Is there even a way for a Western millionaire to ethically run an African mine? This is what Jeffrey Wright, now famous for starring on a show about old-timey prospectors, set out to prove when he started a “conflict-free mining” project in West Africa. But like a celebrity who finds out that their line of sweatpants is being stitched by Vietnamese toddlers, Wright soon found it hard to not fall into the typical ethical pit trap of the preferred profession of pith helmeted colonialists.
Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
After partnering with an African mercenary he met on the set of Ali, Wright founded Taia Lion Resources, a gold exploration company dedicated to “conflict-free mining” in Sierra Leone, the African nation then ranked dead last on the UN Human Development Index. Wright managed to convince its government to lease them vast tracts of land near the Guinean border, which some surveyors reckoned were laced with billions of dollars worth of gold and chromite.
But Taia wanted to be a generous mining master, paying above average Sierra Leone wages (so, over a buck fifty a day) and promising to put 2-3% of the company’s profits back into the local communities. They even offered the local Penguia chiefdom a silent stake in the company — without any real power and in exchange for putting their small-time prospectors to work discovering the precious veins they could no longer call their own.
It soon became obvious to the Sierra Leoneans that whatever Wright’s good intentions were by having impoverished Africans sift for gold, it wasn’t going to pan out like that. Despite his many promises of wealth and prosperity, Wright and his partners never managed to drive their mining concern into the ground. (In their business, is a bad thing). Unable to hit actual paydirt, Taia’s mining concern began to cave and the company had to start tightening its belt. Not that the miners of this ethical African mine had any belts to begin with. The Sierra Leonean workers soon began complaining of missed wages and not getting the protective work clothing they had requested — something Wright’s detractors qualified as pretty conflicting to his conflict-free mining promise.