Copyright The Los Angeles Times
In the shadow of a rusting gold-mining factory here, hundreds of sweaty young men slog knee-deep in chocolate pools of sludge. Some heave mud-filled buckets up the slopes of vast open pits, while others strike gray boulders with steel mallets. They pick. Stop. Look for anything that shines. Then pick again.
The miners have gathered in this northeastern village of the Democratic Republic of Congo because they believe years of runoff from the now-shuttered Belgian-built processing plant above them enriched the soil below. On an average day, a miner can unearth nuggets worth $5 to $10.
FOR THE RECORD:
Congo mining Ã³An Oct. 17 article in Section A about mining by Congolese villagers referred to coltan as a granite. Coltan, which is used in electronics, is more precisely described as a mineral.
“It’s a game of chance,” says mud-splattered miner Jean-Claude Takinga, 29, rising from the brown pit after a backbreaking nine-hour shift that yielded gold flecks worth $20. “Once I found $800 worth and used it to buy a house. The next day you find nothing.”
Until recently, this mining area was off limits, first controlled by the state-owned minerals company, then occupied by Ugandan soldiers, then passed between outlaw militias who used the mining proceeds to buy guns.
Now the foreign army is gone. The militias are lying low. And the central government has little authority in this part of the country.
Finally, villagers say, it’s their turn. “This is our field now,” Takinga says.
This is the closest that most Congolese have ever come to reaping the benefits of the land beneath their feet, for more than a century more of a curse than a blessing.
One of Earth’s richest sources of valuable minerals, Congo is believed to hold one-third of the world’s cobalt reserves and two-thirds of its coltan, a black granite widely used in cellphones and Sony PlayStations. The nation also straddles one of the world’s most lucrative copper belts and was once the No. 1 producer of diamonds.
But the Congolese have watched helplessly as billions of dollars in minerals were systematically pillaged by foreigners and despots, beginning with 19th century colonialists.
Belgium’s King Leopold II used Congo as his colonial piggybank in the late 1800s. Beginning a few years after the country’s 1960 independence, the mines funded strongman Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year dictatorship. In 1998, Congo’s envious neighbors launched a bloody four-year war, seizing key mining towns and carting away piles of the nation’s natural resources.
“Congo is like the Garden of Eden,” says miner Serge Utibeli, 26. “God put everything here for us. But it’s also why so many outsiders come to create trouble and take it away.”
Since 2003, a transitional government aided by United Nations peacekeeping troops has improved stability in some of the key northeastern mining towns.
Though rebel militias remain a threat, the lull has cleared the way for an estimated half a million Congolese to rush back to the mines, hoping to scrape together enough minerals to survive another day.
“It’s probably the freest it has ever been,” says Baudio Matata, 49, who has been a miner since he was a boy, starting out working for a state-owned company and then prospecting for himself in the 1980s, when Mobutu liberalized mining laws. It was easier to find gold in the 1980s, he says, but government agents usually seized large finds. Violence and war in the 1990s made mining too dangerous, and those who worked were forced to hand over profits to soldiers or rebels.
“Nowadays it’s harder to find the gold, but I get to keep what I find,” Matata says, waving a small plastic bag containing his day’s take, worth about $6.
Nearly all the small-scale mining is still done by hand, with broken shovels, plastic buckets and homemade hammers. With little else, hundreds of villagers in a remote valley about an hour from Mongbwalu have literally moved a mountain, shovelful by shovelful, over the last two years, excavating a massive red-dirt pit 100 yards deep and 200 yards across. It takes a line of 40 men to toss buckets of dirt and rocks from the bottom of the hole to the top.
George Kubuli, 25, hauling dirt in pink pants and flip-flops, says he doesn’t see much of the 50 grams of gold a day that a manager of the Lafolie mine says it can yield.
“Don’t talk to him,” a supervisor interrupts. “He has work to do.”
At the bottom of the deep pit are gray dolerite rocks containing tiny flecks of gold. Broken rocks are tossed up the same line of men and carried to a tent, where another row of workers pulverizes the stones by striking them with steel poles. To pass the time and make the work less monotonous, the laborers pound and sing in a rhythm that can be heard a mile away.
About 250 miles to the south, in the pastoral highlands near Goma, boys as young as 9 help pan for minerals in the Mumba River, earning money to help their families pay primary school fees. “I’ve already made $10, which I used to buy a goat,” says 14-year-old Asifiwe Barindikije.
