In terms of mineral wealth, the DRC is rich beyond imagining, yet occupying forces are plundering not only its diamonds but also valuable gold and coltan reserves.
In terms of its untapped mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the richest countries in the world. Its soil is reputed to contain every mineral listed on the periodic table and these minerals are found in concentrations high enough to make metal analysts weep.
Mining activity is predominantly concentrated in the south-eastern and eastern parts of the country, much of it now held by rebels and occupying forces. According to the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons, up to 40 percent of the DRC's economy is outside the government's control.
Copper is found in a 140-mile by 30-mile strip that fans out from Katanga into neighboring Zambia and is known as the copper belt. Towards the end of the 80s, the DRC was the fifth largest producer of copper in the world, the number one producer of cobalt and the second largest producer of industrial diamonds.
Copper and cobalt production came under the state's massive mining company, Gécamines or La Société Générale des Carrières et des Mines. For most of the post independence era, Gécamines has been the single most important source of foreign exchange for the government, generating between $700 million and $900 million per annum in its heyday.
But by 1996, following decades of flagrant mismanagement and endemic corruption under Mobutu's regime, copper and cobalt production had dramatically dropped. Pillaging, loss of skilled labor, falling prices, and a series of wanton liberalization decisions fuelling smuggling also played a part.
Since Joseph Kabila took over as president, a number of measures aimed at attracting investment and reviving the mining sector have been adopted. A new mining code has been promised by the end of the year and encouraging developments have recently taken place in the exploitation of copper and associated minerals.
The Société du Terril de Lubumbashi (STL), a consortium consisting of 7s, a Belgian and a U.S. company have invested $120 million in a project aimed at extracting cobalt, copper and zinc oxide from the slag heap in Lubumbashi using the world's second largest electric oven. The new facility is expected to produce an alloy with cobalt content of between 15 22 percent.
In addition, the exploitation of the Kolwezi slag heap by Congo Mineral Developments (CMD), a 50/50 joint venture between American Mineral Fields (AMZ) and AngloGold has also recently been extended for another year. And in April, the government approved the new terms of the copper-cobalt tailings in a $350-million deal with AMZ.
Another recent development is the expected resumption, following agreement between the U.S. firm Phelps Dodge and Australia's BHP World Exploration Co, for the development of the Tenke Fungurume project estimated to contain 550 million tons of ore with copper gradings of 3.5 per cent and cobalt of 0.27 percent.
The big names have also been present in the gold sector for decades. AngloGold and Barrick Gold Corporation of Canada have traditionally operated through complex webs of joint ventures with local companies such the Société Minière du Kivu (SOMINKI) or the Office de Mines de Kilomoto (OKIMO). But as a result of the protracted war since 1997, much of the gold produced mainly in rebel controlled territories has been smuggled into Rwanda and Uganda.
This is an issue that has plagued diamond production as well; the DRC is the world number one producer of industrial diamonds but illicit trading is estimated at almost double the $300 $500 million officially recorded annual production. The major deposits in East and West Kasai have been exploited mainly by the government-owned Société Minière de Bakwanga (MIBA) until 1997 when its monopoly was broken. In recent years, significant diamond deposits have also been discovered in the Orientale province sharing the border with Uganda.
In April, Kabila took measures to liberalize, in a limited fashion, the diamond market by allowing trading companies to once again buy gems directly from diggers or middlemen. These measures were aimed at maximizing government tax revenues from diamonds as well as curbing the existing massive fraud. Another important change is the soon expected introduction of international certification procedures for diamonds.
Certification is less effective in impeding the theft of coltan, the new wonder mineral of which large deposits have been recently discovered and exploited in rebel held areas of North Kivu. Technological advances and increased global consumption, especially of high-tech manufactured goods, has turned coltan into one of the most sought after raw materials. Its uses vary from making tantalum capacitors in cellphones, computers, game consoles, and camcorders to pharmaceuticals, chemicals and automotive industries. In a recently published UN sponsored report on the illegal exploitation of the DRC's natural resources and other forms of wealth, it was estimated that up to 100 tons a month of tantalum was exported by the Rwandan army. Likewise, Ugandan exports of the mineral rose from 2.5 tons in 1997 just before the war, to nearly 70 tons in 1999.
Measures supporting peace coupled with the regulation and opening of the mining sector are a lynchpin of the DRC's economic recovery. The gradual renewal of confidence in the DRC by the IMF and other multilateral partners is also expected to help attract much needed foreign investment into the mining industry. But while the country remains under a hostile occupation, the resources that are so badly needed to rebuild the DRC will continue to be filtered away to support other causes.