DR Congo raises the stakes on illegal mining

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A Congolese army officer arrived in Kafwaya village in June and warned residents not to trespass on a major Chinese copper and cobalt mine next door. As night fell about a week later soldiers moved in.

“They didn’t say anything to anyone,” said Fabien Ilunga, an official in Kafwaya, home to thousands of miners eking out a living illegally exploiting nearby mineral resources. “The army started to burn down tarpaulin houses.”

Deploying soldiers to clear thousands of illegal informal miners from mining concessions is a new approach by the authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo, wrestling with the problem for decades.

Years of negotiations, alternative employment programmes and sporadic interventions by police all failed to resolve the issue, long a concern for mining companies exploiting some of the world’s richest mineral deposits.

Using soldiers to keep illegal miners out of vast concessions is likely to be protracted and potentially violent analysts say. The United Nations has accused the Congolese army of human rights abuses.

Tech giants and automakers using Congolese cobalt in smart phones and electric cars are cleaning up supply chains after reports of child labour at informal mines in Congo. Any prolonged violence between soldiers and miners could unsettle investors again.

“Any further involvement of state security forces on mine sites will increase miners’ social risk exposure, already probably the biggest risk they face,” said Indigo Ellis, Africa analyst for risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Congolese authorities say informal miners endanger the country’s interests and the army deployments are meant to prevent accidents such as one that killed 43 illegal miners at a Glencore project on June 27.

HOMES TORCHED

Since the army deployed in south-eastern Congo, thousands of illegal diggers have been pushed off Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) mine and China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume Mine (TFM).

In the case of Kafwaya, in China Molybdenum’s 1,800 square kilometre TFM concession, local activists said a few days after the army’s initial warning on June 13, soldiers set market stalls ablaze and put up camp nearby.

Less than a week later, soldiers torched dozens of homes belonging to miners and farmers and ransacked a school, residents and a local activist group said.

They said the fires severely burned a three-year-old girl and a 14-month-old boy caught inside.

General John Numbi, who led the operation, denied anyone was hurt. Asked later about specific allegations, he sent a text message that said: “Let’s be serious.”

China Molybdenum declined to comment. TFM’s deputy general director, Kasongo Bin Nassor, said at a conference last week the mine asked government to do more to secure the concession, but did not request the army be deployed.

He said the mine was invaded and illegal miners roughed up TFM employees, damaged machinery and made it hard to access parts of the concession.

“Once you have metals that require serious investment, you cannot encourage artisanal mining,” Bin Nassor said.

General Numbi is currently under US, EU and Swiss sanctions for reportedly threatening violence against opposition politicians in 2016. He denies any wrongdoing.

STRATEGIC INTERESTS

The risk of ending up with Congolese cobalt mined by children in dangerous conditions has prompted some car companies to look for alternatives.

Tesla is trying to use more nickel – mainly sourced from Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia and New Caledonia – and less cobalt in car batteries. Tesla says its next generation battery won’t use cobalt at all.

BMW said in April it would buy cobalt directly from mines in Australia and Morocco.

General Motors said it did not purchase cobalt directly and referred questions to LG Chem, its battery supplier.

LG Chem us using blockchain technology in partnership with automakers Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen, tech firm IBM and Huayou Cobalt for ethically sourced minerals, including cobalt.

Apple said since 2016 its suppliers in Congo have taken part in third-party audits to ensure they abide by a code of conduct. The US tech giant dropped two cobalt refiners and smelters last year.

With 64% of global cobalt supplies coming from Congo in 2018, according to the United States Geological Survey, it will be difficult to cut the country out of supply chains.

“In the near term, they know and accept they have to buy cobalt or products at least in some part from the DRC,” said Caspar Rawles, senior cobalt analyst at consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Glencore said its KCC concession had not asked the army to intervene and while troops were operating around the mine, they had not entered the site. The army said it evicted 20,000 miners. Miners responded with a series of protests during which stores were looted and at least 20 people were arrested.

The commodities trading and mining company based in Switzerland referred Reuters to a letter its managing director wrote to Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi urging Congolese forces to respect human rights and use least force possible.

IndustriALL, an international union, said its affiliate at KCC asked regional Governor Richard Muyej to address the issue of illegal miners but opposed sending in the army.

“There are strategic interests at stake,” said General Numbi. “If investors complain government will take measures to deploy the army if it decides the police cannot handle it.”

MINING ALTERNATIVES

The industrial copper and cobalt mines in south-east Congo are far from conflict zones in the east where there are gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten mines controlled by militias and army commanders.

The eastern areas of Congo have been targeted by US legislation seeking to stop so-called conflict minerals ending up in products such as smartphones.

Analysts say clashes between the army and miners in the copper belt where TFM and KCC are located could further unsettle investors worried by the reports of child labour and dangerous conditions in artisanal mines.

“It’s not entirely clear whether you can operate a responsible mine inside the DRC or not. I genuinely do not know whether you can,” said a mining investor, who asked not to be named for fear of angering authorities.

Clashes earlier this year between police and stone-throwing miners in southern Lualaba province, where TFM and KCC are located, killed three officers, convincing authorities better armed forces were needed.

Local police and private contractors supposed to secure mines are often bought off by illegal miners and traders, analysts say, strengthening the case for intervention by the army.

Government sought to convince informal miners to leave in favour of agriculture and mining companies also offered alternatives.

Glencore, for example, supports co-operatives working in farming, welding, sewing and carpentry.

Informal miners say they don’t earn nearly as much through these activities and begrudge industrial mines claiming the richest concessions, some on land where their families have lived for generations.

An estimated 170,000 small-scale miners operate across Lualaba and numbers appear to be growing. Often equipped with just shovels, buckets and straw sacks, they burrow deep underground in search of ore. Accidents are common.

“There are cave-ins all the time,” said an official at an industrial mine. “Wherever there is cobalt in the DRC, there will be artisanal miners.”

In the absence of long term economic alternatives for the illegal miners, they are likely to return to concessions, pushing soldiers to harsher measures, said another mining consultant, who asked not to be named.

“Displacing artisanals is like whack-a-mole,” he said. “What they will end up doing is brutalising miners to make them too afraid to come back.”