Mining Offers Potential, and Challenges, for Congo Mining is hugely important to the economy of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But due to a civil war and ongoing conflicts in the east of the country, the Congo's mines now produce just a fraction of their former revenue. All that could change as peace returns and more of the country falls under the control of the central government in Kinshasa.
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Mining Offers Potential, and Challenges, for Congo

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Mining Offers Potential, and Challenges, for Congo

Mining Offers Potential, and Challenges, for Congo

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

These next two reports explore what is sometimes called the resource curse: developing nations with vast natural resources stay poor. That is certainly true in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has enormous resources of minerals. A civil war and ongoing conflicts have reduced Congo's mining production to just a fraction of what it once was. Now all that could change. Peace is returning and more of the country is falling under the control of the central government in Kinshasa. NPR's Jason Beaubian recently visited a copper mine and has this report.

JASON BEAUBIEN, reporting: The Kalukuluku Copper Mine stretches like a gouged out jagged scar across a plain near the city of Lubumbashi. Mining at Kalukuluku, like at most Congolese mines, is done by hand.

At one end of the mine men are shoveling sandy dirt out of a huge sandy pit to expose a subterranean copper vein, at the other end of the ravine, near a water filled quarry, miners are hacking at the earth with picks. Barefoot teenagers lug hundred pound sacks of raw ore up out of the pits to a series of rusted oil drums. At the drums several boys use a colander to wash the dirt in water, when they pull the colander out the remaining rocks are mixed with specks of bright green malachite.

Mr. ALAN MALINGA(ph) (Congolese Miner): (Speaking a Congolese language)

BEAUBIEN: Alan Malinga says he's separating the ore from the worthless dirt.

Mr. ALAN MALINGA: (Speaking a Congolese language)

BEAUBIEN: The work is difficult Malinga says, but necessary. There are very few jobs here and his family needs the money he brings home. Miners are paid by the ton. They generally earn between two and three dollars a day depending on the quality of the ore they provide to the buyers. This part of the Congo, however, is one of the most mineral rich in the world. The Tonga(ph) province holds 34% of the world's cobalt reserves and 10% of the earth's copper.

After the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and the ensuing civil war, Congo's former mining industry collapsed. When Laurent Kabila seized power he looked at the paradox of so much poverty residing above so much mineral wealth, and told the locals to live off the land.

He legalized freelance mining in what had been state- run pits. Congolese were free to grab as much raw ore as they could harvest. The result is that more than 100,000 in Kananaga(ph) now toil in the copper pits.

Jean Katwala(ph), who runs a union of artesnal(ph) miners in Lubumbashi, says it's hard to make living picking copper by hand, and he says most people work in the mines because there are no other jobs.

Mr. JEAN KATWALA (Runs a miner's union): (Speaking French)

BEAUBIEN: If you look at the conditions in which people live, Katwala says, they work in the mines just to get money to survive. Katwala says one of the big problems with mining industry in the Congo is that it only offers backbreaking, low wage jobs. There used to be foundries and smelters to process the ore, but most of them have fallen into disrepair. Now he says foreign companies come to Congo to use the cheap labor to extract cut-rate raw materials and leave little behind.

Mr. KATWALA: (Speaking French)

BEAUBIEN: The majority of the minerals found now are shipped out of the country, he says. Even unprocessed ore that might contain as little as two percent copper get shipped, Katwala says, all the way to China.

As Congo's conflicts, however, appear to be dying down and the country plans to hold it's first democratic elections in four decades, Large international mining companies are rushing to stake a claim in Congo's mineral wealth. In November, for instance, the world's second largest copper producer, Phoenix based Phelps Dodge, bought a huge mining concession in the Katanga(ph) province.

Stephanie Walters is a political analyst who follows the Congo's mining industry.

STEPHANIE WALTERS, (political analyst): Yes, it's a vote of confidence on behalf of the mining companies but it does also have to be a managed process. And hopefully the new government will make sure certain standards are adhered to by these mining companies. And doesn't just become a repeat of what we've seen in the past in the Congo, which is sort of a , you know, mining companies coming in, taking what they can, and the Congo getting very little out of it.

BEAUBIEN: Walters points out that mining could serve to jump start the entire Congolese economy, if managed properly.

Corruption is, however, a huge threat. Former President Mobutu Sese Seko siphoned so much money out of the state owned Geckenlines(ph) that company almost collapsed. Bribes and kick backs are still a standard of doing business in this country. And despite pledges by the transitional government in Kinshasa to clean things up, underhanded dealings continue in the industry.

For instance, a 2004 report by Global Witness, analyzed how much copper Congolese customs officials reported having shipped to China. Global Witness then looked at China's records coming from Congo. They found Congolese officials were accounting for only one tenth of the copper they were shipping to China. With leakages like this of almost 90 percent, gaining control of the mining industry will be one of the new government's biggest challenges.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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