Iga-Barrier — There is no refuge from the blistering heat at this artisanal gold mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Any trees that might have provided shade have been consumed by the mine, which covers an area the size of five or six football fields.
About a thousand people - men, women and some children - swarm across the open-cast mine near Iga-Barrière, about 25km east of Bunia, the administrative town of the Ituri Region.
The scene has all the trappings of a 19th century gold rush, apart from the hum of diesel generators powering pumps to drain water from the open shafts, while hawkers sell drinking water in translucent plastic bags.
Mtsajme, 21, has worked as an artisanal gold miner for more than half his life. "I have grown up in the job," he told IRIN. "I started as a child when I left school at eight. It is all that I have known."
When his stint at this mine finishes, Mtsajme will move to another. "There are too many [gold mines] to count [in Ituri]. One is born and one dies every day," he said.
Since the discovery of gold in 1903 along the banks of the Agola River, gold mining has been part of the territory's economic lifeblood. It is more common to see people carrying mining tools - plastic basins and long-handled spades - than agricultural implements. Local NGOs put the numbers of artisanal gold miners in Ituri between 130,000 and 150,000.
Nzembo Josue, 26, has just had his "best week" since starting as a gold miner six years ago. He made US$100, or the equivalent of two grams of gold.
A way of life
"Gold mining is the main activity of the majority of people in this area, people are not used to farming. There are so many hills here. When one gold mine is finished, we move onto another hill somewhere," Josue told IRIN.
Women, some with babies strapped to their backs, form human chains to pass plastic basins of mud from men excavating the shafts. They all work 13 hour days, six days a week. Some earn as little as US$0.21 a day.
It can take up to three weeks to dig, by hand, an 8m-deep shaft to where the gold-bearing sands lie at Iga-Barrière. Narrower shafts requiring less work carry greater risks.
Josue says that if cracks appear on a shaft's wall, it must be dug wider to make it stable. "I have worked on gold mines where the shafts have collapsed and people have been killed."
A stake at the artisanal gold mine costs about $250, or five grams of gold, and is paid to the Société des Mines d'Or de Kilo Moto (SOKIMO), a public company, which was previously a parastatal.
SOKIMO is a relic from Belgium, the former colonial power. Created in 1926, the company enjoyed boom years during the 1960s and 1970s, employing about 6,000 people and providing housing, clinics and schools for its employees. However, its nationalization in 1966 by then-Zaire's President Mobuto Sese-Seko, who used the company to support his lavish lifestyle, eventually took a toll.
By the late 1980s, the company's only source of revenue was the taxing of artisanal and small-scale miners. Makuza Boniface, SOKIMO director at Iga-Barrière, told IRIN the company imposes a 30 percent tax on all gold produced at the site by the artisanal miners.
After 15 years of gold mining, Lobho Faustin, 30, cannot afford his own claim. He is part of a group of eight diggers, earning a wage to support his three children.
"It's a job to live and survive on. How much money you make depends on how lucky you are. Sometimes I get $50 in a week and sometimes nothing. You can work for weeks and not get paid. I work for someone else. But it all depends. If we find gold then we get paid. There is nothing else to do," he said.
The work of the artisanal gold miners in Ituri is not reflected in official production figures, and in recent years gold production has declined as the gold price has soared.
Eric Yanba Kitene, of Bunia's Centre for Evaluation d'Expertise et de Certification (CEEC), a government organization that provides technical assistance and determines gold purity, told IRIN that in the last six months of 2009, 83kg was officially produced in Ituri. In 2010, 115kg was produced. In 2011, this dropped to 58kg, and production up until November 2012 was 16kg.
Meanwhile, gold is being smuggled across the borders by gold dealers exploiting a tax loophole, Kitene said, to maximise profits.
In 2012, DRC reduced its gold tax for traders from 3.5 percent to 2 percent. Neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda have gold tax rates of between 0.5 percent and 1 percent, Kitene said.
The percentage differential may appear small, but it was enough, Kitene said, to ensure that "maybe 5 to 10 tons of gold is smuggled annually," across international borders, mainly to Rwanda and Uganda.
The solution to prevent gold smuggling would be to introduce "uniform regional gold tax rates and allow gold traders to legally export gold," he said.
Toto Bosingaka, the chief of the Service d'Assistance et d'Encadrement d'Artisanal (SAESSCAM), told IRIN gold traders have to be Congolese and pay an annual fee to government of $150. In Bunia, he said, there were about 30 to 35 registered gold traders, and about 800 in Ituri overall, excluding an unknown number of unlicensed dealers.
SAESSCAM was established in 2002 and tasked with providing assistance and training to the country' artisanal mining sector, but it has been woefully underfunded by government.
Bosingaka, who is responsible for four of Ituri's five territories - Djugu, Irumu, Mahagi and Aru, but not Mambasa - said, "We have a problem of transport and equipment. We have no vehicle, no car, no motorbike and no bicycle."
They have a mandate to ensure adherence to the Mining Code for artisanal miners, and have 10 agents for the four territories, but Bosingaka said the organization was "not really in touch with miners. We work with the gold traders."
Artisanal miners face an array of occupational hazards, including: mercury inhalation while extracting gold from ore; tunnel and open-shaft mine collapses; women experiencing spontaneous abortions due to heavy labour; and the complete absence of water and sanitation facilities.
"Health and safety is set down in the Mining Code, but most miners don't seem to care. It is very difficult to prosecute people as most are not educated and many were in militias during the war," Bosingaka said.
Threat of conflict
As elsewhere in the eastern DRC, Ituri encountered a succession of international and local conflicts, and a variety of militias and foreign national armies imposed their own taxation system on the artisanal gold miners. During the Second Congo War, for example, a conflict between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema emerged and lasted until 2007.
Although Ituri has returned to relative peace, gaining access to Iga-Barrière requires passing through numerous roadblocks staffed by security forces and government officials, who impose random "road taxes" on vehicles and pedestrians alike.
A November 2012 report, Conflict Gold to Criminal Gold, published by Southern Africa Resource Watch, said that for artisanal miners, the peace dividend has not provided any respite from a culture of backhander payments.
"And while the exploitation of artisanal and small-scale miners continues, the identity of those responsible has now changed. They are no longer warlords and militia leaders but government administrators, members of the government's military and security organizations, and many regional traders," the report said.
"They ask for non-existent certificates, like 'scientific training' and 'expertise in mining'. They just create such lists to pick money from the miners"
Louis Bedidj Fuarwingo, coordinator of the artisanal miner organization the Association Exploit dans Mineur Artisnal pur le pacification et reconstruction Ituri (AEMAPRI), told IRIN, "Sometimes authorities harass miners and make them pay for small things to let them work. They can make people very angry and demand as much as $750.
"They ask for non-existent certificates, like 'scientific training' and 'expertise in mining'. They just create such lists to pick money from the miners. Police come to the mining camp and go to the mine boss and then all the miners have to contribute."
Ndele Tanzi, coordinator for the Bunia-based NGO Honesty and Peace, told IRIN gold mining was a major threat to peace and stability. "The Ituri war was cast as an ethnic war, but if you look carefully it was about resources."
Gold is not the only mineral that the territory possesses. It also has, but has yet to commercially exploit, coltan, cobalt, wolframite and cassiterite among other minerals; a similar collection of valuable ores have encouraged and sustained conflict in DRC's Kivu provinces.
"Problems always exist on the mines," Tanzi said, "and not all weapons were taken back after the war, and many of the miners used to be members of militias. There is anger [on the mines]. "
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]