In its first ground breaking research report into artisanal gold mining in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) demonstrated how the industry had been transformed in recent years – moving from Conflict Gold to Criminal Gold. Based on unprecedented research in communities in the four main gold producing provinces (North-Kivu, South-Kivu, Maniema and Oriental), the report concluded that artisanal miners were now being preyed upon by a host of state bureaucrats, officials and security officers rather than warlords and militias – and that they were, in many cases, even worse off than before.
In this second report, The High Cost of Congolese Gold: Poverty, Abuse and the Collapse of Family and Community Structures, SARW focuses on the lives of the miners and their families – highlighting how hundreds of thousands of people live in grinding poverty in the midst of the richest mineral resources in the DRC, as corrupt political, military, commercial and traditional elites syphon off most of the funds that should be fuelling socio-economic growth and development.
With an estimated 30 million ounces of gold reserves in eastern DRC, mining communities should be thriving but instead they are being torn apart by poverty, abuse, alcoholism and violence, which are destroying community and family structures and leaving many people in a perpetual state of near-starvation.
In this environment, the most vulnerable – particularly women and girls – suffer daily violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse. From the hundreds of interviews with women, girls and boys that SARW researchers conducted during ten months in the field, some key facts emerged:
- Most women, including married mothers, have to struggle on their own for survival. Many are forced to fend for themselves from far too early in life and often end up married and pregnant long before reaching full maturity. Large numbers are victims of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Many are abandoned by their husbands or forced to accept bigamous relationships. Few girls complete their education;
- When boys reach the age of 10-12, they are usually expected to fend for themselves, especially as their parents are often too poor to continue caring for them. This forces them to start working on gold mining sites rather than staying in school. Many boys assist in the washing of gold ore, while stronger boys can find work as carriers or even as diggers. However, the majority just scrounge for gold dust in tailings, or in abandoned or inactive mining sites; and
- The traditional and tribal governance and mediation mechanisms have broken down. Traditional leaders, known as Bwami are now often merely another elite that preys on the artisanal community. Women and girls very rarely seek help or redress from them since they expect that they will not receive assistance but merely become the victims of more corrupt demands – the same reason why they seldom seek redress through the formal judicial system. If women do seek non-family interventions, it is usually from the councils of wise men that still appear to function in most communities.
The SARW researchers also discovered devastating levels of tension and friction between gold mining husbands and their wives. The key disagreement concerns the question of whether gold mining is a valid livelihood. Most men are not interested in considering this question, preferring to enjoy the financial windfalls they receive on the rare occasions that they manage to find some gold. However, the overwhelming majority of women offer well-founded social, economic, health and security reasons why their husbands should abandon gold mining altogether.
And the situation is only likely to get worse. Many artisanal miners are hoping to obtain employment with one of the international mining communities that are now gearing up to start industrial gold production in eastern DRC. However, industrial mining requires less manpower. In addition, most artisanal miners lack marketable skills and exhibit very poor work habits. For these reasons, a very large percentage of the artisanal gold miners, who currently operate on territories that are licensed to international mining companies, are unlikely to gain permanent employment once industrial mining begins.
In fact, artisanal miners and their families will increasingly be viewed as illegal squatters. Companies that are planning (and are legally obliged) to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into their mining operations will insist on unencumbered access to the gold deposits on their concessions. Consequently, artisanal miners will be pushed towards areas with deposits of lesser and lesser value – until they are eventually made to leave the concession areas altogether.
Currently, the inevitability of this outcome is as certain as the lack of any preparations to mitigate it.
The certainty that thousands of artisanal miners will soon be forced to find alternative livelihoods along with the fact that gold mining is not generating wealth or driving socio-economic development and that most families face a daily struggle for survival requires the Congolese government and the international community to pursue a new approach in relation to artisanal mining communities. Their support for the artisanal miners has so far been an abject failure and needs to change urgently to focus on more reliable, sustainable and pragmatic livelihood solutions.
While the transition away from artisanal mining activities is a multi-generation challenge, the Congolese government and the international community should begin immediately by:
- Providing a broad package of support to enable women to transform their subsistence farming activities into more commercially viable operations – through financial support for critical equipment such as tractors, silos and irrigation systems; assistance with establishing and running cooperatives; provision of tools and seedlings; and training in more effective farming and marketing techniques;
- Developing micro-credit systems that can help to free women from the dictates of husbands and traditional leaders, and provide them with the seed capital needed to transform their farming activities or businesses into operations that generate enough income to cover the basic needs of their families – from food to health to education;
- Identifying the most promising agricultural production opportunities, including new or under-exploited initiatives that add value to basic agricultural goods and could provide a more secure and sustainable living for mining families, by conducting a sub-regional value chain analysis to pinpoint the potential advantages and disadvantages of different parts of eastern Congo; and
- Ensuring that Congolese politicians are made aware of their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of society and of how they are failing in their duty – perhaps by requiring all local leaders or authorities to publish a detailed report of the situation in each locality.