November 2009

Canadians Abroad

The social chemistry of mineral processing

By R. Bergen

Two Canadian engineers learn that in the Amazon Basin, there’s more to getting it right than just technical know-how


Back, left to right: Kevin Murray, Anthony Molinaro, Grant Moenting, Al LaRocque, Brian Melo, Robert Bruce, Jacob Russell, John MacIntosh, Paola Zucolli; kneeling: Jennifer Defreyne and Norman Hayton

As members of a team of engineers from Teck’s subsidiary, CESL Ltd., Jennifer Defreyne and Kevin Murray, were drafted by Vale (formerly CVRD) to go to Brazil because they knew the technical process of refining copper from sulphide concentrates well. Their job was to explain the process to their Brazilian hosts, who would run Vale’s hydrometallurgical facility in Canaã dos Carajás once the plant was operational. However, on the outskirts of the Amazon Basin, hours from any major centre and a couple days from any English-speaking city, they discovered that they had much to learn before their knowledge could bear fruit.

In addition to intensive Portuguese classes, recalls project leader Defreyne, “we had a consultant talk to us about some of the differences in culture. To just listen to those differences is one thing; to fully understand what those differences mean in a working environment is totally different.” She made numerous month-long trips to Canaã dos Carajás in Brazil’s Pará state during the commissioning and start-up stages of the project.

“You don’t get anything done if you don’t have a good relationship with the people you are working with,” explains Murray. It may sound like a management consultant’s pep talk, but he means it literally. Defreyne offers an example. “I can think of vendors from other countries, who came in and were just expecting to get right to work without going out the first couple of nights to have a drink and get to know everyone. It can take them a long time to listen to you technically if you are not their friend first.”

Defreyne accepted the social challenge happily. Now, she counts Brazilians among her closest friends. As well, without cable TV, movies or other passive entertainment, she has rediscovered the pleasure of conversation with her Canadian housemates. “There were times when we would stay up all night just talking. You don’t do that in Canada anymore.”

As a small group of consultants, the CESL team refused to remake their hosts — who seemed to be time-insensitive — in their own image. They learned to follow the chain of command to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, and to negotiate what Murray describes as a more “fluid” appreciation of time. “It seems that three in the afternoon can mean anything between three and five.” In time, Murray adapted to the local style of meetings. “You have to socialize a bit, try to find out what the person you want to talk to is doing, and have somebody come and get you when they eventually show up for the meeting.”

It was one of the many lessons that Murray and his wife, who accompanied him with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, learned after they went to Brazil on short notice.

They felt like pioneers in Canaã, a town of about 15,000 people. Opening a bank account took months. Power outages, particularly during the rainy season, happened frequently. A day-long blackout after a big grocery shopping trip quickly taught them — with servings of melting ice cream and hamburgers for breakfast — a different approach to home economics. At the plant, outages were less of a problem but roads were often washed out, choking off the supply of oxygen needed to sustain the processing of copper concentrates.

As CESL’s role in the project is wrapping up, Murray says he has enjoyed his 10 months in Canaã and has come away from the experience wiser. Defreyne expects to make a final trip to Canaã this month and is already trying to line up a placement at Teck’s Andacollo copper operation in Chile. The move from relatively progressive Brazil to Chile, where she expects she might confront workplace machismo, will be a challenge, but she’s up to it. “You have to show your technical knowledge and your experience a little bit more. Sometimes, they are a little surprised that you are actually an engineer and not an administrator, but once they find that out, they are very respectful.”

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