27 December 2008

by Jane MacKay Wright

First in a series of releases on the exploitation of DRC's resources.

Mining the untold mineral wealth in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has its hazards for business interests.  First you have to convince the government to issue you a concession.  Then armed men may or may not shoot at you as you begin operations.  Along the way you have to make friends with the right people--not just investors but government officials, military commanders, and clans in the region.

After large international mining operations began closing because of fluctuating market prices, the Congolese government encouraged local artisanal miners to take up picks and shovels and gain a living from the land.  Because the government has built no roads in the DRC interior, artisanal miners dig and carry out back-breakingly heavy bags of cassiterite (tin ore) which they sell to middlemen.  The middlemen fly their goods to trading companies in Goma, DRC and Kigali, Rwanda.

Some companies are planning large-scale operations to dig and process minerals closer to their mines.  Mining Processing Congo (MPC) is one such company.  Its Goma headquarters is just down the road from where Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is staying and across the street from the city's airport.

Warring militias such as the Congres National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP), the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), and local Mai-Mai brigades are funded by Congo's pirated mineral wealth.  Government troops (FARDC), like the others, have fluid loyalties.  Global Witness reports that the FARDC and the FDLR are "operating side by side, each controlling their own territories, trading in minerals from 'their' respective mines without interfering with each other's activities" (Global Witness, Control of mines by warring parties threatens peace efforts in eastern Congo, 2008).

MPC has plans for a $50 million project in Bisie, a huge mountain area northwest of Goma. They would build not only mining operations but schools, a hospital, and other infrastructure that a senior engineer told CPT would be available to all, but they cannot get access to their proposed mine site at present because of the conflict.  Artisanal miners continue to carry out cassiterite, however. Not that there isn't enough to go around, the engineer added, but in any other country this would be illegal.

In the mean time, MPC buys tin oxide from a stream of middlemen coming and going from their offices down the road. At their Goma facility, they wash, upgrade, and send off shipments of cassiterite through Rwanda and the Kenyan port of Mombasa.  Willing buyers are in Russia, India, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere where metals are used in the manufacture of electronic products.  In Goma, people walk beside the dusty road to town carrying jerry cans of water, sacks of charcoal for cooking fires, heavy bags of maize, mounds of green vegetables, and sticks laden with the day's bread, while their country's minerals fly out to the world.