Mining firms face scrutiny over Congo deals

Campaigners argue natural resources exploited to benefit multinationals rather than local population

MPs are set to launch an investigation into the involvement of British-connected shell companies and London-listed mining groups in opaque deals to acquire prime mining assets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest countries on Earth.

News of the potential inquiry, which could involve top FTSE 100 mining executives being called to give evidence, comes as campaigners argue that natural resources deals are benefiting multinationals rather than the DRC's population. Commodity trader Glencore will also face calls to explain its involvement in the resource-rich central African country.

Pauline Latham, a Conservative MP and a member of the 11-strong international development select committee, said: "If the money [from the mining deals] stayed in the country and was used for the benefit of the people, they wouldn't need aid money and they'd all be much better off. That's why we'd look at it and why we would do it because our main aim is to make life better for poorer people in different countries."

She added that the committee "hadn't been afraid" of calling top executives to give evidence before, after the likes of Glencore and brewer SABMiller appeared last month to provide evidence on taxation in developing countries.

The MPs' interest in DRC's natural resources has emerged as Glencore, the commodity trader whose 2011 flotation made six executives billionaires, is facing calls from the campaign group Global Witness to explain investments in the country it has made alongside Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman and close friend of DRC's president, Joseph Kabila. Gertler's stakes in Congo mines are frequently held in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands.

The Global Witness report states: "The dealings raise questions over whether Glencore played a role in secret sales of stakes in the Kansuki and Mutanda mines in Congo's southern Katanga province in 2010 and 2011. They also raise questions over whether cash invested by Glencore shareholders is being used wisely.

"Since early 2010 the Congolese state has sold off stakes in six prize mining projects – including Kansuki and Mutanda – in secret and at vastly undervalued prices, according to commercial valuations by several internationally recognised brokerage houses. Those stakes were divested to offshore companies, most of which are associated with Mr Gertler but whose precise beneficial owners are not known." Apart from Gertler's companies, Glencore holds sizeable stakes in Kansuki and Mutanda. Gertler's stakes were acquired after Glencore-controlled companies allowed him to invest only after waiving their right to first refusal to buy the shares.

A spokesman for Glencore, whose annual meeting takes place , said: "During the period when these transactions took place, Glencore had decided in general not to increase its shareholdings in DRC projects. This was for two reasons – firstly, Glencore already had substantial capital commitments to develop Katanga and Mutanda and preferred to invest its funds in developing its DRC projects rather than paying out shareholders. Secondly, Glencore perceived that there was potentially some uncertainty ahead of the DRC presidential election. The outcome was uncertain and it was possible that there could be very unfavourable implications for the mining industry."

A spokesman for Gertler rejected the claim his companies had bought the mines on the cheap.

The potential parliamentary inquiry and report coincide with calls by a leading DRC opposition party for the UK to stop the £200m a year that UK taxpayers send to the DRC, as well as Glencore's attempts to persuade shareholders in another FTSE 100 mining group, Xstrata, to accept its proposal to merge the two companies.

The structure of many deals behind DRC's natural resource wealth has puzzled campaigners and politicians for some time. Last year Eric Joyce, the controversial MP for Falkirk, published a list of 59 "shell companies" dealing in DRC assets, 55 of which are based in the British Virgin Islands or have other British links. The list also contains 29 companies that are known to have associations with Gertler as well as deals involving another London-listed mining group, ENRC.

A spokesman for Gertler said the Global Witness report's valuations do "not take into account the considerable capital expenditure and time required to bring these assets to full production.

"The value of these assets is determined by what the market is prepared to pay. There is a considerable amount of risk attached and no other party was prepared to pay a fraction of the sum paid by [Gertler companies]. Clearly, there would be limited interest from industry partners in taking a 25% minority stake in such a project," the spokesman said.

Contributors

Simon Goodley and Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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