Kambove — In a copper mine near the town of Kambove in the south-eastern province of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one can see dozens of teenage boys with empty rice sacks on their backs, running to grab small pieces of copper forgotten in the debris and to escape rocks falling from an unloading truck up above.
These children are amongst the many thousands in Katanga who are forced to make a living through artisanal (or small-scale) mining. In 2007, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 in Katanga province made their living through the informal and illegal activity, working in hazardous conditions for little pay.
This April, Katanga's Governor Moise Katumbi voiced his concern at the perceived increase of artisanal miners in the copper- and cobalt-wealthy region, but added that his administration can do little to stop illegal mining given that it is a national problem. Indeed, the provincial government has been short on making concerted efforts to tackle the long-standing issue.
Furthermore, while the current global economic crisis and the decline in mineral prices have made artisanal mining less viable, the alternatives in the region are scarce. Reports suggest that while some former miners have turned to agriculture, others have turned to other criminal activities.
A necessary evil
There are two forms of mining in the DRC: formal large scale mining operations (LSM), and informal artisanal and small-scale mining activities (ASM). Artisanal mining can be dangerous and is seen by the state as an burden, but the low start-up costs make it attractive to those with no other options. Indeed, the rise of artisanal mining can be seen an indirect symptom of under-development, lack of employment, corruption, and ineffective government. Without viable formal alternatives, artisanal mining is one way to make a livelihood although local sources told Think Africa Press that miners seldom make more than $3 a day.
Artisanal mining is problematic for numerous other reasons too. The use of child labour in the industry is prominent, work hours are long especially for women, and the methods used in small-scale mining include exposure to mercury, dust, and fumes which make operations hazardous to both miners and the environment. Mining communities also tend to suffer disproportionately from communicable diseases, poor sanitation, sexual violence and food insecurity, and artisanal miners are often forced to live like nomads moving frequently to seek out new opportunities.
In conflict-free zones such as Katanga's Likasi and Lubumbashi, ASM miners sell to numerous stakeholders, including various large-scale mining (LSM) companies, the state-owned Gécamines, security forces, militia groups and local communities. In these exchanges, there is often exploitation or extortion by government officials, as well as fraud, corruption, bribery, and theft.
Despite the countless problems associated with artisanal mining, a 2007 report by the global networking and coordination facility Communities and Small Scale Mining (CASM) emphasises the importance of these practices to individuals, the mining sector and to the broader economy. "This disorganised and recalcitrant sector probably provides a vital livelihood to many thousands of people dispersed throughout the country, and collectively probably constitutes over 80% of the entire mining sector production", the report explains.
Many of the structural reasons behind the DRC's lack of development and rise of small-scale informal mining can be clearly located in the country's recent past. During Mobutu Sese Seko's three-decade rule, the country's economy sunk and infrastructure collapsed to unprecedented lows. The state-owned La Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines), which employed thousands of miners, was virtually bankrupt by the end of Mobutu's kleptocratic rule largely as a result of theft by army "guards." And, moreover, two successive wars enabled systematic exploitation of the country's resources by local militias and foreign armies.
Some recovery took place under Laurent Kabila who overthrew Mobutu in 1997, and Gécamines expanded, but it has never fully recovered. External investments began to flow in and Chinese and other foreign companies started investing in the large-scale mining sector, providing new opportunities and hope for change. A large segment of the population has, however, continued to work in the ASM sector.
Change and progression
Despite the fall in mineral prices, mining is still one of the few economic lifelines in the DRC and changes in governance and policymaking around mining are becoming ever more pressing. ASM activity is still unregulated due to lack of law enforcement, corruption still looms, and in almost all regions artisanal miners are regularly abused and subjected to a disproportionate informal taxes and fees. These problems could well worsen unless changes are made and put into effect immediately.
Alexia Liakounakou holds a BA in the Archaeology of the Middle East and Africa, and an MA in Social Anthropology, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She has teaching experience at an elementary rural school in Sierra Leone and was team coordinator and researcher for the Center of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Peloponnese, Greece. She currently works as a freelance Islamic and African Arts researcher and writer. Follow her on twitter @alexialia.