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Congo - Mining in Darkness

Coen van Wyk

Posted on June 2, 2018 12:32

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The Congo is a proverbial treasure chest. It produces 30% of the diamonds in the world, 70% of the Coltan, which makes cell phones work, it has gold, uranium, cobalt, tin, copper, and oil. And 71% of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

Joseph Conrad called King Leopold’s Congo the “Heart of Darkness.” The name echoes still. King Leopold of Belgium extracted a fortune in rubber from his private possession, the Congo. His agents would chop off the feet and hands of children if their parents could not deliver their quota.
 
America owes the Congo for victory over Japan: the uranium for the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Shinkolobwe. In the fifties the mine was flooded, capped with concrete, and guarded by the Congolese Presidential Guard. In 1994 part of the mine caved in, killing an unknown number of artisanal miners, and injuring many, some children. They had been allowed, against a fee to the military, to extract radioactive ore, concentrate it over open fires, and sell it to the highest bidders. Some of the uranium concentrate, it was believed, may have found its way to terrorist groups.

Hard rock miners, seeking Coltan. Photo Mvemba Phezo Dizolele

Post liberation President Field Marshal Mobuto Sese Seko would have his gold bath sent after him on overseas trips, and would treat visitors at his forest palace at Gbadolite to take-aways from the Ritz in Paris, delivered by Concord. The runway was constructed with this in mind.
 
In 2013, a rebel group called M23 became a serious threat to the eastern Concolese provinces. Their war was financed with an estimated $500 million worth of gold smuggled out through private border crossings. At that time Uganda exported 500% more gold than it produced. Rwanda exported a significant amount despite producing none.

The United Nations set up a system of tagging production of ‘blood minerals’ and was aided by the Dodd Frank act. Mining companies, keen to work in a predictable economy, abided by the rules. Warlords did not. Instead they established fiefdoms where men, women and children (preferably the latter, they could fit into smaller shafts) would pay a levy per day to be allowed to work, and at the end the warlord would buy their ore, thus financing several regional terrorist and rebel groups.

Multinational mining corporations deal with an opaque, ever changing tax regime which shaves away at profit margins. Customs and other technical transgressions may mean the cancellation of mining licences despite massive investments having been made.

Not that these taxes serve to benefit the people. It was claimed that mining taxes of $750 million vanished between 2013 and 2015.

The future is not rosy. The risk to Dodd Frank heartens warlords, terrorists and corrupt officials as the exports of materials used in cell phones, batteries and high tech equipment would no longer be scrutinised by the stock exchanges. Importers of these ‘blood minerals’ would no longer fear exposure, and could finance their rebellions and terrorism with impunity. And children would continue mining dangerous ore.

Working copper tailings. John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail



Disclaimer: I worked in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo’s between 1998 and 2008. I provide language services to mining companies also in the Congo.

Coen van Wyk

Posted on June 2, 2018 12:32

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