Scrutinising a Swiss Mining Venture

WHY POVERTY. In "Stealing Africa", Christoffer Guldbrandsen investigates how multinational companies are draining money out of Africa and into tax havens in the rich countries. The filmmaker wants to shake up our image of a well-meaning West unilaterally contributing development aid and donor funds to the poverty-stricken continent. The film is part of the international "Why Poverty?" project raising questions about a complex global issue.

tyveriet af afrika

"Stealing Africa". Photo: Guldbrandsen Film

Idyllic images of children playing. Half-timbered houses and majestic mountains behind whitewashed bell towers accompanied by dulcet violin tones.

"It's interesting that the corruption we are always criticising Africa for is just a little grease in a machine that generates millions for western corporations."

This is how Christoffer Guldbrandsen opens his documentary Stealing Africa, made as part of the global documentary film project Why Poverty?. The iconic images are of the Swiss village of Rüschlikon and at first glance have no connection to the film's subject, copper extraction in Zambia. But they do.

The citizens of Rüschlikon enjoy the tax revenues paid by one man: Ivan Glasenberg, CEO of Glencore. While generating negligible revenues for the African nation, Glencore's Zambian copper mines provide Rüschlikon with a municipal budget surplus of more than 40 million euros. The surplus is so big that the local politicians don't even know how to spend it, so last year they decided to lower the already minimal tax rate by seven percent.

Guldbrandsen wants his film to shake up the image Western countries have of themselves as benevolent donors to developing countries.

"The film focuses on the money flows that big Western corporations are draining out of Africa and shifting into tax havens abroad. It's a general problem, and to make it relatable we zero in on a specific country and a specific corporation," Guldbrandsen says.

As a contributor to Why Poverty?, he was on the lookout for examples of Western exploitation of Africa. Such cases often lack documentation and can be hard to prove. When a report documenting how Glencore exploits a series of tax deals unfavourable to Zambia was leaked, Guldbrandsen saw a clear opportunity to take a closer look at the multinational corporation's African copper venture.

Development aid in reverse

The images if Rüschlikon illustrate the striking contrast between this affluent village on the outskirts of Zurich and poverty-ridden Zambia, which has the third largest copper reserves in the world. While the politicians of Rüschlikon debate how to spend all of Glasenberg's tax revenues, 60 percent of Zambia's population live on less than a dollar a day and unemployment is stable at 80 percent. The country's vast copper reserves are all being mined by multinational companies who pull their profits out of Zambia while paying negligible taxes there.

In 2000, as Zambia was nearing bankruptcy and was forced to privatise its mining operations, the country signed a series of highly unfavourable contracts with foreign companies. Glencore, for one, negotiated a deal that meant it would pay the Zambian government royalties of just 0.6 percent on the copper it extracted.

The problem, Guldbrandsen says, is rooted in the world community's faith in the market's ability to regulate investment by Western multinationals in developing countries. The skewed balance of power between weak, and hence easily corruptible, African governments and extremely powerful multinationals is another key factor.

The combination of cynical businessmen, insufficient international regulation and disadvantaged African governments is fatal for a country like Zambia. Today, the government actually spends more on its mining operations than it earns.

"The amount of money that is being pulled out of the continent is staggering. It's interesting that the corruption we are always criticising Africa for is just a little grease in a machine that generates millions for western corporations," Guldbrandsen says.

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