Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Kinshasa — Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB), the DRC’s biggest coltan miner, resumed purchases of the ore after a three-month shutdown at one of the country’s largest deposits.

Output restarted at SMB’s mining permit, comprising seven sites at Rubaya in eastern DRC, on August 14 and the company began buying the minerals extracted by artisanal diggers on Tuesday, said Freddy Nzonga, the company’s director of traceability, by phone.

Production was halted in May following allegations of smuggling and attacks by miners against SMB officials. "The diggers returned to the sites last month," Nzonga said. Production is "still quite modest," he said.

The DRC produces more than a quarter of the world’s tantalum, the scarce mineral that’s extracted from coltan ore and used in Apple iPhones and other smartphones as well as armaments and aviation components. In 2017, SMB purchased about 1,000t of coltan ore extracted from its permit area. That is about half of the DRC’s total production, mines ministry data show.

SMB is controlled by the family of Edouard Mwangachuchu, a Congolese senator. Its sites at Rubaya were declared "green" by mines minister Martin Kabwelulu in March 2012, among the first in the DRC to qualify as mines that do not fund armed conflict in a region blighted by more than two decades of militia violence.

Coltan produced there is tagged under a mineral-tracing system run by the UK-based International Tin Association. SMB’s license is for industrialised mining, but in order to end a lengthy dispute with locals, in 2013 it signed an accord with the Cooperamma co-operative permitting its members to dig the ore from SMB’s permit areas as long as they sold it to them.

SMB halted activity at its Rubaya sites — one is mechanised, while the others are exploited manually by Cooperamma — because of a "breakdown" in its agreement with the miners. The 102-day suspension was the result of "recurrent participation by Cooperamma members in fraud" and the co-operative’s refusal to implement upgraded traceability mechanisms, according to a May 2 letter the company sent to Anselme Kitakya, the provincial minister of mines.

Status revoked

SMB ceased operations due to its "obligation to take conservatory measures to preserve its green sites" by strengthening security and improving traceability, according to the letter.

Kabwelulu revoked the sites’ status in June, after violent clashes between Cooperamma members and security forces in the wake of SMB’s suspension of production, and forbade any resumption of mining.

Kitakya said Cooperamma does not always deliver the ore to SMB, but he could not measure how much was sold illegally elsewhere. The origin of the tension between the company and the co-operative is that the residents around Rubaya, who make up Cooperamma’s members, contest SMB’s ownership of the land being mined, he said in an interview on August 13.

"The accusations are baseless," Cooperamma’s president, Robert Seninga, said by phone from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province where Rubaya is located. The co-operative "works in close collaboration" with the state and SMB to snuff out fraud, said Seninga, who is also a provincial legislator.

The mines were revalidated as "green" on August 2, after SMB and Cooperamma struck an updated agreement in June. The deal permits the co-operative’s members to continue digging for 15 months and reaffirms SMB’s monopoly on purchasing the ore, while committing both sides to tightening supply-chain traceability. North Kivu governor Julien Paluku reopened the mine on August 13.