From fighters to illegal miners in Congo/ Des ex-combattants devenus mineurs illégaux au Congo

(Liens en anglais/ Links in english)

Voici un blog de Ruth Gidley qui nous indique que 3 à 4% de la population de République démocratique du Congo travaille dans le secteur des mines illégales. C’est un secteur lucratif qui attire aussi les “hommes d’affaires” de l’étranger, d’aussi loin que le Liban et la Chine. Ils viennent chercher de l’or, de la cassitérite, des diamants, etc. Beaucoup d’anciens combattants et de miliciens se recyclent dans ce commerce, mais les conditions de travail sont extrêmement difficiles.

A blog by Ruth Gidley indicates that 3 to 4% of the congolses work in illegal; mining in Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a lucrative business that attracts foreign “business people” as far as Lebanon and China. They all rush for gold, cassiterite, diamonds etc. A lot of former fighters and rebels are turning themselves to artisanal mining but the work conditions are extremely difficult.

Pkata pit

À droite: Mineur artisanal dans la mine d’or de Pkata (l’or doit être extrait de la boue)

To the right: Artisanal miner in the Pkata gold pit (the gold has to be extracted from the mud)

Ruth Gidley:

If you were a Congolese ex-fighter looking for a new way to earn a living, would you be more likely to take up classes in batik textiles and farming to survive, or start mining for precious minerals which might make you rich?

Given the fact that the average ex-combatant hasn’t had a chance to go to school, and is well used to dicing with death, it’s just not realistic to think that Congo’s illegal mining sector is going to fade away with a few well-meaning aid agency projects to provide alternative livelihoods, British-based mining engineer Kevin D’Souza says.

He estimates that 3 or 4 percent of the population works in the illegal mining trade, dangerous as it is.

If you count workers’ relatives, that means about one in five people depend on it in this vast country, adds D’Souza, who works for engineering and environmental consultants Wardell Armstrong.

Democratic Republic of Congo is still wracked by violence that regularly forces thousands of people to flee their homes and keeps swathes of the population out of reach of even the most basic health care.

Many of the deposits of diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, coltan and cassiterite lie in the same regions – predominantly eastern and southeastern – where militias continue to battle it out against the fledgling national army, the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping force, and sometimes against each other.

About 80 percent of mining in Congo is illegal, D’Souza estimates, and precious minerals also tend to be clustered around the country’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda, a bonus for smugglers.

Thirst for profit

Greed for Congo’s precious minerals was a major factor in the regional war that tore the country apart from 1998 to 2003 and D’Souza says neighbouring countries are still profiting. “It’s still happening,” he says.

The British Department for International Development will publish new research on these controversial foreign trade routes in July.

Investors from further afield add to the mix, and organisations like Global Witness have researched the links between conflict and the thirst for profit from Congo’s resources.

There are Indian and Lebanese mineral buyers in Congo, but China is the most infamous foreign market, with various researchers documenting how the Asian giant’s economic boom and the world’s thirst for mobile phones has fuelled rocketing prices for coltan and cassiterite since the start of the 21st century.

Coltan prices rose 10-fold in 2000, so that a miner could make $80 a day. Now it’s gone down, D’Souza says, and typical earnings are more like $2.50 to $12. But that’s nothing to sneeze at in a country where per capita income is around $120 a year.

Cassiterite prices have soared too, the bulk of it exported through Rwanda, according to D’Souza, while he estimates about 10 tonnes of gold is traded through Uganda every month.

But D’Souza, who specialises in community development and has been to mines across Africa, argues that aid workers and journalists should widen their focus beyond thinking of mining as a potential cause of conflict, and start to think how Congo’s mineral wealth might get to the people who need it most.

A fair share

If artisanal mining isn’t going to disappear – in fact, it’s likely to grow – he suggests the big mining companies, the government and aid agencies need to think of ways to make the industry less exploitative.

Aid agency projects for creating alternative livelihoods are well-meaning, but unrealistic when mining profits are this attractive, he says.

So what about thinking of ways to get a fair market for miners?

A group of Western advocacy organisations launched a campaign called A Fair Share for Congo this year calling on the Congolese government to renegotiate mining contracts that let too much of the income from natural resources leave the country. Congo’s government should be involved too, D’Souza argues.

Every Congo expert and Congolese person you speak to says corruption is endemic.

But the population wants to feel the benefit of their country’s immense resources, and maybe a degree of nationalism could feed into revamping the sector, he suggests hopefully.

And there’s potential for greater links between the big, commercial mining companies and the smaller, illegal miners who traditionally view each other as enemies.

Until recently, corporates have looked down on cowboy miners as inconvenient trespassers, even though they sometimes point the way to lucrative digging sites.

But in this era of corporate social responsibility, there could be a chance for companies to offer training, safety knowledge and maybe even jobs.

As things stand, there’s no avoiding the serious problems that wrack the artisanal mining sector. Bonded labour is common, and all sorts of officials, semi-officials and completely unofficials are on hand to take a cut of the takings.

It’s also hard to imagine a more unsafe working environment. Ventilation is poor, mercury used in gold mining is highly toxic, and there are regular rockfalls in pits dug haphazardly without planning or precaution.

Fatal accidents happen virtually every week, D’Souza says.

Then there’s the impact on the environment – both natural and human. Waste products flow and seep into rivers, soil erosion is rife.

For Congo’s numerous ex-combatants, most of whom have never earned a living any other way, mining is tempting, but there’s no cooperative structure, so it’s every man for himself.

“They’ve got few skills. It’s easy money,” D’Souza says, adding that child labour is common, domestic abuse is rife, sexual exploitation endemic, and witchcraft on the increase.

It is time, he says, to address the reality rather than hope for unrealistic alternatives.

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2 thoughts on “From fighters to illegal miners in Congo/ Des ex-combattants devenus mineurs illégaux au Congo

  1. Could you please tell me what your sources are or indicate where I can get accurate figures, testimonies and reports on these ex-fighters?

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