Villagers scrape a living from Congo's minerals

October 23, 2005|By EDMUND SANDERS

MONGBWALU, Congo -- In the shadow of a rusting gold-mining plant here, hundreds of sweaty young men slog knee-deep in pools of sludge. Some heave mud-filled buckets up the slopes of vast open pits, others strike gray boulders with steel mallets. They pick. Stop. Look for anything that shines. Then pick again.

The miners have gathered in this northeastern village of the Democratic Republic of Congo because they believe years of runoff from the now-closed Belgian-built processing plant above them enriched the soil below. On an average day, a miner can unearth nuggets worth $5 to $10.

"It's a game of chance," says mud-splattered Jean-Claude Takinga, 29, rising from the brown pit after a backbreaking nine-hour shift that yielded gold flecks worth $20. "Once I found $800 worth and used it to buy a house. The next day you find nothing."

Until recently, this mining area was off-limits, first controlled by the state-owned minerals company, then occupied by Ugandan soldiers, then passed between outlaw militias who used the mining proceeds to buy guns.

Now the foreign army is gone. The militias are lying low. And the central government has little authority in this part of the country.

Finally, villagers say, it's their turn. This is the closest that most Congolese ever come to reaping the benefits of the land beneath their feet, for more than a century more of a curse than a blessing.

One of Earth's richest sources of valuable minerals, Congo is believed to hold one-third of the world's cobalt reserves and two-thirds of its coltan, a black granite used in cell phones and Sony PlayStations. The nation straddles one of the world's most lucrative copper belts and was once the top producer of diamonds.

But the Congolese have watched helplessly as billions of dollars in minerals were systematically pillaged by foreigners and despots.

Belgium's King Leopold II used Congo as his colonial piggybank in the late 1800s. Beginning a few years after the country's 1960 independence, the mines funded Mobutu Sese Seko's 32-year dictatorship. In 1998, Congo's envious neighbors launched a bloody four-year war, seizing key mining towns and carting away piles of the nation's natural resources.

"Congo is like the Garden of Eden," says miner Serge Utibeli, 26. "God put everything here for us. But it's also why so many outsiders come to create trouble and take it away."

Since 2003, a transitional government aided by United Nations peacekeeping troops has improved stability in some of the key northeastern mining towns.

Though rebel militias remain a threat, the lull has cleared the way for an estimated half-million Congolese to return to the mines, hoping to scrape up enough minerals to survive another day.

"It's probably the freest it has ever been," says Baudio Matata, 49, who has been a miner since he was a boy. He started out working for a state-owned company and then prospected for himself in the 1980s, when Mobutu liberalized mining laws. It was easier to find gold in the 1980s, he says, but government agents usually seized large finds. Violence and war in the 1990s made mining too dangerous, and those who worked were forced to hand over profits to soldiers or rebels.

"Nowadays it's harder to find the gold, but I get to keep what I find," Matata says, waving a small plastic bag containing his day's take, worth about $6.

Nearly all the small-scale mining is still done by hand, with broken shovels, plastic buckets and homemade hammers. With little else, hundreds of villagers in a remote valley about an hour from Mongbwalu have literally moved a mountain, shovelful by shovelful, over the past two years, excavating a vast red-dirt pit 100 yards deep and 200 yards across. It takes a line of 40 men to toss buckets of dirt and rocks from the bottom of the hole to the top.

About 250 miles to the south, in the pastoral highlands near Goma, boys as young as 9 help pan for minerals in the Mumba River, earning money to help their families pay primary school fees. "I've already made $10, which I used to buy a goat," says 14-year-old Asifiwe Barindikije.

Miners there, in teams of two or three, divert the river into short troughs built of rock and clay. Mud is sifted by hand to isolate the heavier sands containing coltan, cassiterite and manganese.

A middleman makes the arduous three-hour drive from nearby Goma twice a week to buy bags of the sand and rocks.

Faustin Habyambere, 27, says he earns about $5 a day and knows that the middleman, in turn, sells the minerals for about twice that across the border in Rwanda.

"I don't care where it goes," Habyambere says. "Before, I was a farmer, but this pays better."

The first stop for the minerals is usually neighboring Uganda or Rwanda. Uganda has few gold mines of its own, yet it has exported an average of $55 million in gold a year since 2000, according to a recent U.N. report. Tiny Rwanda exports five times as much cassiterite, a black rock used to make tin, as it claims to produce. From these two, the United States receives much of Congo's coltan. Brussels gets the diamonds, Switzerland the gold.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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