Like many investigations, Fatal Extraction started small.
On a visit to Madagascar in 2012, I stepped into the arrival hall of a small, regional airport and was struck by posters advertising an Australian-owned mining project. As an Australian (currently living in the United States), I hadn't expected to see a Perth-based company in such a remote place. After all, Australia and Madagascar aren't terribly close - just 280 Malagasies live Down Under – 0.001% of the Australian population.
But Australia does have a significant presence in Madagascar – through its mining companies. Australian-listed companies held nearly 100 mining-related licenses at last count in 2014, ICIJ's data reporter Cecile Schilis-Gallego found.
And, as many experts and researchers told us, where mining goes, controversy follows, but not local gains.
"Maybe they're out there," South African attorney Tracey Davies told ICIJ, "but I have never seen a single one [mine] where there has been any kind of major significant improvement to the surrounding community."
As ICIJ's initial investigative dive through company annual reports, media clippings, and non-governmental organization (NGO) sources continued, a picture of mining emerged that was totally different to Australia's own experience of high salaries, rigorous safety standards, and blossoming economic growth.
Across Africa, Australian companies, some of which have received government funding or investment from pension funds, are accused of workplace, environmental and labor violations that would be unthinkable elsewhere.
The challenge was how to turn the well-trodden topic of African mining into something new.
It helped that there was a gaping hole. Although Australian companies are more numerous than any other nation active in Africa, more attention has been paid to the alleged wrongdoing of Canadian and Chinese firms.
ICIJ was also able to present the topic in an innovative way. With help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, reporters from ICIJ and its parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), traveled to four countries in Africa in late 2014 to see first-hand mining's impact. CPI's digital team produced an immersive multimedia experience to put faces to the tales of suffering linked to Australian mining activities on the continent.
The third tool in ICIJ's box was ambition. ICIJ assembled 13 journalists from radio, print and online news outlets in Africa to create the largest ever journalistic partnership across the continent of 1.1 billion people.
Building a team
We contacted regional organization the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR), as well as the Thomson Reuters Foundation for help in identifying new partners. They suggested passionate journalists in countries where ICIJ had never ventured and where investigative journalism is in its infancy.
It was easy to find journalists keen to join. For many, the impact of mining on citizens and governance is a topic they have covered for years.
"Namibia, a mining frontier for decades, continues to struggle with mining companies which subject workers to dangerous working conditions," wrote Shinovene Immanuel and Ndanki Kahiurika, reporters with The Namibian.
As part of our mission at ICIJ, we work on the principle that local journalists, not foreign correspondents, have unique skills and insight to hold the powerful to account – be it banks, businesses or bigwigs – and by working collaboratively we can tell more complete stories that draw on otherwise untapped local knowledge.
That's certainly the case with the Fatal Extraction reporting team. The team brought experience and unique relationships borne from years of work; coffee with national prosecutors, cell phone calls with justice ministers or simply living down the road from a regional labor court whose archives disgorge unexplored employee grievances against mining operations.
ICIJ doesn't pay reporting partners. We are a partnership of equals. But investigating mines and the communities near them can require long bus rides and time in the field beyond what a reporter can afford.
ANCIR tapped into the generosity of Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) to obtain story grants for a handful of journalists. ANCIR also offered its innovative i-Lab team, a virtual investigative unit to provide multi-language editors, legal advice and other assistance to journalists who potentially faced David and Goliath battles in exposing these multimillion dollar businesses.
Challenges and surprises
As reporters set to work, challenges arose.
Some of them were simple, such as electricity cuts in Niger and car breakdowns in Cote d'Ivoire. Other challenges were more serious, including a police raid on the home of one partner in West Africa whose computer was confiscated.
More than any other, obtaining official access to information was a key barrier.
"One of the major challenges that we are currently facing is that Botswana doesn't have access to information laws, and we rely on the good will of citizens to pass to us critical documents," says Alvin Ntibinyane, editor of Mmegi newspaper and co-founder of Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Mmegi spent months researching allegations of unfair compensation for farmers who were removed from their land to make way for an Australian copper mine. "We have forwarded questions to the government officials, but they are flatly refusing to answer. This remains one of our biggest problems as the press in Botswana," Ntibinyane said.
David Dembele, a journalist with Depeches du Mali, had similar problems. He knew that the government sent a committee to mediate a violent conflict linked to an Australian mining company in 2012. But despite months of trying, Dembele could not locate the original report. Politicians on the committee weren't able to point him anywhere. "Buried in a drawer somewhere," he concluded in his investigation published on 11 July.
Journalists found that in addition to their own sleuthing skills, collaboration could help overcome challenges.
When one company objected to a local reporter that it was unfair to consider the company Australian and refused to provide comments, ICIJ had a list of shareholders at its fingertips that revealed strong Australian connections. The company then responded.
Collaboration also provided protection. Journalists were surprised - and relieved - when some famously combative companies didn't react negatively to detailed reporting published in the U.S., Australia, and two countries in Africa.
Mining the data
With the help of its data team, ICIJ mined the Australian Securities Exchange - an underexplored public data repository.
We found hundreds of companies active in Africa that owned more than 1,500 licences. For some reporting partners in Africa, this data was the most comprehensive they had ever seen. Journalists could learn more about their own country through disclosures made overseas than they could through official documents held at the local ministry.
"I can see that the list you have is much more detailed than the one I've seen," said Mali reporter Dembele, who produced a detailed investigation into the controversies surrounding one of Mali's oldest gold mines.
"The investigation with ICIJ allowed me to measure the amplitude of the problems linked to mining activity in this part of Mali."
ICIJ and reporting partners released the first wave of stories on July 11, including original investigations from Namibia, Malawi, Botswana and Mali. Since then, more investigations have come from Tanzania, South Africa, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Zambia. For many partners, similar investigations into the mining industry, drawing from the strength of this one, will continue.
By one measure, Fatal Extraction has increased global attention on an underreported issue.
Civil society in Burkina Faso congratulated Sandrine Sawadogo, reporter with L'Economiste du Faso, following her investigation into legal battles between unions and an Australian-operated gold mine.
"They congratulated me for having brought to light the problems with mine labor," says Sandrine. "From what they said, it is an aspect that civil society hasn't yet taken into account during recent discussions on the new Mining Code."
In Australia, Greens Party Senator Lee Rhiannon responded to what she called the "shocking" findings of ICIJ's investigation and called for action.
"With 183 Australian-owned companies operating in Africa and numerous cases of workers being killed on the job, local people losing their land and their livelihood and massive offshore profit shifting, the federal government has a responsibility to assist affected communities," she said.
Internationally, the head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, called on Australia and other mining nations to ensure "equal treatment" of workers.
By a second - and no less important - measure, the Fatal Extraction collaboration has extended ICIJ's reach into Africa and identified investigative reporters for future partnerships.
Some of them say they have learned a lot on the way, too.
"I had never before been so steeped in this explosive situation," says Dembele, who was inspired by the project to file paperwork to register Mali's first investigative media organization - Malian Network of Investigative Journalists (RMJI). "Through this investigation, I learned so many things, and I discovered a real scandal."
Like many investigations, Fatal Extraction started small.