Chinese investing in Zambia's Copper Belt

Flanked by factory manager Wang Aide (left) and translator Li Peng (center), Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has (right) views a photo of a Chinese-owned explosives factory on the premises of a Chinese-owned Chambishi mine.

KAI RYSSDAL: As poor as most of Africa is today...the continent has incredible mineral wealth. The results of the election Sunday in Congo will decide who controls its gold and diamond mines. In Zambia...it's copper. Western companies invested heavily to get the metal used for pipes and wiring. A price collapse in the 70's and 80's crippled the economy. Gretchen Wilson visited one mine that's booming again...in the hands of a new investor.


GRETCHEN WILSON: It's 9 a.m. at the gates of NFC Africa Mining in Chambishi, northern Zambia. This is one of the biggest copper mines in Africa. Empty trucks line up outside, while buses pull out, full of miners from the night shift.

Just inside the gate, there's a banner that reads:
XU RUIYONG: [Reads sign out loud in Chinese.] Very standard Mandarin.

That's Xu Ruiyong. He's administrator of this Chinese-owned mine. Loosely translated, the phrase means: "Work hard to make the company prosperous."

This company's doing quite well, especially with copper prices now at record highs. In the past eight years, China's pumped $150 million into Zambia's mining industry. That's great news to a country that desperately needs investors. This is just one example of the skyrocketing trade between China and African nations.

WANG XIAOWEI: China is a fast-developing country. So we need to develop our mine industry abroad.

Wang Xiaowei is deputy CEO of the mine.

WANG: Now, more and more Chinese companies, they find the investment opportunity in Zambia. So we have given other Chinese companies the confidence to invest here.

China needs raw material to feed its rapid growth, like copper to wire its cities. This mine alone extracts 800,000 tons of ore every year.

Three thousand feet below where I'm standing, 300 Zambian miners are at work, hacking away at this ore. They hear nothing of this machinery here, but they work in dark and close quarters with sharp objects and explosives. They breathe dust and smoke.

Locals here are grateful for the work. Two thousand people now have jobs in a region where work is hard to come by. But workers labor here under punishing conditions.

BEATRICE MUSONDA: I lost my, my relatives.

Today, Beatrice Musonda visits the graves of her brother and uncle. They were among the 46 workers killed in an explosion last year. The mine made changes to avert a similar event. But the community is still angry.

MUSONDA: The people, they are very annoyed, because the workers' salaries are too small. And people are dead. Accidents underground! So we don't want Chinese.

With the unemployment rate at more than 50 percent, there's not much choice for her family.

MUSONDA: My husband is working there underground. We don't manage at our house.

That's echoed by many in the nearby Chambishi township. Bennett Sondash just got off the night shift.

BENNETT SONDASH: Ah, the working system is very difficult. I work 30 days a month and I get 180, 170, 200 sometimes. That is our salaries.

That's between $50 and $60 a month.

SONDASH: And I can't even make my budget. Sometimes we rest on Sundays. But not often sometimes.

CARLOS KALONGA: We understand that's how they do it in China. In China they work 24 hours daily, seven days a week. And that's the system they've introduced here.

Carlos Kalonga works above ground at the mine. He remembers the days when the government-run company provided healthcare for workers' families and education for their children. It even offered community sports, such as judo and tennis.

KALONGA: But with the Chinese, that kind of care is not there. And they've even been using statements like: "We haven't come to make you rich here."

Kalonga doesn't want the mining investors to go away. But he does want them to pay higher wages. And he wants the government to make sure that Zambians benefit from the sale of its natural resources.

KALONGA: We don't want them to leave holes in the ground.

Workers say minimum standards are crucial as more foreign investors come to Zambia. The NFC Africa mine is poised to expand operations in the coming months. And just down the road, India is becoming a major player as well.

In Chambishi, Zambia, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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