The eastern highlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo make up the country's highest and most rugged region. It is home to a series of mountains 80 to 560 km wide, extending from the Rwenzori Mountain in northeastern Congo through the Virunga volcanic ranges to the Mitumba Mountains.
Eastern DR Congo is also home to an estimated 160,000 to 200,000 gold miners who work in about 1,000 artisanal mining sites. The Butuzi site, located in the Mitumba Mountains, is one of them. It occupies an area that was once dominated by an Afro-montane forest, now almost completely deforested.
While DR Congo's annual artisanal gold production is estimated to stand at between eight to ten tons, official statistics show that only 200 kg of the commodity is exported legally - the rest, nearly 98 per cent, is smuggled out of the country.
A 2013 report jointly produced by UN Environment and the United Nations Development Programme suggests that mining plays a direct role in financing and driving conflict in many countries worldwide, including Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and the DR Congo.
The report, titled The Role of Natural Resources in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, illustrates how armed groups controlling the mines and points of sale often exploit artisanal miners in conflict areas, as seen in the DR Congo. The revenues and benefits of this work go primarily to mid and high-level commanders of those groups while most artisanal miners rarely make enough to lift themselves out of poverty.
The report on illegal exploitation and trade in natural resources, published in 2015, confirms these findings, noting that gold is the main source of financing for criminal groups in eastern DR Congo, accounting for 50 per cent of profits.
One recommended solution is the inclusion and improvement of traceability in mineral supply chains to track the origins and destinations of conflict resources in the global market. Responsibly sourced gold could benefit the health and livelihoods of thousands of women and children, the main processors of ores in mining areas.
Gold ore processing in the region is also fraught with environmental and human health risks due to the use of mercury in the production chain. In 2016, UN Environment published a report based on an environmental assessment carried out in eastern DR Congo on mercury pollution at two artisanal gold mining sites: Butuzi, in South Kivu, and Some, in Ituri Province.
The assessment was carried by DR Congo's Ministry of Environment, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DR Congo, the United Nations Development Programme and the Canadian non-governmental organization IMPACT, and provided technical advice to IMPACT's Just Gold project, whose aim is to bring legal, conflict-free, and traceable gold into international markets.
Technical assistance by UN Environment on mercury reduction was an integral part of IMPACT's project, which works with artisanal producers to encourage them to sell their gold through legal avenues. The report recommended various interventions to reduce and eventually eliminate mercury in gold ore processing.
In May 2017, the Just Gold project successfully implemented a system to trace legal and conflict-free artisanal gold in the DR Congo. The first consignment of traceable gold was purchased by a Canadian jeweler in June 2017.
"Proving that artisanal gold in eastern DR Congo can be conflict-free, legal and traceable is a major step in responsible sourcing efforts in the Great Lakes region. The government of Democratic Republic of the Congo is taking major strides in complying with regional standards," says Joanne Lebert, Executive Director of IMPACT.
"It is also demonstrating how the implementation the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains can contribute to progressive improvements in the sector, supporting artisanal gold miners to enter international markets," she says.
Currently, IMPACT is providing technical support to implement traceability at six mining sites, which have been validated as sources of conflict-free gold, in Mambasa, Ituri Province.
"Colombia and DR Congo are among the richest biodiversity hotspots on Earth, but decades of war in these countries has taken its toll. The mining of gold has been a major source of funding for rebel forces in both countries and has also polluted their rivers and land with mercury," says Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment.
"It's therefore critical that we place the environment at the very heart of how we prevent, solve and respond to conflict," continues Solheim.
UN Environment has been working around the world to respond to natural disasters, industrial accidents and human-induced crises. In the past two decades, the organization has supported dozens of crisis-affected countries and territories, including Afghanistan, DR Congo, Haiti, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan.
Learn more about UN Environment's work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.