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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 23:59 GMT
Guinea takes control of its minerals
By Katrina Manson and James Knight
Sangaredi, Guinea, West Africa

Ansata Bah and her child
Ms Bah has high hopes for a prosperous future
Ansata Bah jiggles the baby wrapped to her back. At 13 years old, she has the weight of her world on her shoulders.

In March, she, along with her child, husband and fellow villagers, have to move out of their settlement in rural Guinea, West Africa.

They are making way for a new $3bn (1.5bn) factory that in 2009 will start to turn Guinea's vast supplies of bauxite into alumina, the aluminium ore from which aluminium is made.

But what could have been a nightmarish corporate attack on village life may prove a blessing.

The project, based in Sangaredi, is giving hope to poor communities desperate for jobs that have for decades seen their region's mineral wealth exploited abroad.

"If I can get some activity, it doesn't matter what - washing clothes, preparing food - I won't hesitate to do it," says Ms Bah.

"Whether it's during the phase of construction or exploitation, anything that I can do to earn money I'll do.

"If I gain work here, living standards will improve compared with now."

Exploited abroad

Despite possessing at least a third of the world's bauxite reserves, Guinea has failed to convert it into a more precious commodity.

The new road will bring both disruption and prosperity

Nearly all foreign aluminium companies, such as US-based Alcoa and Canadian firm Alcan, mine the rock in Guinea, but transport it abroad for refining.

It means the country misses out on a crucial economic boost: whereas a tonne of bauxite costs about $20 on the world market, spot prices for refined alumina can reach $400 a tonne.

Global Alumina, the Canadian-listed company behind the new plan, hopes to produce 2.8m tonnes of alumina per year from the new plant when it opens in 2009.

Often critical of the motives and priorities of big business in Africa, development organisations are behind the project.

"Nothing of this scale has been done in Guinea before," says Lamine Bangura at Centre d'Appui au Developpement (CAD), a local non-governmental organisation supported by the US-backed African Development Foundation, which has entered into a $10m partnership with Global Alumina to oversee training, construction and sustainability issues related to the refinery in the area.

"It will create a great deal of employment.

"The installation of the factory will bring great development for this community."

Social developments

"Global is a detonator," says Noramou Cece, technical advisor at the Ministry of Mines.

Village hut
Many villagers will have to leave their homes...

"The company has consulted at the base, family by family, individual by individual, to reassure the population that Global Alumina will listen to them.

"As a result, there is a new spirit taken on by the mining companies that come here - that they must be involved in the development of community at the grassroots level."

A four-year social and environmental impact assessment, one of the most far-reaching of its kind, sought out the opinions of each of the 4,000 locals affected by the refinery.

Ansata Bah is one of the beneficiaries of a $10m compensation package that will see two new villages built, complete with new sanitation, schools and dispensaries, compensation for lost trees and parcel lands, alongside increasing roles for women and the much-hoped-for prospect of jobs.

Factory construction
.... yet they do not mind as they hope to get work at the factory

Ms Bah personally received compensation for her own mango and lemon trees and the palm oil that she makes with the other women.

The women in her village know how much she has received, but she says the men, including her husband, are not allowed to know the amount.

Social change

Bringing an in-depth consultation process to traditional village communities has had far-reaching effects.

Many women have found a voice and independence for the first time.

Guinea's mineral wealth makes it potentially one of Africa's richest countries
Yet its people are among the poorest in West Africa

"Women here are starting to have free thoughts as a result of our discussions," says Marliatou Diallo, women and vulnerable persons officer at Global Alumina.

"Before, women could not even express themselves in front of men, and definitely not take a decision.

"Now they can explain their problems to the men and give their opinions and concerns."

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has partnered with Global Alumina to try to meet the Millennium Development Goals on halving extreme poverty by 2015.

Together Global Alumina and the UNDP will commit hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects including vocational training, developing small businesses and financing micro enterprises.

Global Alumina will also fund mid-wife training and poverty-alleviation programmes.

Job hopes

As Guinea's largest foreign direct investment yet, the whole country is waiting for jobs at the factory with bated breath.

Village elder Souleymane Bah cannot wait for the project to gather pace

Guinea suffers from chronic unemployment, particularly among young people, and even those with secondary and tertiary qualifications struggle to find jobs.

The economy is in freefall, with spiralling inflation, and the dire economic prospects sparked strikes and protests in 2006.

"We're going to take 3-4,000 workers from this area alone during construction, so that will have a big impact for the inhabitants of this region," says Mamady Youla, Director General of Guinea Alumina Corporation, Global Alumina's subsidiary in Guinea.

"Once the factory starts we will employ around 2,000 people directly, but you must also take into account the indirect employment generated by the project - we expect about 10,000 jobs to be generated in the region."

The Guinean government has realised the importance of the project, and created incentives, including a fifteen-year tax holiday, with no taxes on profits for the first five years, to sweeten the deal.

As a result, other companies, including Alcoa/Alcan, Mitsubishi, Chalco and Brazilian firm CVRD, are looking at the possibility of establishing alumina refineries in the country.

In the long-term, Youla estimates that revenues in the order of $100m could accrue to government every year.

He is pushing for a greater percentage of these taxes to go to the local community. Currently only 0.4% of revenues has to go to the local area, but he would like to see this increased to 5% or 10%.

Better living standards

Souleymane Bah, 70, a village elder from Petoun Djiga, one of the two villages that will be relocated, cannot wait for the project to gather pace.

Guinea's vast supplies of bauxite could bring more wealth to the country's poor people in the future

He received a cheque compensating him and his family for 50 trees.

"We are only farmers, so it's thanks to Global that I ever touched a cheque. We are very content for them to be here," he says.

"I want the project to develop as quickly as possible, he says.

"We ourselves think of development, and that's why we accepted to be relocated.

"If young people can find employment around the project here, then we think living standards will improve."

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