By Mélanie Gouby, a freelance journalist based in Goma (repost from RNW).
Last month’s tragedy at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa has drawn international attention on the deplorable working conditions of miners in that country. But was there any media coverage of the sixty people who died one month ago in a gold mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Barely.
Stretching into the depths of the mountain, a tunnel, carved by hand, is supported by a wooden structure like that on a set of an old Western movie. It gets dark very quickly as we move heads down into the tunnel. It’s hard to tell if our shortness of breath comes from the slight but unavoidable claustrophobic anxiety or the actual lack of oxygen down the well.
“With time, we actually forget about the dangers, even though they are real,” says Bisima, a 33-year-old miner working at the Nyabibwe pit in eastern DRC. “Mine collapse remains the greatest danger,” he says.
While Lonmin’s Marikana mine carnage in South Africa got an incredible amount of coverage last week, only two weeks ago, 60 people died following a mine collapse in Pangoyi, in Ituri Province. However, there were barely any reports about the incident.
No safety measures
In the DRC, no one protests for better living conditions. Between the constant conflicts and extreme poverty, a human life does not hold much value.
“People risk their lives. This is our daily reality here in the DRC. In Nyabibwe, no miner wears a protective helmet or gloves,” says Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher for the American NGO Enough Project in the DRC.
Conditions are no better in the Ituri gold mine. “When we descend into the wells, there are no safety measures. The mine can collapse at any moment. And we work very hard, even at night. Those are not conditions for human beings to work in,” complains Patrick, a 20-year-old miner from Mubi in the Walikale region.
Although the DRC has mineral resources that would make any Western country pale with envy, it remains one of the world’s least developed countries. The nation is Africa’s leading tin exporter and the fifth one in the world. Congo’s subsoil holds a significant percentage of the world’s coltan reserves. The metal is used in the manufacture of almost all electronic devices. Gold and diamonds are also present in abundance.
But miners often dig using only pickaxes and shovels, without any motorised tools. A number of mines have virtually no infrastructure whatsoever because they are informal and don’t belong to any large industrial corporation. The miners sell the minerals to traders who take them to the cities of Goma or Bukavu, where they are purchased in bulk by foreign companies.
Although few human rights organisations tackle the issue of working conditions in Congolese mines, many nevertheless campaign against the use of the infamous “blood diamonds” which are believed to finance armed rebel groups in the eastern part of the country.
In 2010, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, including Enough Project and Global Witness, successfully lobbied the US Congress to pass a law on blood diamonds. However, with the enforcement of the law, the mineral trade in the DRC has almost come to a standstill. Instead of investing in a system of traceability that would guarantee the “cleanness” of the minerals they purchased, American companies simply withdrew from the DRC.
As a result, the sales of minerals like coltan and cassiterite has dropped by 90%, and the living and working conditions of the miners have deteriorated further.
“We feel forsaken. People say that this law will help our country and stop the war, but we don’t see any difference. In fact, things are even worse today: there is still insecurity and we have no income,” says Safari, a 50-year-old miner in Nyabibwe.
In the last two years, numerous projects to “clean” the Congolese mining sector and guarantee the origin of the minerals have been launched by the United Nations, the United States of America and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region. But these efforts were stumped by the M23 rebellion.
The rebellion takes its name from a 2009 peace accord which the rebels say was violated by Kinshasa. They were joined by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army who walked out into the bush in support of fugitive Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.
In Katanga, a province spared by the conflicts in southern DRC, a system of traceability has been put in place, allowing the trade of minerals to continue uninterrupted. However, working conditions in the Katanga mines have not improved.