King Leopold’s mines


In many ways the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is an extraordinary country. It is larger than all the countries of Western Europe put together, and has a population of almost 69 million. As a colony of Belgium it was considered to be the granary of Africa, because of its rich soil and its climate well-suited to agriculture. Nowadays it is called a ‘geological scandal’ because of its vast concentration of minerals, since this region, so seemingly favoured by nature, is one of the poorest states in the world. In 2011 it came last in the UN Development Index, and its governmental budget is about the same as that of a city of 400,000 inhabitants, such as Antwerp in Belgium. It has been consistently conflict-ridden since the 1990s: and these conflicts are linked to, caused or prolonged by, the struggle to control its mineral riches. Hence the paradox that has prompted phrases such as ‘resource curse’ and ‘conflict minerals’.

The mining industry of DRC reveals two different political and economic models. It is helpful to compare these as a first step towards proposing any means of resolving the paradox noted above. In Katanga, mining is industrial and any conflicts are of low intensity. In the regions of North Kivu and South Kivu, both plagued by armed conflict, mining is largely ‘artisanal’.

Katanga is a flourishing province. Since its principal resource is that of copper, it forms the so-called Copperbelt, together with Zambia immediately to the South. The region is politically quite stable and prosperous. It has a long mining history, dating back to pre-colonial times. A strong paternalist tradition persists, of a kind also common in Europe till quite recently. An old Swahili saying refers to the old nationalised mining company, which is still the government’s holding vehicle in the mining sector: ‘Gécamines njo baba, Gécamines njo mama’: ‘Gécamines is my dad – and my mum’.

A turning point for the Congolese mining sector occurred in 2002. Under pressure from the World Bank, DRC adopted a new Mining Code, which liberalised the sector and opened the way for what was called the ‘Review of Mining Contracts’. Some of these contracts had been signed during the war of the 1990s and were identified as ‘Leonine’ – that is, fundamentally unjust contracts. These contracts were renegotiated so as to pay the Congolese state more reasonably for its natural resources. The problem is that these new funds have not sufficiently been directed towards the country’s development or the people’s well-being. Therefore the mining companies today face a complex situation. People’s expectations of them are still those of the paternalist days, while the state has failed to accept its own responsibility for infrastructure or social investment.

This form of industrial mining raises other issues, such as the need to relocate people displaced from the areas of the mining concessions, and the delicate matter of the coexistence of industrial and artisanal mining. These two issues are closely linked to the question of rights to the terrain itself. Corporate practice differs sharply according to companies’ size and culture.

Finally, extractive products are both intrinsically non-renewable and seriously polluting. Both these factors must be taken into account so that the future of DRC can be assured beyond the probable life of the mineral deposits.

Given that there are hundreds of such companies, which include major transnational corporations, and given the growing pressure on the part of outside states to assure access to essential raw materials for their companies, the Congolese state is too weak and ill-equipped maintain a reasonable balance of power.

The second form of mining is found in the two provinces of the Kivus, which have experienced war since 1996. These conflicts are largely financed through the illegal exploitation of natural resources, as the United Nations has repeatedly reported. It is true that the militarisation of Eastern Congo extends beyond the resource-rich areas, and the virtual absence of the state prevents any restoration of stability, and of the security required for the region’s economic development.

The development of artisanal mining to the extent that 400,000 miners are currently involved (in a region with no mining tradition) may be explained by the combination of several factors. Among these are the mining liberalisation of 2002, the high level of unemployment, the boom in demand for the mineral coltan, and the region’s isolation. Thus a diverse group of workers have got involved in this high-risk activity. In a blighted economy where there exist few or no alternatives, artisanal mining is the last defence against destitution.

The artisanal sector needs to be formalised, to guarantee decent conditions of life for local people and the beginnings of a middle class. The workers too, need to be properly organised and equipped. It is important to develop certification and traceability mechanisms to identify ‘conflict-free’ mines: lastly the companies themselves must practise due diligence throughout their supply chains, to assure the provenance of minerals. There exist different initiatives tending in this direction: whether private or public-sector initiatives aiming at the certification of certain minerals, or national and regional legislation imposing due diligence.

As will be evident, the whole question is complex, and the political, economic and environmental challenges are sensitive. Even before it experiences a problem in its management of natural resources, DRC confronts a problem of governance. To tackle this, it needs to pursue the democratisation of the entire country, to assure an impartial administration of justice, to end generalised official corruption, and to reform the police and the army. In the face of globalisation, it is also crucial to diversify the Congolese economy and to integrate it in its regional and international perspective.

Those of us who are citizens of the West have tp take our own responsibilities seriously: as informed voters, committed citizens, and consumers with a sense of solidarity.

This article is a summary of the pamphlet of the same name, published by Josep Maria SJ and Emmanuelle Devuyst in the journal Cristianisme i Justicia. The Spanish original appeared in June 2013 and the English translation in October 2013