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Copper exports from SVG – time for another look

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Tue, Oct 2, 2012

Last week, Antigua and Barbuda joined a growing list of Caribbean countries who are taking a serious look at the export of copper from their countries, with a view to regulating the industry.

While the trade in copper has been increasing steadily over the years, bringing valuable foreign exchange earnings to the region, the industry has spawned a new breed of criminal in many of these islands, where no known copper deposits exist.{{more}}

In 2011, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) exported 3.663 million kilograms of scrap metal, valued at EC$1.946 million. Of that, over 13,000 kilograms was copper, which was exported at a value of EC$238,000.

Where did all this copper come from if it was not mined? Much of it was stolen, and for the past year or so, there have been public calls for the authorities here to review the copper export trade, if not place an outright ban on the practice.

These calls were made following an upsurge in theft of the commodity from public utility companies, private businesses and from homeowners.

The first to speak out was a co-owner of a construction company, who last May complained that his company had been the victim of copper thieves, who had cut off every single piece of expensive heavy-duty insulated electrical cable from their stone crusher, just to get at copper core on the inside.

About a year later, in June this year to be precise, support to the businessman was given by top officials of the St Vincent Electricity Services Ltd (VINLEC) after that company caught an individual stealing bits of copper from the utility company’s electricity system. VINLEC raised the alarm not only because of the cost of replacement of the wires, but because of risk to human life and equipment, when the copper wire, which is grounding wire, is removed. The officials at VINLEC said the incident in June was just one of many, as theft of copper from utility poles has been increasing.

A private electrical contractor also complained of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of copper wire over the last year.

We are not aware that there has so far been an official reaction from the government here, but just last week, the government of Antigua and Barbuda placed a 60-day suspension on exportation of all scrap metal, including copper, while a special committee which was set up reviews issues relating to scrap metal export.

The committee is set to make a report within 30 days on measures to better regulate the scrap metal industry in Antigua, and to tackle the problem of illegal exportation of copper.

Jamaica also banned the scrap metal trade last year, following a surge in the theft of metal from homes and businesses, although media reports indicate that northern Caribbean country could soon be resuming the trade.

Grenada is also working to deal with the problem, which has included reported thefts of copper pots and canons from the country’s historical sites.

When SEARCHLIGHT investigated this matter in June, one local dealer told us that metals such as aluminum and copper are usually exported to the United States, while the market for metals such as iron is as far as Bangladesh and China. In terms of quantity, he and two other exporters of copper and aluminum, together ship about 10 containers a year. About five containers of other metals, such as scrap iron, are exported every week.

The export of scrap iron is no doubt good for the environment, as it provides an avenue to get rid of unwanted metal, which would otherwise lie around, creating an eyesore in our tiny country.

However, the export of copper is another matter. Criminals are risking their lives and those of others in their efforts to harvest the metal, while at the same time, the public and private sector are forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in replacement costs for equipment vandalized by these thieves. It is time for the authorities to take another look at the export of copper, with a view to strongly regulating it, if not banning it completely.

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