In DRC, Chinese companies accused of looting gold from South Kivu

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A seller weighs gold in Walungu territory, South Kivu, in April 2014.

Tires blazing, roads blocked, tear gas fire … Monday, September 13, the inhabitants of Kitutu and several villages in the territory of Mwenga mobilized to demand the departure of the “Chinese”. It was not the first time. In recent months, demonstrations against the exploitation “Illegal” Gold by foreign companies has gained momentum in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Some are suspected of destroying fields and polluting the environment. “We can no longer drink water at home because of the cyanide used for gold mining by the Chinese. The community is wondering what its part will be in all of this ”, wonders Espoir Balangaliza, a resident of the village of Luhwindja, in the territory of Mwenga. Other companies are accused of not compensating residents or, at best, of reducing these compensation.

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« The first anti-Chinese social unrest dates back to 2019 ”, explains Adrien Zawadi, president of the South Kivu Civil Society Coordination Office. “The problem is that the population must always be satisfied with the crumbs », continues the activist. His organization estimates that in three years, between six and thirteen Chinese-owned companies would have appeared in the province.

Fraudulent contracts

Discontent prompted the provincial authorities, at the end of August, to suspend the activities of six companies suspected of“Abuse” manifestos and « multiples » in the territory of Mwenga. If this decision was contested by the Congolese minister of mines, the rise of popular discontent ended up alerting Kinshasa, 2,000 km away. A parliamentary committee made up of eight deputies was sent to the east on September 13 to investigate “Illegal exploitation of natural resources”.

The task promises to be difficult: to date, there is no precise list of Chinese-owned mining companies present in eastern DRC. Some are registered in the land register with mining permits, others exploit the ore without authorization or on the basis of fraudulent contracts contested by civil society organizations.

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To try to see clearly, the deputies on mission in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, heard during four days dozens of actors of the mining sector. Although the managers of the companies involved did not make the trip, “The auditions were very muscular”, reports a Congolese lawyer commissioned by one of these companies. The elected officials also went to Mwenga, a hundred kilometers further south.

A report must be made by parliamentarians in the coming days, but the tone has already been set by Jean-Claude Kibala, at the head of the investigations: “The situation is deplorable, he confides. No company is in a regular situation. “

An undeclared production

The problem goes beyond the Chinese companies involved. The vast majority of gold produced in the DRC goes unreported. According to an analysis published in March 2019 by the German Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), the national production of artisanal gold is 15 to 22 tonnes per year. However, according to figures from the Ministry of Mines, artisanal production in 2020 was only 17.76 kg for South Kivu, the country’s leading gold region.

On the ground, hostility is mainly directed against the Chinese and the case is taken very seriously in Beijing, where the foreign ministry has asked companies accused of abuse by provincial authorities to leave South Kivu. Wu Peng, the director general of African affairs, made it clear on his Twitter account on September 14 that they would be “Punished and sanctioned by the Chinese government”.

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These companies retort that they respect Congolese law. Because if the Mining Code reserves artisanal mining to nationals, a ministerial decree of 2010 authorizes local mining cooperatives to join forces with a foreign partner. “But the agreements are signed with front cooperatives created by Chinese companies for the needs of the cause”, indignant Benjamin Bisimwa, delegate of civil society on mining issues. What is more, he denounces, the distribution of profits is always “Unequal”.

Thus, according to the partnership agreement between the Chinese-owned company Congo Blueant Minerals (CBM) and the artisanal mining cooperative Comibi signed in September 2019 and to which The World Africa had access, 80% of the production goes to the Asian company, against 5% for the cooperative, the remaining 15% going to communities and local authorities.

Complicity of administrations

For the deputy Jean-Claude Kibala, “Cheating is organized with the support of state services”. This alleged complicity of certain administrations increases the resentment of the populations in the east of the DRC, a region plagued by insecurity. General Bob Ngoie Kilubi, commander of the 33e military region, assured the commission of inquiry that he had received instructions from his hierarchy to secure the perimeter of Mwenga. However, the general staff of the armies theoretically prohibits the presence of soldiers on mining sites, to avoid stirring up tensions.

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According to the report of the United Nations group of experts on the DRC published in June 2020, some members of the Congolese army “Provided protection” to the company CBM. “Companies benefit from an exceptional security situation”, underlines Jean-Claude Kibala. To the detriment of the locals, in the grip of attacks from numerous armed groups which have destabilized the region for more than twenty years. “We must not provide security in relation to the one who has the means, we must provide security for the whole country”, concludes the deputy.