opinionBy Mélanie Gouby
Goma — Lonmin's Marikana mine tragedy has drawn international attention on the deplorable working conditions of South African miners. But was there any media coverage of the sixty people who died two weeks ago in a gold mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Barely.
Stretching into the depths of the mountain, a tunnel, carved by hand, is supported by a wooden structure like that on a set of an old Western movie. It gets dark very quickly as we move heads down into the tunnel. It's hard to tell if our shortness of breath comes from the slight but unavoidable claustrophobic anxiety or the actual lack of oxygen down the well.
"With time, we actually forget about the dangers, even though they are real," says Bisima, a 33-year-old miner working in the Nyabibwe mine in eastern DRC. "Mine collapse remains the greatest danger," he says.
While Lonmin's Marikana mine carnage in South Africa got an incredible amount of coverage last week, only two weeks ago, 60 people died following a mine collapse in Pangoyi, in the Ituri Province. However, there was barely any report on the incident.
No safety measures
In the DRC, no one protests for better living conditions. Between the incessant conflicts and the extreme poverty, a human life does not hold much value.
"People risk their lives. This is our daily reality here in the DRC. In Nyabibwe, no miner wears a protective helmet or gloves," revolts Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher for the American NGO Enough Project in the DRC.
Conditions are no better in the Ituri gold mine. "When we descend into the wells, there are no safety measures. The mine can collapse at any moment. And we work very hard, even at night. Those are not conditions for human beings to work in," explains Patrick, a 20-year-old miner from Mubi in the Walikale region.
Although the DRC has mineral resources to make any western country pale with envy, it remains one of the least developed countries in the world. The country is the leading tin exporter in Africa and the fifth one in the world. Congolese subsoil holds 80% of the world's coltan reserves. The metal is used in the manufacture of almost every electronic devices. Gold and diamonds also come in abundance in the country.
But miners often dig using only pickaxes and shovels, without any help of any motorised tools. Infrastructures are simply nonexistent since a number of the mines are informal, meaning not belonging to any large industrial corporation. The miners sell the minerals to traders who take them to the cities of Goma or Bukavu where they are purchased in bulk by foreign companies.
Although few human rights organisations tackle the issue of working conditions in Congolese mines, many nevertheless campaign against the use of the infamous "blood minerals" which are believed to finance armed rebel groups in the eastern part of the country.
In 2010, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, including Enough Project and Global Witness, successfully pushed for a law on the blood minerals to be passed by the American congress. However, with the enforcement of the law, minerals trade in the DRC almost came to a standstill. Instead of investing in a system of traceability that would guarantee the "cleanness" of the minerals they purchased, American companies simply withdrew from the DRC.
As a result, the sales of minerals like coltan or cassiterite dropped by 90% and the living and working conditions of the miners deteriorated further.
"We feel forsaken. People say that this law will help our country and stop the war but we don't see any difference. In fact, things are even worse today: there is still insecurity and we have no income," says Safari, a 50-year-old miner in Nyabibwe.
In the last two years, numerous projects to "clean" the Congolese mining sector and guarantee the origin of the minerals have been initiated by the United Nations, the United States of America and the
International Conference for the Great Lakes Region. But these efforts were stumped by the M23 rebellion.
The rebellion takes its name from a 2009 peace accord the rebels say was violated by Kinshasa.
It has been swelled by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army who walked out into the bush in support of fugitive Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.
In Katanga, a province spared by the conflicts in southern DRC, a system of traceability was put in place and it allowed the trade of minerals to continue uninterrupted. However, working conditions in the Katanga mines have not improved.