Miners there, working in teams of two or three, divert the river into short troughs built of rock and clay, where mud is sifted by hand to isolate the heavier sands containing coltan, cassiterite and manganese.
A middleman makes the arduous three-hour drive from nearby Goma twice a week to buy bags of the sand and rocks.
Faustin Habyambere, 27, says he earns about $5 a day and knows that the middleman, in turn, sells the minerals for about twice that to buyers across the border in Rwanda.
“I don’t care where it goes,” Habyambere says. “Before, I was a farmer, but this pays better.”
Congolese government officials, however, are increasingly frustrated by the export of their nation’s minerals to neighboring countries, much of it done illegally without paying taxes.
“Our loss is enormous,” said Stephen Kitz, a general director at the Office of the Gold Mines of Kilo-Moto, a state-owned extraction company. Kilo-Moto once employed 5,000 people and mined gold worth more than $100 million a year, but today it is nearly bankrupt.
The first stop for the minerals is usually neighboring Uganda or Rwanda. Uganda has few gold mines of its own, yet it has exported an average of $55 million in gold a year since 2000, according to a recent U.N. report. Likewise, tiny Rwanda exports five times as much cassiterite, a black rock used to make tin, as it claims to produce. From these two countries, the U.S. receives much of Congo’s coltan. Brussels gets the diamonds, Switzerland the gold.
In the town of Goma, on the border with Rwanda, there’s little evidence that residents benefit from mining proceeds. Roads remain covered with hardened lava from a deadly 2002 volcanic eruption, and the lack of running water forces residents to make daily treks to Lake Kivu, where they fill jerrycans and do their wash.
“These people are still being pillaged,” says Kevin D’Souza, a mining engineer with resource consultant Wardell Armstrong in London. “That’s the tragedy. It hasn’t changed since the days of King Leopold.
“Nobody even knows how much wealth is being mined and where it’s going. It’s hemorrhaging through various channels.”
Congo’s own mining infrastructure is a shambles. Factories, like the one in Mongbwalu, were closed and looted, leaving no place inside the country to process raw materials. Kitz estimates that $250 million is needed to rebuild the industry.
Sloppy, short-sighted extraction techniques have destabilized most underground mines. Quarries such as Lafolie are reinforced with little more than tree trunks and palm fronds. Elsewhere, cave-ins and falling rocks kill or maim miners every week.
The once-thriving Makala mine, carved into a Mongbwalu hillside in 1948, is one of the most dangerous. Belgians tried to hide the site by burying it and, according to locals, set explosives inside to ward off poachers and destabilize miles-long corridors.
Nevertheless, scores of young men pass through the rusted, moss-covered gates each day, sometimes working in the dark for a week at a time. Inside, they torch the rock to make it smooth and easier to cut, but the fires can suck up all the air and release lethal gases that send miners fleeing. So many are hurt that they’ve set up a committee that collects 15% of everyone’s haul in return for a promise to pay hospital, or funeral, costs in case of an accident.
“I know it’s dangerous, but what choice do I have?” says miner Kasongo Banza, who also runs the collection fund. “If I don’t do this, I don’t eat.”
Although fighting has subsided in the northeast, militias and rebel groups keep a tight grip on mining activities in some areas.
In Mongbwalu, U.N. troops set up camp this year and the mayor was reappointed, but residents know the real authority still rests with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front, or FNI, whose headquarters sits atop a hill overlooking the town.
FNI militiamen show up several times a week at the key mining spots, charging miners $1 each time the workers enter the mines and an additional $12 a week. They even demanded $9,000 in “protection money” from AngloGold Ashanti, a South African mining company under contract with Kilo-Moto.
After Human Rights Watch accused the corporation of funding a “murderous armed group,” AngloGold Ashanti’s chief executive, Bobby Godsell, said he would halt payments to the militia.
Few of the miners complain about the fees they are charged.
“It’s natural to pay,” says Jayerombi Uwechi, 24, squinting at the sun as he emerges from a day inside the partly flooded Adidi mine. “They control the area. We’ve always had to pay whoever’s in control.” The illegal tax, he adds, is better than when the city was controlled by Ugandan soldiers, who sometimes forced people to work in the mines without pay, beating those who refused.
Gold miner John Alio, 27, says he’s just grateful that the minerals provide him with a daily living. He says he can’t imagine his country without them.
“Even if I could trade the minerals for peace, I wouldn’t,” Alio says. “I would never want to give them up.”