ABUJA, Nigeria—The ammonium nitrate that exploded last week in Beirut—killing 154 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction—was destined for Mozambique, a transit point for raw materials in the explosives trade, where shipments often end up in the hands of illegal Chinese-owned mining companies with dubious human rights records.
Almost seven years ago, Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique (FEM), a Mozambican firm that produces explosives, ordered 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate from a Georgian company known as Savaro for the purpose of manufacturing explosives for mining companies. But the substance was transported in September 2013 on the Russian ship Rhosus, which docked in Beirut, where it tried to make more money by picking up several pieces of heavy machinery, and never made it to Mozambique, as Lebanese authorities impounded the cargo for failing to pay port fees.
FEM, a company majority-owned by the Portuguese explosives company Moura Silva e Filhos, has come under intense scrutiny since the ammonium nitrate it ordered caused the blast in Beirut on Aug. 4. A spokesperson for the company admitted to CNN that FEM had ordered the substance from Georgia but was told several months later by the company that was supposed to facilitate the transfer to Mozambique that the vessel carrying ammonium nitrate had been seized in Lebanon and that the order was “not going to be delivered.” As a result, according to the spokesperson, FEM “never paid for it.”
But FEM's claim that it didn't pay for the ammonium nitrate has been disputed by a number of sources. Baroudi and Partners, a Lebanese law firm representing the ship’s crew, said in a statement on Aug. 5 that the substance was purchased by the International Bank of Mozambique (IBM) for FEM. An official in Mozambique’s Justice Ministry who didn’t want to be named also told The Daily Beast that IBM “did the transaction on behalf of FEM.”
Conflicting reports regarding the final destination of the ammonium nitrate have also raised questions regarding the transparency of the purchase. While the Mozambican port authorities said on Aug. 6 that the substance was meant to be transported from a port in the eastern city of Biera, where the Russian ship would have arrived from Beirut, to either Zambia or Zimbabwe, Mozambique’s largest weekly newspaper, Savana, reported that the ammonium nitrate was actually supposed to be used for the manufacturing of explosives for the Brazilian mining company, Vale, which operates the country’s largest coal mine in the western Tete province. FEM did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comments.
The explosives market across Mozambique, as well as in neighboring Zambia and Zimbabwe, is huge, with dozens of mining firms depending on big companies like FEM for explosives. (Landlocked Zambia and Zimbabwe also depend on Mozambique’s seaports for imports that come across the water). But the three countries are also the preferred places for a high number of illegal miners who, despite not being licensed to operate, are still able to obtain explosives from manufacturers on the black market.
A Mozambican customs official informed The Daily Beast privately that explosives are usually transported by land from FEM offices in Mozambique to Zambia where they are sold to mining companies in the country. The company itself does have an office in Zambia and there are allegations that it sells explosives to illegal miners, including unscrupulous Chinese nationals.
“Explosives companies including FEM do not carry out serious background checks on some of these so-called mining companies,” the official said. “Because of that, criminal companies, especially those owned by Chinese people, are mining in Zambia simply because they have explosives.”
FEM’s presence in Africa is quite significant. The company, which specializes in the manufacture and application of explosives for commercial purposes, also has subsidiary companies in Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and commercial agreements in Malawi. But it is in Mozambique, where it has its head office, that its operations are most known.
FEM is said to have sold explosives to Mineradora Industrial de Cassassole, a Chinese company operating in Tete province whose illegal mining operations led to the death of one of its workers two years ago.
It was revealed after the worker—29-year-old Sakson Lobiano—died in 2018 that Mineradora Industrial de Cassassole, which was only licensed by Mozambican authorities to operate an open cast gold mine in Tete’s northern Macanga district, decided to operate underground and opened an illegal shaft 90 meters deep, where Lobiano was killed. The miner died from inhaling dust and toxic particles from an explosion that was ignited by a Chinese co-worker, who had no training in underground work or license to handle explosives.
“We believe the company got those explosives from FEM,” Alex Camacho, a local environmental activist in Tete, told The Daily Beast. “[FEM] is where virtually every mining company gets it explosives from.”
In its website, FEM boasts that it has been the main company “responsible for manufacturing and supplying the Mozambican explosives market” since its founding in 1955. It also noted that in the last two decades it has expanded to become a reference in the whole of southern Africa. But its growth has also come with accusations of negligence.
“That Mozambique has so many illegal miners who all have access to explosives should tell everyone that the manufacturers are letting their explosives get to the wrong hands,” said Camacho who is individually campaigning against illegal mining in Tete. “In Mozambique, once you think about explosives, you think about FEM.”
Mozambique, the world’s seventh-poorest country, has suffered years of illegal mining as well as logging of its natural forests by Chinese companies that take advantage of widespread corruption in the impoverished country to gain access.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO with offices in London and Washington, D.C., Chinese companies in 2012 imported between 189,615 and 215,654 cubic meters of timber that had been illegally exported from Mozambique. The illegal action comprised a huge 48 percent of China’s imports from the African nation.
But it is in the mining sector that exploitation by Chinese-owned companies in southeast Africa have been mostly noted.
There are several Chinese mining and explosives companies operating in Zambia and many of them have been accused of human rights abuses and negligence towards safety regulations.
In 2005, 52 Zambian workers were killed at a Chinese-owned explosives factory near Chambeshi, a town in Zambia’s copper belt. In 2010, Zambia charged two Chinese managers with attempted murder after they opened fire on protesting Zambian workers. Seven years later, Zambian authorities arrested 31 Chinese nationals for illegal mining in the copper belt.
In Zimbabwe, Chinese-run mines have been dogged with several allegations of human rights violations of local workers.
Early this year, local miners in Matabeleland South province protested their sacking by their Chinese employer, whom they also accused of constantly beating up workers. Their protest was followed by complaints in April by workers in another mining company of being underpaid and working without protective clothing as COVID-19 began to spread. Then came the shooting of two Zimbabwean mining workers in June by their Chinese boss during a row with workers over outstanding pay in central Zimbabwe.
“Chinese mining companies do what they like in southeastern Africa and no one can question them,” said Camacho, the environmental activist. “It is sad that the government agencies that are supposed to regulate their activities are only concerned about the money they can generate from these companies.”