The past year has been challenging for the Canadian mining corporation Banro. The company holds four gold mining concessions in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Namoya concession in Maniema province went into production in January 2016 but the company was forced to temporarily suspend operations and evacuate staff in May and July this year.
The suspensions were related to threats from a local armed group to attack the operation. These were not isolated incidents but followed a string of violent attacks, property destruction, ambushes and kidnappings of workers.
The company president and CEO, John Clarke blamed the violence on "a few bandits" he believes are a remnant of the country's difficult past, not on discontent and poverty that many believe have been made worse by the company's presence.
But my recently published research shows that these issues are in fact interrelated. Armed groups and local strongmen capitalise on widespread anger towards the company. This anger largely stems from the deep economic crisis in the Namoya region which was caused by the forced closure of artisanal mining sites four years ago. The effects were not only felt by the 6.000 to 10.000 diggers who were forcibly removed, but also by all those depending indirectly on diggers' incomes, like farmers, shopkeepers, bar-owners and taxing agents.
By claiming to oppose transnational mining companies, armed groups are able to gain popular support. They often do so by drawing on the language of anti-imperialism and neocolonialism, which resonates strongly in the DRC. As a political representative of the coalition of armed groups responsible for the most recent attacks put it:
the government has signed contracts with foreign mining companies that allow them to plunder our resources. This is neocolonialism (... ) we will fight it.
Armed groups are also bolstered by competition between local elites and authorities that is fuelled by the influx of resources stemming from mining operations. In a militarised area like the eastern DRC, conflicting local elites and authorities often draw on armed groups to bolster their position. This, in turn, strengthens these groups.
Mining companies would be better served to acknowledge and monitor rather than downplay the effects of their presence on conflicts and armed groups. Arguably, a more conflict-sensitive approach could have prevented the outbreak of violence in Namoya.
How violence escalated
Before 2016 there was limited activity by armed groups in the Namoya region. This changed after an escalation of tensions between the company and the people living in the area in January 2016. That month, a protest march against Banro ended in bloodshed. An officer from the Congolese police unit contracted by Banro opened fire on the crowd of protesters, causing the death of one person.
The march was held to protest against what people perceive to be the company's failure to promptly meet its commitments towards the community, like building health care centres and schools. The impatience is understandable given the dire economic situation in the region. Not only have artisanal miners largely been driven out of business, the company employs limited labour and subcontractors from the area.
Towards the end of 2016, armed groups began ambushing vehicles from Banro's logistics subcontractors close to Namoya. In March this year, one of these groups also directly attacked Banro's facilities, taking a number of employees hostage.
The group responsible for taking the employees hostage demanded that the company construct basic infrastructure in the area as one of the conditions for releasing the hostages. Namoya's population has remained divided about the attacks, but many sympathise with the armed group's stance. This has allowed the group to harness crucial support from community members, like financial contributions and intelligence.
Neither criminal nor ideological
There is a tendency to see armed groups in dichotomous terms: as either ideological and having a political agenda or as criminal and pursuing material self interest. The reality is much more complex.
There's no doubt that there's a good dose of self interest in armed groups' antagonism towards Banro. They have tried to benefit financially from ransom payments and "protection fees" paid by logistics subcontractors to avoid ambushes. Many armed groups also depend on artisanal mining for some of their income, imposing forced contributions on diggers and pit-owners. So the closure of artisanal mining sites by industrial companies threatens their income.
But this doesn't mean they are simply criminals looking only for self-enrichment. Armed groups articulate widespread grievances, including growing discontent with the DRC's political leadership and the delay in holding elections.
These grievances don't legitimise the use of violence. But they create a measure of sympathy among the population for those claiming to fight the perceived source of their hardships.
There is a general fear that the expansion of industrial mining in the eastern DRC will eventually wipe out the artisanal and small-scale mining sector. This sector, which also mines tin, tantalum and tungsten, is estimated to employ 9-17% of the total population of the Kivu provinces. Its economic importance is however much bigger as money earned with mining is invested in other sectors, like real estate and the trade in consumer goods.
After the mining sites in Namoya were closed, many artisanal miners moved to gold mines in Fizi territory. But an exploration company, CASA Mining, is paving the way for industrial mining in that region and artisanal miners fear being displaced again.
An armed group active in the area plays into these fears. It has encouraged the population to manifest against the company. CASA's operations have also been attacked. One member of the armed group commented that:
CASA will never work here. All those chased from Salamabila [Namoya] have fled here; they will rather revolt than being chased again.
Industrial mining companies operating in the eastern DRC would do well to acknowledge how their presence feeds into dynamics of conflict and violence rather than obscuring these complexities. As Banro's plummeting share price over the past year shows, in particular a spectacular 12% drop after the violence in July, this would also be in the company's own interest.
Judith Verweijen receives funding from the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO).