Congo mining ban hurt more than it helped

A Congo mining ban, instituted recently and meant to halt financing for rebel movements, has hurt everyday Congolese who rely on mining for their livelihood.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
Gold miners form a human chain while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine in the Kilomoto concession near the village of Kobu, 100 km (62 miles) from Bunia in northeastern Congo, Feb. 23, 2009. Civil conflict in Congo has been driven for more than a decade by the violent struggle for control over the country's vast natural resources, including gold, diamonds and timber, most of which is exploited using hard manual labour.

You may remember that a few weeks ago, Congolese President Joseph Kabila suspended all mining in the country's eastern North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema provinces. This ban was ostensibly undertaken to curtail the use of mineral exploitation as a means of financing the region's various and sundry rebel movements.

But then it turned out that it actually wasn't a ban on all mining; rather, only the activities of artisanal miners were put to a stop. And it turned out that predictably, this didn't go over well well with the 50,000 or so people who suddenly found themselves out of a job. That's because mining in the eastern Congo is not simply an activity in which warlords engage; it's part of the regional economy. Without mining, people don't eat. And that includes people who are in no way directly involved in the mining industry. As one Western donor told Reuters, "It's already damaging the economy in the East so badly we are considering humanitarian aid."

Now Martin Kabwelulu, the minister of mines, says that he will allow mining to resume in the provinces around October 15. He says this can be done because "... We have stopped some of the illegal mining and put in place measures so that when we re-start we want to be sure that the production is coming from one known source and going to the next stage. We had to improve our control because there was total chaos."

And the DRC government – which, let's remember, has been incapable of really controlling the east for the last 16 years – managed to do this in less than a month?

Clearly the question we should be asking is not whether the mining ban will stop all the violence in the east (it hasn't), but rather who is now benefiting from the trade. The source of most violence and human rights violations in the Kivus for the past few years has not been rebel groups, but rather is the national army itself. Since presumably Kabila couldn't take control of the mineral trade without the army, odds are that they're now getting a cut of the profits.

Most observers also believe that the detente between Kabila and Kagame (which ended fighting in January 2009, which is why Nkunda is under house arrest outside Kigali rather than marauding in North Kivu) almost certainly involved some guarantee of Rwandan access to Congolese minerals since Rwanda lacks minerals of its own and needs the revenue. I seriously doubt that access will be permanently cut off any time in the near future, especially given the fairly credible reports that Rwandan troops are currently in North Kivu to support (read: force) the redeployment of CNDP troops who've been integrated into the FARDC.

Meanwhile, many civil society and community leaders in the region are distressed over the loss of livelihoods for thousands and thousands of Congolese who were already on the brink of starvation. As a general concept, just about everyone agrees that allowing the population to benefit from the mineral trade would be a good thing for the region. But the actual steps to doing that - especially when it's not at all clear that these latest measures will benefit the population - are quite harmful to normal people. Without institutions in place to ensure the rule of law, the fair distribution of resources and resource revenues, and basic security, as civil society leaders in Walikale pointed out, this move was premature.

This series of events also underscores the need for advocates not to oversimplify narratives, which is exactly what happened with the story of conflict minerals and the consumer's capacity to change the DRC. The legislation passed in the US this year made it seem to the DRC government that they had to do something about the situation, but the lack of serious institution-building support on the part of the US government – which passed an ill-conceived law without addressing any of the underlying issues that actually drive fighting in the region – coupled with the DRC's massive norms of corruption in almost every sector means that the government's actions are likely to only cause a shift in who exploits the minerals on the backs of the population. It's certainly not going to bring about peace or help the DRC's poor.

In the short term, this decision created very serious suffering for the population who was dependent on their work in the mines. I have no doubt that children have become malnourished – and may die – as a direct consequence of the ban. You cannot cut off an entire sector of a weak economy overnight without severe consequences, and the most vulnerable are hit the worst by shocks like this one. That's why it's so terribly important for advocates, policy makers, and politicians to get it right.

Laura Seay blogs at Texas in Africa.

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