The muddy slopes surrounding the eastern Congolese gold-mining town of Kamituga hold vast wealth and crippling deprivation.
In South Kivu province near the borders of Rwanda and Burundi, Kamituga has mineral resources estimated to be worth $24tn (£17tn) in untapped deposits. Yet the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has one of the lowest levels of GDP per capita in the world and people work in dangerous conditions with little hope of scratching out anything more than a meagre existence from tough and dangerous work.
This longstanding disparity has only grown as the coronavirus pandemic pushed up the global gold price to its highest value ever last August ($2,048 an ounce). Meanwhile, local prices offered from buyers in Africa went down, according to the Africa Report, reflecting the imbalance in an international supply chain that exploits poor workers at the source of wealth. Hundreds of thousands of people in South Kivu, including women and children, work in the informal mining sector, mostly in gold.
Artisanal subsistence mining is the informal, small-scale mining done independently by people not officially employed by a mining company, using their own resources, usually by hand. Roughly one-fifth of the global mineral supply is produced by these miners. In 2019, there were an estimated 10 million people working in the sector across sub-Saharan Africa.
Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources estimates DRC’s artisanal gold production to be 14 to 20 tonnes a year, with a value of $543m to $812m.
The miners face plenty of risks excavating the gold – 50 mostly young people died in a mine collapse at Kamituga last September – while health care and education for children is virtually nonexistent. Heavy metals such as mercury, which is used to separate gold particles from mud, can seep into the water table and food chain. And with much of the local population working in the mines, it makes for a labour shortage in the fields, so crops become scarce and food prices and malnutrition rise.
While DRC law bans child labour, children can be seen digging through the red mud of Kamituga’s rivers.
“Some children here work in the mines every day, working several hours at a time,” Idi Kyalondwana, who works for a mining co-operative, told France 24 after a visit to Kamituga in February. “Some actually go down into shafts that are several hundred metres deep and tunnels to dig for gold without any safety measures. It’s incredibly dangerous. There are often cave-ins.”
Gold mining also feeds into interlocking conflicts, shrouded in various forms of illicit trading. A recent Impact report documents how registered traders and exporters provide a veneer of legality by declaring a small percentage of their gold exports while pocketing huge profits and avoiding official taxes from illicit trade. This means that the gold smuggled out of DRC which flows on to the legal international gold market is tied to criminality, money laundering, armed groups and human rights abuses, according to the report.
The London Bullion Market Association published recommendations in November 2020 to reduce the illicit gold trade, but over the past hundred years little has changed.
Kamituga has been a mining town since the 1920s, when gold was discovered there, and a succession of big companies arrived.
The Kivu Mining Society and the Canadian company Banro Corporation, which has the principal mining concession in the town, control most of South Kivu’s gold deposits. Banro suspended operations in September 2019 due to rebel militia activity in the province. The company had been tolerant of artisanal mining on its concessions but has discouraged illegal mechanised efforts to extract gold.
Most of the miners are young men, but more and more women are drawn to the work in the hope of earning more than they can from agriculture. But female miners face discrimination and obstacles from local authorities, and have to sell through middlemen, according to the World Bank. Women have the least profitable jobs in the mines, depriving them of bargaining power when it comes to pay and working conditions. They are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence. Women have started to unite and have built a network known by the French acronym of Renafem (National Network of Women in Mining), to fight discrimination.
Efforts to introduce greater transparency into DRC’s mining sector have seen minimal progress in a trade that enriches individuals and companies far from Kamituga’s murky rivers and hills. With little political will to drive real change, it seems the situation for those living on some of the richest soil in the world will remain precarious.