SPECIAL REPORT

In DRC, Artisanal Miners’ Hoped-for Road Out of Poverty Paved With Disappointment

 
 
Jean Pierre Mbeneke weighs minerals that artisanal miners come to sell. In some cases, miners earn just a few cents for many hours of dangerous work. Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Democratic Republic of Congo

There may be more than 1 million informal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where unemployment is widespread, and some toil with rudimentary tools and earn mere cents per day. They may have “get rich quick” dreams, but many find themselves in debt after borrowing funds for transportation and living expenses, and some die from mine-related health issues or accidents.

KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Jean Pierre Mbeneke weighs gold on his kitchen table.

Using a two-pan balance scale, known here as a mizani, Mbeneke sees as many as 10 customers per day, all independent miners who come with pockets full of gold.

On average, he says, people bring 2 to 4 grams of gold at a time. He pays customers the day’s global rate for the metal. On this day, it was $35 per gram, giving the average customer a profit between $70 and $140.

Men travel long distances to work informally in mines, hoping to get rich quick. Modern-day myths of success keep the men coming, Mbeneke says.

DRC, so abundantly endowed with natural resources, has the potential to be ranked among the wealthiest nations in the world. But corruption, informal systems and international interference have left it among the poorest. Half the country is unemployed, according to conservative estimates, and many of those people are drawn by the promise of quick cash in the informal, or artisanal, mining industry. It’s estimated that more than 1 million people work in the sector.

But often the opposite is true. Many local workers actually find themselves in debt after borrowing funds for transportation and living expenses while waiting for their success in the mines. Many pan for gold using their own tools. Some die from mining-related health issues such as mercury poisoning, or from landslides. Both are common here.

Increasingly, artisanal mining is becoming known as a poverty trap, rather than a lucrative opportunity.

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People from all over DRC come to the country’s mining area in hopes of striking it rich. But, often, they never escape poverty.

Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Nearly everyone in DRC is desperate to find a well-paying job. Each year, more than 9,000 people finish their university studies, but fewer than 100 of those graduates find jobs. Even those who do find work say their salaries don’t support their families’ needs. According to World Bank data, public sector employees here receive an average monthly salary of $91.

Vincent Kambale, a mineral dealer in Kirumba, says young people are beginning to see that the “get rich quick” stories about working in the mines are a fiction.

“Taking the view that every rich person here has earned his wealth through mining appears to be an unsubstantiated belief that prompts all the young people to aspire to work in the mines, but unfortunately the lives of many of them are cruelly cut short in the same mines,” Kambale says.

Simeon Kamate Musalari, head of a mining station in the area, says there are many young people who move into mining believing they’re going to become rich overnight.

“Our young people equate mining with wealth, but they overlook the fact that nothing is ever easy in our country,” he says. “And, contrary to their expectations, some miners often spend more than five years without them having fulfilled their profound longing for wealth.”

Mumbere Malikewa, 35, says the possibility of getting rich lured him to the mine, despite the dangers. The married father of four says he completed his secondary education but couldn’t afford to continue. He tried working as a primary school teacher, but he couldn’t survive on the meager salary even when it arrived on time, which wasn’t often.

Taking the view that every rich person here has earned his wealth through mining appears to be an unsubstantiated belief that prompts all the young people to aspire to work in the mines, but unfortunately the lives of many of them are cruelly cut short in the same mines.

Malikewa had a choice: join an armed group, become a robber or head to the mines. That was four years ago.

He started working in the Musigha mine in Lubero territory as a digger, but he could go for a week without earning a cent. His boss, he says, would spend all the revenue without paying his workers. After a year of struggling, he heard of a group of men going to Walikale, a neighboring territory, and he joined them. There he earned money in the Bisie and Luvungi mines, but not as much as he had hoped.

Artisanal miners often use rudimentary or old-fashioned tools, including hoes, spades and crowbars, to extract tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, among other metals and minerals.

Despite their lack of funding or real tools, artisanal miners organize themselves in groups to try to find success.

“We have self-made prospectors locally known as ‘métaneurs’ who explore areas for gold. They use no appropriate equipment as they simply plow the fields using a spade, and it is the first plowing result that gives us the courage to go on with our work or not,” Malikewa says.

Once an area is deemed to have potential, artisanal miners approach landowners for permission to dig on their land. After an agreement is reached, they can issue an operating license.

“Their rights depend upon the gains or quantity of the minerals obtained,” Malikewa says.

Informal groups of artisanal miners typically consist of at least six men, and success can depend on how deep that they dig a pit. In a self-dug pit where minerals are abundant, Malikewa says, the groups can find 3 to 5 grams of gold or other minerals per day.

Musalari, the Lubero mining station head, encourages people to pursue artisanal mining, even though income can be sporadic. It’s better than turning to a life of crime, he says.

“What excuse do they have to miss out that opportunity?” he says. “The mining sector offers alternative ways to survive for those who try to avoid wallowing in poverty or indulging in banditry.”

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.

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