfields comment.
We were good journalists. Magnanimous. Ethical. We spared some thoughts for the 1500 mining families in Montepuez, who lost husbands and sons, saw daughters drop out of school and get HIV because of the abundance of sugar daddies now preying in the region; who were raped and robbed by security forces. But these people don’t have lawyers. We had to worry about Gemfields in London, because they do.
We did ask Brian a number of times if we could engage, with him and Gemfields, on the issue of corporate social responsibility in countries like Mozambique, where a company may see no other way than to work with awful local bosses. Alas, after wrangling out our apology, he disappeared.
But still it wasn’t over. The company now went after the authors, Estacio Valoi in Mozambique, and Gesbeen Mohammad who had, in London, been dutifully and scrupulously documenting Gemfields’ each and every denial, comment, and addition. The lawyers, a firm called Simmons and Simmons, in a letter signed ‘Simmons and Simmons,’ called both Estacio and Gesbeen liars again. To underpin this, they used the rectification in Mail & Guardian in South Africa, and our own corrections and apology. (Fellow publications, please note. Only apologise if you printed a total, substantial lie. Don’t apologise for minor inaccuracies out of civility, as we did. Simmons & Simmons lawyers and their paymasters in the jewellery industry do not operate in the realm of civility.)
Simmons and Simmons also summoned Gesbeen Mohammad and Estacio Valoi, -who lives a two hours’ drive from the Montepuez ruby fields where state forces abuse and rob fifteen hundred families on a daily basis-, never to write about Gemfields again. Not satisfied with making only this bizarre demand, they also ordered the two to “make a donation to the Mozambican charity of their choice.” Yes. The billion dollar company getting rich from the ravaged Mozambican ruby battlefields asked two journalists who had exposed this reality to donate in charity to Mozambique.
I wrote a letter to Brian Cattell and to Paul Baker, from whose email address the Simmons and Simmons letter had come, to basically ask what the hell. I didn’t receive a reply. Mohammad and Valoi responded that they already had apologised for the inaccuracies and that they honestly didn’t see what the company wanted now.
For a while, we heard nothing. Gesbeen Mohammad concentrated on her work. In August, Estacio Valoi went back to the ruby fields of Montepuez, to find that ‘the General’ had visited the damaged village of Nanune to make a payment for a community chicken farm –part of Gemfields’ remarkable corporate social responsibility programme- of exactly 147 000 Meticais: US$ 2000. He also checked in with the families of two miners who had been murdered on the Gemfields concession, to find out if they had heard from the company after Ian Harebottle, CEO of Gemfields, had visited them in January and promised to investigate their son’s deaths. But the parents of Artur Pacore and Manuel Artur said they hadn’t heard anything in the eight months that had passed since Harebottle’s visit.
Guess who did hear from Gemfields again. After a publication was made under license from ZAM in Swiss Sept.Info magazine, Gemfields PR department wrote to them about Estacio and Gesbeen, calling them more terrible things, and demanding more apologies and donations to ‘charities in Mozambique.’ Again, Gemfields used our previous apology in ZAM to demand that Sept.Info remove the article (they didn’t.)
But the very worst was that, in the letter to Sept.Info -which was copied to Valoi and Mohammad- they demanded of the magazine that it should write that one of the sources mentioned in our reports was ‘involved in illegal trade.’ “If you insist on relying (comments by X) in your article, we consider that readers should be made aware of the serious allegations that have since been made against him,” Simmons and Simmons wrote now. We will not repeat the allegations they made, which were not accompanied by any substantiation. We guess that the Simmonses, so worried about defamation of their paymaster, don’t give two cents about damaging somebody they are paid to damage.
Multinationals, we tried to be fair. But this jewellery company and its truckload of expensive sleazebag consultants and lawyers has just given fodder to the impression that you love your partners in evil governments much more than you care about your much-advertised corporate social responsibility.
Note: The title of this article has been corrected from How a British multinational became an apologist for a murderous regime to Friends with the General.