Gruelling work for a tiny share of DR Congo's mineral wealth

GMT 13:05 2015 Sunday ,12 July

Arab Today, arab today Gruelling work for a tiny share of DR Congo's mineral wealth

Artisanal miners' annually extract the equivalent of 7,000 tonnes
Kolwezi - AFP

Alphonse stands in knee-deep muddy water, a former businessman in DR Congo's southeastern mining region of Katanga.

"If you tell me that I can get other work, I'll go with you," says the man, one of some 130,000 small-scale diggers trying to scratch a living from the region's rich earth.

Alphonse says he was unable to find a job after his business in the regional capital Lubumbashi collapsed some eight year ago.

So he joined the community of these workers -- known as "artisanal miners" -- who annually extract the equivalent of 7,000 tonnes of pure copper and the same amount of cobalt. While the DR Congo is one of the least developed countries in the world, it is a leading producer of both minerals.

Somewhere between Lubumbashi and the major mining hub of Kolwezi, Alphonse and about 50 companions in misfortune -- whose names have been changed -- are busy on a stony slope near a quarry hidden in the woods.

Guards are on the lookout, some less watchful than others. Once past them, an AFP team needs to win the trust of Bobby, a Congolese who says he is the foreman in charge of the work.

- 'Mister Fernand's place' -

Bobby is not pleased to see journalists on the scene.

"You're  not the ones who did  'Katanga Business', are you?" he asks curtly, referring to a documentary made by Belgian director Thierry Michel about thorny relations between clandestine miners and the foreign firms that have become masters of local wealth.

The regulars know the site as "Chez Monsieur Fernand" ("Mister Fernand's place"). Bobby says that the mine really belongs to a top Congolese official and that formal mining is undertaken in partnership with Chinese investors.

Bobby himself "authorises" the diggers to exploit the slope, but the owners of the mine know nothing about their activity. In exchange for his vigilance, the miners pay him a tithe of what they find, he says, which amounts to 30 percent by their accounts.

The ochre-brown earth is full of holes like Swiss cheese. On the surface, small pathways separate plots of land where diggers work with shovels, crowbars and pickaxes.

Some miners are already more than three metres (10 feet) underground. They have been working here for almost three months. In a few weeks the site will be thoroughly explored and diggers will have to move on.

Men carry the mixture of dirt and stones on their backs to a nearby stream.

"We work in teams of three or four," Dieudonne says. "We stop when we're exhausted. We rest for a day and then we come back."

While mining is purely man's work, at the stream women and children help to wash and sift the rubble. Alphonse is helped by his wife and their two daughters, aged eight and 15.

- Trade with 'the Chinese' -

Alphonse is around 40, but looks at least 10 years older. Next to him, 30-year-old Henri uses a fine mesh filled with rubble to wash away as much soil as he can.

The next step is Alphonse's job. When done professionally, this task of fine measurement by weight is performed by elaborate machines, but clandestine miners do everything by hand.

Shaking a wooden tray while he skims it over the surface of the water, Alphonse separates out pieces of black cobalt ore, which drop to the bottom. Then he has to remove the upper residue before drying the ore, which contains six or seven percent of the treasured product.   

The sun is relatively kind to the diggers at the start of an equatorial winter locally known as the "fresh season".

Their product will be sold a few kilometres (miles) away from the site at a trading house run by "the Chinese", whom miners accuse of rigging their scales.

"We accept their prices. We don't have any choice," says Ernestine, Alphonse's wife.

The worst off say they earn about 7,000 to 8,000 Congolese francs (6.7 to 7.7 euros/$7.5 to $8.6) each day. Alphonse says he can make the equivalent of a few hundred euros each week for his family.

For Bobby, the whole affair is clearly profitable. He is preparing to take off and set up his own business.

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