Glimpse of Hope for Albania Depressed Mining Town

Despite the global downturn there is new investment in Albania’s largest chromium mine, which locals hope will help their town survive.

By Gjergj Erebara in Bulqiza

Altin, Bledi and Dylber have been friends since they were children, growing up together in the mining town of Bulqiza, in the middle of the mountainous region of Mat, in central Albania.

On a similarly hot and humid mid-September day 20 years ago their fathers would have been 600 metres beneath the surface, scraping with pick hammers at the rock to extract minerals.

But they have not followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Today they sit on a dusty pavement, chatting about the latest football matches and making plans for the future.

“I’m a tourist here now and don’t intend to return,” says Altin, who moved to Tirana to study law at the university two years ago.

Bledi and Dylber were not so lucky. Bledi is unemployed and passes his days placing bets on football games. Dylber takes off through the mountain passes of southern Albania, crossing the border into Greece where he works as an illegal labourer.

“I’ve taken the mountain paths into Greece at least 15 times now,” he says. “I’ve learned the route and don’t have to pay for a guide anymore.”

Bulqiza sits on one of the largest chromite deposits in the world. The mines, located only a few hundred metres away from the town, have yielded about 18 million tons of high-grade chromium since they first opened in 1948. This important mineral is used to produce steel, aluminium alloys and other products.

Built virtually by the slave labour of a generation of political prisoners during the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, Bulqiza’s mines reached their peak in 1986 when 450,000 tons of chromite ore were produced and 12,000 people were employed.

Surrounded by mountains, Bulqiza is one of the roughest-looking places in Albania. But the salaries earned by the miners were high measured by the standards of communist Albania. They reflected the fact that chromium was the most important source of hard currency for the regime.

After communism collapsed in 1991, the town’s boom days came to an end. Albania’s mining industry was pushed out of the international market as a result of its outdated technology and high production costs.

For the next 15 years the ex-miners were mostly unemployed, barely making ends meet through state aid and remittances sent home by migrants.  The 12,000 employees of the mines in 1991 had shrunk to 200 by the end of the decade.

“I’ve worked here since I was 18, which makes 37 years,” says Mine Mytollari, a mother of three adult children who also work in the mine. As quality controller, she sits all day in front of an elevator, dividing high-grade mineral ore from the worthless stones that come out of the chute.

Although she considers herself lucky to have clung on to her salary of 250 euro per month, the job is not easy. “In winter it’s so cold that your hand can get glued to the metal platform,” she says. “This is a very hard work for a woman.”

Mayor Roland Keta sees no reason to sugar coat his opinions when asked to describe the state of the town. “First the mine was built and Bulqiza followed,” he recalls, of the small town of 10,000, comprising lines of grey, soviet-style apartment blocks. “A few years ago, up to half the 2,000 families in the town were relying on state welfare payments of less than 40 euro per month to survive,” he adds.

Unemployment in the town is still 40 per cent of the workforce, but this is down on the figure for the first decade after the collapse of communism, when nearly 90 per cent of the town was out of work.

The government has tried several times to revitalize the mines. In 1999 it invested its own money, only to see the mines go bankrupt once again. In 2001 it tried a different tactic, awarding several concessions to private companies. However, they were too small and inexperienced to succeed.

“The first agreement that assigned Bulqiza to a small Italian company was a catastrophe,” Dilaver Perkoxhaj, head of the local miner’s union, recalls. “They paid salaries months late.”

But in 2008, as chrome prices peaked in international markets, reaching 500 US dollars per ton, a form of “gold rush” for chrome started. Even the mountain of low-grade minerals dumped as worthless on the outskirts of town was now seen as valuable.

Women, children and former miners would dig in the rubble searching for high-grade fragments to sell to traders whom the locals nicknamed “pirates” due to the slack rules in their trade.

The government assigned licenses to 27 small companies to work the mines. All worked in the same area and they often quarrelled over the poorly defined concessionary borders. Work-related incidents increased at a frightening rate. For several months last year, there was almost one death every week as a result of poor work safety rules.

“The Chinese bought everything at the time and small companies begun to fill their freightage with worthless stones,” Alban Bala, a spokesperson for Albanian Chrome, the Austrian company that now owns Bulqiza’s main galleries, says.

In October 2008, as the downturn in the global economy depressed chrome mineral ore prices as low as 100 US dollars per ton, the “pirates” mostly disappeared.

In the main commercial port of Durres, on the Adriatic Coast, the small traders abandoned a mountain of chrome. It sits idle to this day, waiting for buyers that never materialize.

Fortunately, one company that had longer plans stayed on in the town, investing in a new gallery that could potentially prolong the mine’s lifespan and yield profits when the price of ore increases on the market.

Albanian Chrome, owned by the Austrian DCM DECO Metal, bought an important part of the Bulqiza mine complex in 2008 and has continued to extract chrome and to invest. As a result it has saved local jobs despite a slump in revenues.

“So far we have not laid off any of our 682 workers,” Petrit Duva, director of ACR, says. “According to our estimates, there is still 1.8 million of high quality chrome beneath us,” he adds, noting adding that the company has set its sights on exploiting it. “Now we are investing 20 million US dollars to open a new shaft that will run more than 600 metres deep and which will increase production,” he continues.

The mine currently produces up to 7,000 tons of high-grade ore per month and the company wants to increase production by 12,500 tons a month, or roughly 150,000 tons every year.

“This investment may prolong the production life of Bulqiza mine by another 20 years,” Elton Beqi, the chair of ACR, says.

Although the new shaft might not open up any new jobs, many people hope it will at least provide a breathing space for the company and so keep the existing jobs in place.

Mine Mytollari certainly is counting on it. With five years to go until retirement, the bruising sound of the old mine elevator bringing ores from the underground remains her only hope.

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