By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 24, 2008
LIKASI, Congo -- In these days of high-tech economic globalization, Innocent Luamba digs for copper and cobalt in the manner of the ancient Romans, by hand.
As world mineral prices soar, the former soldier makes less than $5 on a good day of toiling 20 yards underground, at the literal end of a chain of predatory middlemen, gold-wearing labor bosses and shadowy mineral traders stretching from here to China and India and places he only imagines.
"Things are really obscure," said Luamba, 40, as he rested at a transient miners' camp of sagging orange tents, a common sight across this rolling landscape of tall grass and wildflowers in the southeastern Congolese province of Katanga. "We don't know where it goes or who buys the ore."
Along with an estimated 2 million other people across Congo, Luamba is part of a brutal business known as artisanal mining, which accounts for as much as 90 percent of the country's mineral exports. It is a scrappy, outside-the-law means of making a living, and one increasingly at odds with the modern mining industry that the Congolese government is trying to build as the backbone of a formal economy.
With a years-long civil war mostly over and a democratically elected government in place, major foreign companies such as U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Anvil Mining of Australia and, more recently, Chinese enterprises are pouring billions of dollars into creating modern mechanized mines to tap some of the purest concentrations of copper and cobalt on the planet.
Investment on this scale, many people here contend, gives Congo a shot at transforming the exploitative informal system into a legitimate industry that pays decent wages and fuels development across a nation the size of Western Europe.
At the moment, this future is running up against the anarchic, every-man-for-himself culture that has defined Congo for decades. Arriving at their new concessions, the foreign mining companies' crews are finding thousands of diggers already there, hauling off sacks of ore.
These encounters have led to riots in some cases, accommodation in others. More often, though, the diggers are being chased off the mining sites, fostering a growing militancy among people who feel they have a right to this small portion of their country's vast natural riches.
"We have the privilege to use the land that God gave us," said Sakila Mavu Jackson, chief of a village where many miners live. "We have the right of digging."
Artisanal mining is a fairly recent phenomenon in Congo, where miners for decades were a privileged minority in an impoverished country, enjoying something resembling a middle-class life.
By the 1980s, the mechanized state-owned mining company, Gecamines, was exporting 400,000 tons of copper ore a year, fueling the Congolese economy and the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who plundered its coffers liberally.
The company paid its 40,000 workers a decent salary and a bounty of benefits: free schools, free hospitals, free food and even Friday night socials with free beer. In busy company towns such as this one, senior workers drove home to leafy neighborhoods that resemble small-town America.
By the early 1990s, pervasive corruption had caused the collapse of Gecamines, the economy and Mobutu's government, ushering in a decade of civil war and such desperation that some people were eating corncobs for sustenance.
After toppling Mobutu in 1997, President Laurent Kabila issued a presidential decree aimed at rebuilding the middle class. His message to the people: Head back to the mines and start digging.
Tens of thousands did -- a desperate, diverse population, ranging from former Gecamines workers to unemployed lawyers to children, that represented a cross section of Congo's societal failures. The government later enacted laws that made the mining effectively illegal.
"I completed my secondary school but didn't have money for university," said 19-year-old Michel Kabul, who recently started digging at an old Gecamines site with Luamba. He'd prefer to study medicine, he said.
Instead, he trudges each morning to a balding hill near the camp, drops 20 yards down a manhole-size shaft, and tunnels horizontally.
"When you finish," one digger said, "you feel you've been thrashed."
The diggers usually work in groups of three, heaving out bags of ore. The haphazard tunneling undermines the stability of the earth above, which often collapses. Every week, about 10 miners die in accidents, provincial officials said.
Luamba's three-man team can produce perhaps two 220-pound sacks of copper ore a day, a bounty quickly consumed by a slew of dubious taxes, fees and prices.
After those costs, each miner ends the day with about $4, perhaps a fifth of the value of one 220-pound sack. The going rate for a decent loaf of bread is $1.50.
A middleman sells the ore to buyers such as Daniel Tam, a British citizen from Hong Kong who declined to give his company's name. Though he has his own mining concession, Tam said he buys only from diggers working other spots, "because it is cheaper." With a single phone call, he can find a buyer abroad.
"The Chinese, the Indians, the South Africans," he said, naming all the buyers. "The selling is easy."
The diggers are not the only ones suffering in such transactions. Congo is also losing out on taxes and jobs as the less-valuable raw ore is hauled out of the country before being processed into a final product worth four times as much.
Yet because the artisanal system is so economically entrenched and accepted -- a billboard in the provincial capital shows a digger chatting on a cellphone -- people here say it will be difficult to uproot.
As more major mining companies head to Katanga, the diggers are playing a cat-and-mouse game with police, who chase them from site to site. When the police showed up at Luamba's site last month, hundreds of diggers repelled them with rocks.
Given the potential for unrest, companies are either turning their concessions into secure fortresses, as Freeport-McMoRan has, or attempting to reach an accommodation with the diggers.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Anvil, whose company trucks and planes were used by the Congolese military in 2004 to crush what they said was a nascent rebellion. Though Anvil was cleared by a Congolese court of complicity in the violence, in which 73 civilians were killed, the incident was a public relations disaster for the company, which has since funded a nonprofit group called Pact to help with development projects around its mines.
When Anvil found hundreds of diggers on one of its concessions two years ago, the company hired all of them. At another concession, however, Anvil found 7,000 men. For a while, the company allowed them to continue digging on the condition they sell the ore to the company. But police eventually told them to leave.
No one expects that the mining companies will be able to absorb all the 250,000 diggers in the province.
"If you find 300, perhaps they can be accommodated," said Richard Robinson, Pact's Congo representative. "But if you find 5,000, what do you do? The question is: Where do these guys go?"
In the case of Luamba's site, the provincial governor, Moise Katumbi, told the diggers they could remain. A wealthy businessman with a populist's touch, he is pushing mining companies to start agriculture projects and pave roads. But Katumbi says that Congo must also shed its old, corrupt ways.
"It's up to us not to miss this chance," he said.