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A supervisor overlooks Metorox's Chibuluma copper mine, near Kitwe, Zambia (image from Chinadaily)

A supervisor overlooks Metorox’s Chibuluma copper mine, near Kitwe, Zambia (image from Chinadaily)

Moving on in our flag tour across Africa we come to Zambia, a completely landlocked country. The economy of Zambia is almost entirely dependent on copper. When copper is expensive Zambia does well: when copper is cheap, the country falls apart (copper is expensive now due to China’s building boom, so the IMF lists Zambia as one of the world’s fastest improving economies). Of course most Zambians are subsistence farmers for who have relatively little to do with the world economy or even the larger Zambian economy, but to the Zambian elite (and to the world’s mining and construction magnates) copper matters greatly {ed’s note: and for us readers too—the computing device you are probably reading this on requires copper and copper wires]. The Zambian government hopes to someday diversify the nation’s exports away from overdependence on copper: which, in truth, is to say they hope maybe to also export nickel. All of this economics exposition also overlooks Zambia’s sometimes fraught trade routes across neighboring countries. Since Zambia is landlocked it must ship its metals and ores across other countries to reach the international market, and the neighbors have sometimes used this advantage to squeeze Zambia.

The current flag of Zambia

The current flag of Zambia

The flag of Zambia should probably just be “29” or “Cu”, but instead it is a bizarre off-center standard adapted after independence from the British (although admittedly it has a great deal of coppery-orange color in it). The majority of the flag is green, which stands for the nation’s fields, forests, and natural fertility. As in other African flags, red represents the nation’s bloody struggle for independence and black represents the Zambian people. Finally copper color stands for the country’s “mineral wealth”, and the copper color eagle stands for the people’s ability to soar above their problems. A cynical person might say the copper eagle represents the copper-rich merchants and politicians who control Zambia. The flag was adopted in 1964, but it changed slightly in 1996 to accommodate changed graphic sensibilities (the green became brighter and the eagle lost weight).

The Flag of Zambia from 1964-1996

The Flag of Zambia from 1964-1996

For unknown reasons, copper-hungry China has taken great interest in Zambian politics and welfare. A news report from today (which has appeared since I started writing this post) details a technical cooperation grant agreement in which China has agreed to provide $64 million dollars worth of infrastructural, vocational, and environmental aid to the Zambian people. How generous!

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Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

One of the biggest problems in writing about deities of the underworld is their unseemly tendency to morph into each other. For example take the Incan deity Supay.  Supay started out strong, as the god of death for all Incan people.  Not only did he personify the terrifying enigma of mortality, he was also the supreme ruler of the Ukhu Pacha, the afterlife/underworld—plus, as a special bonus, he ruled a race of demons.  Yes, things were looking pretty good for old Supay, until suddenly in the sixteenth century, Francisco Pizarro showed up.  As smallpox and the Spaniards destroyed the Incan empire (and left the landscape littered with piles of corpses) Supay the death god had one last magnificent fling–but within a few short decades, Spanish control over Peru was absolute.

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This could have been the end of Supay—gods often die out when the cultures that created them are assimilated.  Yet Supay lived on in the daily lives of indigenous Peruvians.  As the Catholic Church became the dominant religious institution of Peru, Supay became entwined with the Devil.  Supay’s horns, claws, and demon hordes already greatly resembled the Christian idea of how Satan should look. Supay’s underworld realm, Uku Pacha, had been closely associated with agrarian customs of breaking new ground and tilling the earth to plant potatoes,  The Spaniards brought intensive underground mining—and Supay’s rituals became associated with the dangers of tunneling and delving.  Catholic missionaries encouraged the conflation of Supay and Satan in order to consolidate their hold on Native Americans and Mestizos.

A Peruvian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

A Bolivian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

If anyone else suddenly, you know, merged into Satan, it would probably be a big problem! Yet Supay has made the transition with aplomb.  Even today, the Peruvian image of Satan owes a great deal to the older underworld god, and Supay worship is still alive and well among miners and excavators!

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The Skeleton Coast of Namibia (photo from grandpoohbah.net)

Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand.  It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.

The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.”  A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch.  Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.

The shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen (photo by Michael Poliza)

The desert is ancient.  For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that.  West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.

The Namib Desert photographed from The Space Shuttle Columbia

Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.

The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world).  Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc.  Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).

The Navachab Open Pit Gold Mine, Erongo Region, Namibia

Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation?  The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters).  Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.

Hint: It's not the mighty African Elephant (one of my favorite creatures), but strangely enough african elephants do live in Namibia.

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