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Congo Welcomes UN Recommendations on Mining - 2003-10-31

Government officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo have welcomed the recommendations contained in a new United Nations committee report on the exploitation of the country's natural resources, but they say the measures will be very difficult to implement.

Top officials in Congo's mining ministry, including Minister Eugene Diomi Ndongala, have voiced their support for the recommendations issued by the special U.N. panel on exploitation of Congo's mineral wealth.

A first draft of the panel's report, released this week, recommends the break-up of Congo's state-run mining company Gecamines, largely a copper and cobalt producer, and the country's biggest diamond mining company, MIBA, which is 80 percent held by the government.

Minister Ndongala says he agrees in principle to the recommendations calling for good governance, better management and transparency in a notoriously shady business, which is courted by international mineral smugglers, influential businessmen, arms dealers and corrupt government officials.

But the minister acknowledges that he is powerless to reform Gecamines and MIBA without complex legislation first going through the country's new parliament, which has yet to announce its own budget.

In an interview, Minister Ndongala also said that under the new World Bank mining code, both Gecamines and MIBA officials have the right to negotiate and sign contracts for their businesses.

An earlier draft of the U.N. panel report said the two companies had contracts with people and companies engaged in illegal and unethical business practices. But forcing the two firms to break the contracts would likely result in hefty legal fees and business losses.

The U.N. panel subsequently removed parts of the report that named specific companies and individuals it claimed were involved in illegal or unethical activities. However, the final panel report does link illegal activity in Congo's mining sector to arms smuggling and the country's five-year civil war, which officially ended in July although violence continues.

Meanwhile, top officials of Gecamines have complained that thousands of tons of copper concentrate have gone missing in the last three months. While state officials are negotiating the return of the minerals, they are simultaneously being accused of organizing their disappearance and working alongside foreign businessmen closely connected to the ministry of mines. Meanwhile, MIBA has insisted on keeping up its contracts with diamond companies it depends on to do business.

Congo's civil war ruined the mining sector's infrastructure and left it open to illegal mining operators and amateurs. The mining ministry estimates that more than $450 million worth of diamonds are smuggled out illegally each year.

Meanwhile, Congo's legal mineral production has dropped dramatically since the 1980s. Copper production used to be half a million tons a year. It now stands at just 20,000 tons a year.