Mining in Democratic Republic of the Congo Part I

Mining in Democratic Republic of the Congo Part I

Jobs are dangerous and working conditions are deplorable, but non-industrial mining is also a much-needed source of income in rural eastern Congo, a country located in Africa according to

  • What distinguishes local, non-industrial mining from industrial mining?
  • Which minerals are extracted?
  • How does mining work, and how are the working conditions?
  • What significance does non-industrial mining have for the rural economy?

Much of the research in this article comes from Ben Radley’s doctoral dissertation, which can be read here . The article is translated from English.

Jean-Paul (all names have been changed due to a desire for anonymity) starts the day with a long walk from his house to the mine he works in. It is in the middle of the drying season, so the dust is everywhere. The walk takes about an hour and this morning he has a lot to think about.

The night before, part of his mine collapsed. Fortunately, no one was injured, but Jean-Paul can not afford to stay closed for long. He has debts to pay and has promised the children that their new house will be completed during the year. He must get to the mine, map the damage and start production as soon as possible. A bus bumps phobia. He bites the dusty air and trains up the hill.

Jean-Paul works as a “shaft leader” in a so-called non-industrial gold mine (see explanation in the next section) in Eastern Congo, near the border with Rwanda and Burundi. Around 250,000 people work in 1,600 mines in this region . About 80 percent of them extract gold. Other minerals that are widely produced in Eastern Congo are tin (cassiterite) and coltan .

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines non-industrial and small-scale mining as ” organized or unorganized mining, which mainly uses simple techniques for exploration, extraction, processing and transport “. The opposite is large-scale industrial mining, which to a much greater extent uses machines and other technological equipment, and to a much lesser extent uses manual labor.

2: The mining itself

In 2017, around 800 people worked in Jean-Paul’s mine. It is hard work that is mainly done with simple tools. The non-industrial miners can be divided into three categories: construction workers, shaft workers and shaft managers. Jean-Paul’s mine is managed by around 40 shaft managers, who are responsible for work teams of between five and thirty workers. The shaft managers are responsible for the financial investments in the operation, such as the purchase of land and maintenance of the shafts, and they hire and organize the workers.

The construction and shaft workers make up the majority of the workforce. The construction workers can again be divided into mamans bidons (water carriers), motards (ore carriers) and loutriers (ore washers). Most shaft workers are generalists called fundis (craftsmen), but some of them also have more specific roles: Boiseurs (carpenters) build, secure and expand the shafts, while motards (carriers) transport materials into the mine and ore out of it.

The shaft workers work long shifts, often eight to ten hours, equipped with iron hammers, chisels and headlamps. All the shaft workers Jean-Paul is responsible for are men, and mostly between 20 and 40 years old. It is hard physical work, tough for both young and old.

The shafts can be narrow with little room to move in. When you reach 20-30 meters below the ground, the air becomes thinner and the work becomes demanding and dangerous. “Our work is very difficult. You have to have a lot of energy. You have to be brave … The shafts can collapse and some can lose their lives “, says Dieudonn√©, an experienced miner. The media regularly writes about deaths as a result of shafts collapsing .

3: Non-industrial mining in Congo

So-called artisanal mining has become one of the most important sources of work and livelihood in Congo. In 1983, President Mobuto decided to change the rules for non-industrial mining so that Congolese readers could extract and sell minerals on their own to “take care of themselves” during a particularly difficult economic period. This meant that the sector grew rapidly, much because the work required little prior knowledge and was something “everyone” could start with.

In 2010, the World Bank estimated that between 8 and 10 million Congolese readers were directly or indirectly dependent on non-industrial mining . The sector is legal and to some extent protected by the country’s mining law from 2018. Miners must work in officially approved areas ( Artisanal Exploratiotion Zones , abbreviated to ZEAs), hold accreditation cards and comply with the rules for safety and environmental protection.

In practice, however, few ZEAs have been established. The licenses for Congo’s most important areas for mineral extraction are rather sold to multinational mining companies , where these miners are not allowed to work. For example, 83 percent of Congo’s well-known gold reserves are owned by three multinational companies: Randgold Resources, AngloGold Ashanti and Banro Corporation. As a result, most of the non-industrial mining operations are illegal.

Back at Jean-Paul’s mine, the sun is high in the hazy sky. Today’s first sacks of ore are pulled out of the shafts. When the 25 kg sacks are out of the mine, they are given to the ore carriers, who balance them on their shoulders and transport them to the nearest processing station. At the same time, the water carriers transport water from the local river to the same station. The water carriers are all women. The work is tiring, they have to climb a two kilometer long and steep hill while carrying 20 liter water bottles. The cans are attached to pieces of cloth, which are fastened around the forehead to carry the weight.

When the ore arrives at the processing station, it is sieved and ground to extract the gold. It is then sold to one of the around 30 gold merchants located at the mine. They are easy to recognize, with their black suitcases, brown cowboy hats and clean clothes. Some of the gold can be sold to one of the few trading houses in the nearest town.

The mining sector is often associated with violence and abuse, but when the miners talk about their everyday lives, the picture is not black and white. Their realities vary greatly, both within the same mine and between different areas.

Mining in the Congo