Artisanal miners sort cobalt minerals on the road between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi, the DRC. Picture: AFP/SAMIR TOUNSI
Artisanal miners sort cobalt minerals on the road between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi, the DRC. Picture: AFP/SAMIR TOUNSI

Kinshasa — A deadly landslide and troop deployments at two giant mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) highlight how authorities are struggling to cope with citizens’ efforts to share in the country’s immense mineral wealth.

The events at Glencore and China Molybdenum’s operations are the latest examples of long-running tensions that exist in the copper- and cobalt-rich Katanga region, between the sprawling, foreign-owned industrial mines and locals who extract the minerals using rudimentary hand tools.

Producers say the trespassers are endangering both themselves and mine employees, while diggers and their families claim they have mined the land for years and should have a right to access at least parts of the vast tracts controlled by international companies.

Digging and trading minerals — although arduous and frequently dangerous — is often the most attractive way to make a living in one of the world’s poorest countries. Of course, not every person with a pick-axe is an illegal miner — many work in licensed co-operatives on authorised sites.

While exact figures are unavailable, far more people are employed in so-called artisanal mining in Katanga than fully mechanised sites, according to Andrew Britton, MD of Kumi Consulting. The 200,000 figure is from trading house Trafigura Group.

While special zones exist for artisanal miners, the allure of rich deposits on foreign-owned concessions draws thousands of sometimes-violent intruders onto the enormous permits. Diggers also say that they are deterred from moving to authorised areas because some local co-operatives there are controlled by the families of local politicians rather than the miners themselves.

The long-standing issue of illegal mining jumped back into the spotlight when at least 43 people died last week in a landslide after breaking into an area of the giant Kamoto mine, owned by Glencore unit Katanga Mining.

The country is under pressure to improve its image as a metal supplier, after research exposing child labour and lethal working conditions on uncontrolled sites

The DRC recently sent troops to clear out thousands of diggers at China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume mine (TFM), and an army chief said this week that the president has ordered a similar action at Kamoto. Amnesty International and other local rights groups oppose the operations and say the deployments will exacerbate the situation.

The giant concessions are not only near impossible to secure, they’re also too huge to mine all at once. TFM is especially large. That’s led some locals to argue that international companies should allow artisanal miners onto areas of the sites that aren’t being worked on.

“Why can’t they leave a part to the diggers? Diggers don’t need to work everywhere”, said Jacques Kaumbu Mukumbi, director-general of a mining co-operative in the village of Kawama.

Many of those being expelled don’t even view themselves as “illegal” miners. There’s a sense that, “as Congolese, they have the right to dig”, said Emmanuel Umpula, director of Afrewatch, a Kolwezi-based human rights group. “They think a company cannot take large areas, mine a small part of it and employ a tiny section of Congolese.”

Metals galore

There’s no denying the DRC’s riches: besides cobalt, a key ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and smartphones, it’s also a top-five copper producer and significant source of tantalum. An estimated 20% of the country’s cobalt was produced artisanally in 2018, according to Darton Commodities.

Yet the country is under pressure to improve its image as a metal supplier, after research exposing child labour and lethal working conditions on uncontrolled sites prompted some buyers to try to avoid DRC cobalt altogether and the London Metal Exchange to require cobalt and tin producers to carry out reviews of their supply chains.

Lualaba, the Katangan province with the richest deposits, is seeking to formalise the artisanal sector. Governor Richard Muyej spearheaded a project on the outskirts of Kolwezi, the provincial capital, where a unit of Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt was awarded a purchasing monopoly in exchange for paying to resettle hundreds of people, seal off the perimeter, and excavate the site to make mining safer for the two co-operatives that operate there.

Muyej plans to roll out the model to at least 10 other sites, but so far progress has been slow.

In another example of formalising artisanal operations, closely held Chemaf has allocated a controlled area at its Mutoshi project to a local co-operative that sells all its cobalt ore to the company. Chemaf is partnering on the project with Trafigura, which buys its refined material. Still, the site assigned to the co-operative could be depleted by the end of this year and it’s unclear whether the project will be extended or replicated.

Bloomberg