GOMA, DRC— Minerals that were stockpiled in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo because of a ban on mining activities are now on their way to being exported, according to traders in the city of Goma. The pressure group Global Witness says it is not clear that the stockpiled minerals have not funded conflict.
Non-industrial mining, which provides a livelihood for millions of people in Congo, was banned in 2010 in the provinces of North and South Kivu. The ban came at a time when the government was under heavy international pressure to clean up the industry in the Kivus and prevent it from benefiting armed groups and soldiers who were selling them weapons.
Since then the ban on mining and trading minerals has been lifted in a few parts of the provinces, but is still in place in Walikale territory where the richest deposits are concentrated. Recently the central government authorized the sale of 400 tons of stockpiled tin ore, which was extracted in Walikale before the mining ban. It has also allowed two trading houses, both Chinese-owned, to reopen in Goma.
Malela Ngoma is a manager at one of these houses, owned by the Hua Ying company. Ngoma says the stockpiles are now being moved to Goma.
The minerals are coming by road, he said, and are currently passing through a forest on the way to Goma.
A manager at the other export house, CMM, gave his name as Jean Pierre Koti. He confirms the mineral shipment is en route but says there could be delays due to a shortage of heavy trucks.
A trader who asked for his name to be withheld says some of the minerals have already arrived in Goma, and that there may be an attempt to smuggle out 5,000 tons of ore under cover of the exemption for 400 tons.
Prince Kihangi, a traditional leader from Walikale, heads a civil society group that tries to monitor the minerals trade.
He says his group will check whether only 400 tons are exported. If trading continues after the export quota has been reached, Prince Kihangi says that would constitute illegal trafficking.
The pressure group Global Witness, which campaigns on mining governance issues, says Congolese law obligates the two Chinese trading houses to ensure that proceeds of the mineral sales are not supporting conflict groups.
"My message to them would be: 'Have you undertaken any form of check? Are you sure that the minerals that you’re buying, stockpiled or not, have not in one way or another funded conflict?' I don’t know how they can be sure of that," said Global Witness campaigner Sophia Pickles.
Prince Kihangi agrees there may be that risk. However, he also says the risk is reduced these days, as armed groups no longer are present in the area where this ore was mined. He says that is now true of most of the mining zones in Walikale. Mining could be restarted there, he adds, but for one obstacle.
The problem that remains, Prince Kihangi says, is the presence of the military at the mines, which hinders the process of tracing mineral shipments. However, the Walikale leader says he thinks mining can be restarted because the real threat came from the armed groups, not the national army.
The manager of the Hua Ying trading, Zhu Zhong, contends that some mines in Walikale should certainly be reopened.
"The U.N. mission MONUSCO is there," he says, "and yet all the mining is shut down," Zhong said.
"It’s a big problem," he continues. "Where will people find the money to feed themselves, or go to the hospital, or send their children to school?"
The provincial minister for mines, Jean Paul Ruyange, told VOA the authorities want to send a mission to Walikale to validate the mines - in other words, check that they can reopen. He said the main obstacle is that technical experts from a German agency called BGR (Bundesanstalt fuer Geowissenschaften und Rollstoffe) are supposed to accompany any validation mission, and they have not been authorized to travel to the interior of North Kivu.
A source at BGR tells VOA the technical team is ready to accompany a DRC validation mission, but is awaiting an invitation from Congolese authorities.