Can the Mining Industry Brighten Congo's Economy?

The economy of the Democratic Republic of Congo depends on its natural resources of copper, gold, diamonds and cobalt to fuel the mining industry. Yet the country is still incredibly impoverished. Mining has devastated many sectors of the population since the colonial era — but foreign investors are hoping it can finally boost the struggling economy.

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If the world were a more predictable place, the Democratic Republic of Congo would be the richest country in Africa. It has diamonds, it has gold, it has copper and cobalt. But the Congolese are barely getting by. The country is betting on its mining sector for a better economic future and yet mining in Congo runs on brutality, greed and bald-faced lies, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Most people feel lucky when they find a dollar on the ground, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo, what you find on the ground, could be fortune with a capital F. The province called Katanga is larger than California and it's full of copper and cobalt. Katanga may be Congo's last ace card and as this is a story about mining, it's got to be the ace of spades.

Mr. JOHN SKINNER (Miner, Katanga): And this country has only one chance. The mining industry has got to pull this economy back into shape. There's nothing else that's going to kick start an economy for a country this big. It's the last chance for the Congo.

THOMPKINS: John Skinner runs a contract mining company in Katanga. He and his African parrot are in the right place at the right time. After the trials of Belgium Colonial rule, under greedy old Leopold the II and a 30 year kleptocracy under greedy old Mobutu Sese Seko, and after years of wars that killed millions of people, things might be looking up. Congo has stabilized somewhat politically and foreign investors are more confident that ever.

Mr. SKINNER: This country is just so lucky that it still has the minerals in the ground. Congo will become a major source of copper. In terms of cobalt, well this is it. There's no where else in the world where you can buy cobalt on this scale at these prices. It's the only country that has such very, very rich cobalt.

THOMPKINS: You can't build a house without copper or a cell phone without cobalt, nor can you build a jet engine or a battery. And here in Katanga, both minerals are easy to find. There in the hills that are bald on top, Katanga's yellow daisies don't grow where the ore lies, but don't let those pretty daisies fool you. Everything about extracting, selling, and exporting minerals is harder than it looks.

Mr. INNOCENT LUAMBA(ph) (Artisanal Miner): (Through translator) Yes, I have six months here working in this place. As I told you, some people's worked here for ten years. But I tell you the truth, there is nothing here and you know, I'm fed up with this work.

THOMPKINS: That's Innocent Luamba. He's 40 years old and stuck in an ugly, dusty, camp full of men at a copper mine two hours north of Lubumbashi. Luamba and the others are called artisanal miners. They are freelance workers who dig up ore and sell to anyone who will buy. An estimated 500,000 to a million of these miners are toiling nationwide.

Mr. LUAMBA: (Through translator) We don't where it goes and we don't know who's buying the ore and they are buying the ore at a low price.

THOMPKINS: These are the artful dodgers of Congo. To the unsympathetic eye, they are thieves who pickpocket the mines. They routinely dig on another owner's concession until the police chase them away. And then they dig someplace else. Artisanal miners often sell their ore through a variety of middlemen to the vary companies that own the rights to the land. But let's face it, there's nothing artistic about artisanal mining. It's body breaking labor done by hand as old fashioned as ancient Rome. It's no safety, no salary, and no benefits. If you manage to get a sack of ore above ground and sell it, goody for you. And if you die trying, well that's just too bad.

Mr. MICHEL KABULO(ph) (Artisanal Miner): (Through Translator) If you don't risk anything you have nothing.

THOMPKINS: That's Michele Kabulo. Kabulo is 19 years old, but already he sounds like an old-timer. They don't trust each other, they don't trust strangers, and they're afraid of women.

Mr. KABULO: (Through translator) It is a problem of culture. According to our culture, when a woman walks on the mountains, the ore disappears.

THOMPKINS: On this day, three boys are walking three ore-heavy bicycles into the camp. They will take their 200 pound sacks to someone called a negotiant who will unbearably tell them that the bags contain more rock than ore. And that will be a lie. But the miner with no way to disprove the negotiant's claim, will accept whatever money he's offered. That's why artisanal miners average less than $5 a day. And that's how billions of dollars worth of ore leave Congo every year. Shubango Bucasa(ph) says the negotiant is a…

Mr. SHUBANGO BUCASA (Artisanal Miner): (Through translator) …a man of sneaky heart.

THOMPKINS: Bucasa borrowed $150 from a negotiant a couple weeks ago. But no matter how many bags of ore he brings in, he can't clear the debt.

Mr. BUCASA: (Through translator) He uses a scale that gives full quantity to reduce the number of kilo to 30 kilo.

THOMPKINS: And just like that, Bucasa is now a bonded laborer.

Mr. JOEL MUSAL(ph) (Former negotiant): (Through translator) To tell you the truth, it's all a chain of lying, so there is lies everywhere. The first lie is the digger. The second liar is the legal shell themselves.

THOMPKINS: Joel Musal is a former negotiant. He now works for a human rights organization in Lubumbashi. Musal says a negotiant is a middle man squeezed on both sides. He can't trust the diggers or else he'll end up buying worthless sacks of dirt, nor can he trust the agents or companies to whom he sells the ore. In this business, everybody lowballs everybody.

Mr. MUSAL: (Through translator) I give up because I was the number one loser. In every transaction I was losing, that's why I decided to give up.

THOMPKINS: But things could be worse. Clamon Mufungie Carl(ph) is a provincial lawmaker. He remembers when Congo's government-owned mining company collapsed in the 1990s, knocking nearly all of Katanga out of work. The province began to starve.

Mr. CLAMON MUFUNGIE CARL (Provincial lawmaker): (Through translator) You know I found people eating not to make self, but to remain the cops.

THOMPKINS: Artisanal mining kept people eating. But now the country is formalizing its economy. Within the next five years, the entire sector will be mechanized. They won't need diggers.

Mr. GUY SERVIN (Belgian Consul General in Lubumbashi): So we have to think about after the mining business.

THOMPKINS: Guy Servin is Belgium Consul General here in Lubumbashi. He and others are encouraging the diggers to try farming. But truth be told, most miners don't want to wait for crops to grow and yet more bad news is on the horizon. The market price for copper ore is expected to drop in the coming years. So the digging machines will squeeze from one side and the market will squeeze from the other, and the artisanal miners will likely remain where they've always been, in a tight spot.

Gwen Thompkin, NPR News, Lubumbashi.

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