KIGALI, RWANDA— Mining experts say warring parties in eastern Congo are missing the big picture. They say armed groups are fighting over surface-level mines and blocking access to billions of dollars in mineral deposits deeper underground. Could unlocking that potential be the key to sustainable peace?
Nearly all of the mines in eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces are still worked by small-scale or "artisanal" miners using picks and shovels, who, in many cases, are forced to pay illegal taxes to armed groups or to the army.
The minerals are mostly smuggled to neighboring countries to avoid Congo’s other taxes, and officials in those neighboring countries, as well as the Congolese army, have allegedly supported armed groups in order to keep this situation going.
But there could be a win-win solution for both sides of the borders, says Sasha Lezhnev, of the Enough Project, a non-governmental organization that campaigns for responsible minerals trade.
"I think what has been discovered in the last few years, if you look at a mine like Bisie in Walikale for example, is in fact when geologists come and drill into the ground they discover hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars worth of deposits of these minerals," Lezhnev said. "And yet the Congolese government has not really opened up these mines as they have in other parts of the country to investors."
The mine at Bisie, where mining is still entirely artisanal, is an exceptionally rich deposit, and two years ago was reported to be producing most of the tin ore exported from eastern Congo. But a number of other sites, including several gold mines, could also be exploited industrially, and without funding rebel groups like the FDLR, Lezhnev suggests.
"Some of these areas are not really in conflict. Frankly, the FDLR has been pushed out of many of these mines, so it’s the army [in control]," he said. "So theoretically, the government should be able to say to the army, oh no, please go and do your business somewhere else."
Lezhnev says if the government could open up these mines to serious investors, neighboring countries could also benefit by providing services.
"So building on that I would say the key to unlocking peace is really to develop those mines in eastern Congo, and also in Rwanda and other areas of the region, by working closely with the private sector and NGOs to develop responsible minerals trade that actually works across borders," Lezhnev said.
A premature concept
How soon could this happen? A close observer of mining in the region, the Dutch lawmaker Judith Sargentini - who’s campaigning against conflict minerals - says industrial investment might be premature because of the impact on jobs.
"Yes, you could imagine that if things in eastern Congo calm down that in 20, 30 or 40 years you do indeed see a bigger industrialization of mining," she said. "But I do think you can organize it as well at the moment with artisanal mining, creating a lot of jobs, and I find that very important also for stabilizing the country."
So far, almost the only experience the Kivus have had with industrial mining has been with the company Banro. Congolese researcher Kamundala Byemba reported last year that out of 6,000-12,000 miners working in the Twangiza area where Banro drilled a pit, only 850 were offered jobs by the company and many of those jobs were temporary, while the others lost access to the mine.
The Banro foundation chairman, Martin Jones, disputes those figures.
He said, "That’s absolutely incorrect. There are many thousands of artisanal miners working at Twangiza but when we brought the south pit into production it was only a matter of finding work alternatives for 1,200-1,300 of them."
Banro says it directly employs 1,200 Congolese nationals, has offered as many as 2,000 other jobs in eastern Congo through labor hire companies and that its investment has indirectly created as many as 20,000 jobs in the wider economy.
It also says its charitable foundation has invested $4 million in social projects in eastern Congo, such as schools and training centers, and built or repaired 550 kilometers of roads.