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August 11, 2014

Congolese devastate own homes in cobalt mining rush

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The Observers - August 11, 2014

Congolese devastate own homes in cobalt mining rush

Hundreds of artisanal miners have flooded a neighbourhood of Kolwezi in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, after the discovery of a giant cobalt deposit. Our Observer explains how too much mining has effectively turned the ground into Swiss cheese — putting the whole neighborhood at risk. Kolwezi is a town renowned for its rich soil, home to vast quantities of mineral deposits containing aluminium, copper and especially cobalt. These minerals — keenly sought after and exploited by artisanal miners [miners who work independently] — are dug up and then sold on to mining companies in the region, many of which are Chinese.

In June, a resident of Kasulo — which is located around four kilometres from the town centre of Kolwezi — was building a septic tank in his home when he realised that his basement was overflowing with mineral deposits. Other local residents then began searching and discovered that the surrounding area was loaded with copper and cobalt. Despite a mining prohibition put in place by the municipality on July 18th, giant holes suddenly began appearing across the neighborhood. Left without some kind of supporting structure, these excavations are prone to collapse. Five diggers died at the end of July in landslides caused by haphazard excavation sites.

“No one has the intention of leaving the area as long as there’s still an ounce of cobalt or copper”

Almost all the residents of Kasulo [a neighborhood of around 10,000 people] dug on their land to try and find minerals. It’s a poor area, where the unemployment rate is extremely high, so this discovery was almost like a gift from the heavens for lots of them. The price of minerals varies according to the cobalt trader, but one ton can bring between 1,000 and 5,000 dollars [between 750 and 3,700 euros]. Some haven’t hesitated to break down their homes with axes to dig massive holes. Others dig in their rooms away from prying eyes. Most of them have hired artisanal diggers with whom they share up to 50% of the bounty that they find daily. In general, they’re recruited in teams of five, and they take it in turns to work different shifts. One team will work from 6am until 6pm, then another takes over. As a result, in the best of cases they can extract between one and two tons daily!

“A pastor and his followers even dug around an inside a church!”

One must dig at least six metres under the ground to find traces of the minerals. The particularity of these minerals is that the deeper you dig, the denser the cobalt and copper. The consequence is that we see huge holes, some that go some 15 metres deep. In a neighborhood church, the pastor and his followers agreed to dig holes around, and even inside, the church to find cobalt. On Sunday, they celebrate mass as if nothing had happened.

Erosion risks triggering landslides and destroying the homes that are still standing.

Residents haven’t hesitated to bring down parts of their homes to excavate the ground. The town council at first tolerated the excavations, then decided to intervene because some people began digging on roads. The problem is that these strips of land were legally bought by residents on the local land register. They therefore have the right to do what they want, because they’re at home! The government of Katanga has given the diggers one month to leave the area and promised to find them a new place to continue their activities. But on the ground, very few people are aware of the measure, and no one has the intention of leaving the area as long as there’s still one ounce of cobalt or copper. Even if they’re in the minority, some residents — often those who haven’t found cobalt on their strip of land — complain about the probable consequences of these anarchic excavations. The rainy season will soon arrive [from October until December], and with soil erosion, we don’t have any idea how the soil — which is very sandy — will react. There’s a strong likelihood of landslides which could destroy the last houses still standing. Let’s not even speak about the radioactivity of the minerals, which could pose public health problems in the years to come.

According to the Chamber of Mines of the DR Congo, between 2.5 and 3.5 million tons of cobalt are buried in mineral deposits across the country. That represents between 60 to 75 per cent of world reserves. The resources attract miners who operate illegally: last June, police had to resort to drawing weapons to settle a dispute between miners in Kawama, south of Kolwezi.

This article was written with Alexandre Capron, (@alexcapron), journalist for the FRANCE 24 Observers.

(To Read the full article and watch video, please click here).
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