MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Sitting on Gold but Living off Nothing in Congo

Published by MAC on 2006-01-31

Sitting on Gold but Living off Nothing in Congo

by David Lewis, PlanetArk Feature, CONGO

31st January 2006

LULIBA - The sound is instantly recognisable across most of Africa: the dull pounding of a pestle and mortar over the murmur of women's voices.

It usually comes from women grinding maize, millet or manioc for an evening meal in a remote village, but here in the steep lawless hills of Mwenga territory in eastern Congo women pound rocks from dawn to dusk in search of the gold hidden within.

The women are known as Les Mamans Twangaises, or the mothers who grind, and many say they were forced into this repetitive, punishing labour by the ebb-and-flow of Congo's war, a conflict that has officially ended but still simmers here.

"The killing of our animals, the destruction of our fields and the raping of the women forced us to do this," said Jeanne Kasindi, head of a group of Mamans Twangaises in Luliba village.

The women pound rocks that have been mined by their menfolk and then sell the gold to middlemen. They earn little and sometimes militia fighters steal the gold they find.

"We work for 400 francs (US$1 a day) but we don't like this work. It makes us ill. We want to return to the fields," said Kasindi. Living on top of pots of gold has brought little but trouble to most people in Luliba and many other villages in Congo's east, where rebels and militia still prey on residents.

Congo's five-year war sucked in six armies from neighbouring countries and most have been accused of plundering the resource-rich but chaotic central African state. The war officially ended in 2003 but the east has remained volatile.

"The (pro-government) Mai Mai militias and the Rwandans fought over this village 22 times," recalled Luliba resident Lupunda, who did not give his last name. "When the Rwandans were here, their helicopters used to land in (nearby) Kamituga. They brought in weapons and supplies and took out the gold."

The Rwandan army has now left the South Kivu region and the rebels it backed have left or been integrated into a new army.

But the soldiers based here are a ragtag collection of Mai Mai fighters who locals say continue to profit from the mines.

"Now we have the Mai Mai but we hear the proper army is on the way. They will do the same as the others have done - steal the gold," Lupunda sighed.

HARD TIMES

The international community has spent billions of dollars to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has vast reserves of gold, diamonds, timber, copper and coltan, which is used in mobile phones, but some believe the country's wealth will prolong its problems.

"Natural resources still fuel the conflict and there is no real end in sight," said a Western diplomat in the capital Kinshasa.

"Rebels may be pushed out, but the army then comes in and continues the mining. The prospect of short-term gains for local chiefs and the military still outweigh the long-term plans anyone has," the diplomat added.

Belgian colonialists mined the hills of South Kivu for decades and the remains of neatly laid-out workers' quarters and a rusting processing plant in Kamituga hint at the order that existed under the Kivu Mining and Industrial Company (SOMINKI).

The firm shut down during the years of conflict and the town of 130,000 people is now a run-down sprawl where barefoot children skip over pigs and rubbish scattered in the mud.

Instead of the Belgians' mechanised mining, men dig their way into the side of the hills, inching forward and emerging to wash dirt and rocks containing gold dust in streams.

"Soldiers from various groups controlled everything during the war," said Christophe Mwangikwa, the head of the Kamituga Gold-diggers Committee, which campaigns for miners' rights.

"Whichever soldiers are in control still take a cut of the 200 francs (50 cents) miners have to pay to get into the mines."

BRING BACK THE PAST

Mining is all the more important because the war destroyed infrastructure and halted food production.

Acres of palm trees could be producing palm oil, but farmers cannot transport it to market. Goods cost five times more in Kamituga than in Bukavu, 180 km (110 miles) away, as traders opt for a 30 minute flight over a two-week slog by road.

"This was the breadbasket of the Congo, but because of insecurity and a lack of organisation, production has dried up," said Pieter Vanholder, a liaison officer for Oxfam-Solidarite.

"We are trying to give people back their own food security," he said. "We are distributing seeds, providing micro-credit and encouraging the breeding of small animals. Roads are the simple answer. So long as there are none, things will be expensive."

Locals, however, are happy to continue mining but they want better conditions. Mwangikwa believes the Banro Corporation, a Canadian-listed gold exploration company operating in the area, could provide them.

"If they (Banro) come in, we will try and negotiate with them. The return of a company must improve the conditions here."

Banro is exploring four sites in the east, including Kamituga. Desiree Sangara, the firm's director of administration in the Congo, believes there may be "significant deposits" but stresses the company is still at the exploration stage. "We think there will be another two years of exploration. Then we will have to carry out a feasibility study and then maybe in four years we will begin preparing the mining."

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE

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