Looting Africa: Canadian Company Eyes Gold in Democratic Republic of Congo

A Canadian mining company is prepared to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in gold out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of Africa’s most embattled and poorest countries. One expert says that to extract gold, the company will have to cut a deal with a violent African militia.

In an attempt to derail fresh violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the UN is calling on governments and other agencies to raise nearly $40 million in emergency funding for extra security. The UN says escalated fighting between the notorious "FDLR" or Forces Democatiques de Liberation du Rwanda militia and the DRC military is forcing thousands of Congolese to flee their homes. 

"There are widespread reports…of atrocities including accusations of murder, rape and torture, on the part of the FDLR rebels," said UN spokesperson Ron Redmond to the newswire Agence France-Press in late July. "Fleeing populations also report arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, extortion and forced taxation by the FDLR and various armed groups backing the Rwandan Hutu rebels."

The DRC government has said the incidents are related to its latest military offensive to root out the FDLR.

The region was believed to be under a relative peace since earlier this year after General Laurent Nkunda — the infamous leader of another violent militia group — was finally apprehended. But as is often the case in eastern DRC, where a resource war involving several nations and many militias has been waged on-and-off for the last ten years, true peace never lasts long.

Despite the new violence, a Canadian mining company is eager to begin digging for gold in the eastern DRC. The mining company, Banro Corporation of Toronto, is currently researching four separate mines in the region. And so far, they believe 10 million of ounces of gold could be extracted; if gold stays around its current price of $960 oz., that’s roughly $10 billion dollars. Now Banro is calling for investors to raise funds so they can begin mining what they consider to be some of Africa’s last great gold deposits.

Banro spokesperson Martin Jones said they’ve raised $100 million and that they’re not just interested in Congolese gold. They’ve invested into the area by building several schools, roads and a potable water system for a region in desperate need of such infrastructure. They also said they will spend $13 million to relocate a small village of 750 Congolese, while also finding work for 800 Congolese miners who are digging "illegally", as Banro says, near the same mine.

But the past has clearly shown that Western mining companies working in the eastern DRC have inspired local militias and neighboring countries to inflict violence and terror to, in effect, get a piece of the action. For example, at the start of this decade, the eastern DRC became a hot bed of plundering for the unrefined metallic ore coltan. After processing, coltan becomes a powder called tantalum, which is used to manufacture electronic capacitors. These capacitors are used to make cell phones, computers and video game consoles to satisfy the West’s insatiable appetite for personal technology.

So strong was the lure of coltan back then that two of DRC’s neighboring countries, Uganda and Rwanda, invaded the eastern DRC with proxy militias and their own armies. In 2000, the Rwandan military and connected politicians made $250 million on shipping DRC coltan to Western mining companies and metal traders. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would help give the war its truest moniker; he too called it a resource war.

Several potent questions are raised by the presence of another Western mining company near the killing fields of a past conflict waged so the world can have their cell phones: Could a Canadian mining company’s fever for gold be the ground-breaking for another resource war? Or can Banro reverse the deadly trend of resource wars western mining companies have inspired in Africa by putting millions back into a community which is also heavily employed by Banro?

Currently, much of the new violence in eastern DRC is relegated to the North Kivu province — the same province where the war for coltan raged the fiercest. Banro’s mines, on the other hand, are located several hundred kilometers to the south in the province of South Kivu, which was spared from the brunt of the war over coltan. Banro is claiming their mines are safe from any rebels.

Yet experts beg to differ. They claim that Banro’s four mines are surrounded by territory controlled by the FDLR. This militia is made up of Rwandan Hutus who escaped into the eastern regions of the DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and are alleged to have played a major role in murdering 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The FDLR aims to overthrow the current Rwandan government, but several FDLR leaders use the movement to protect themselves because they are wanted by the US government and the International Criminal Tribune for crimes committed during the 1994 genocide.

Besides the DRC government, the Rwandan government and a UN peace-keeping force have also been on the move during the past year, assisting the DRC forces in an effort to defeat the FDLR once and for all. In May the FDLR struck back, attacking a village in South Kivu killing 60 civilians and 30 government troops, according to the UN. The FDLR on its web site has denied any involvement.

Hans Romkema, director of Conflict and Transition Consultancies of the Netherlands (CTC), is an expert on the FDLR. He’s been in the country, monitoring the militia on several occasions. He says the FDLR, for the most part, is the only military and political force near Banro’s mines. They are a force that exploits natural resources, controls trade, collects taxes and dominates the local population. Romkema reported in 2007 that some civilians are undergoing military training so the FDLR can indoctrinate them as "Interahamwe" — or those who committed the genocide of 1994.

"In my view, Banro cannot work, neither in their (South Kivu mines) without having had some contacts with the FDLR," says Romkema. "Those contacts can have occurred through an intermediary. But somebody must have passed the message to leave the miners alone."

Banro’s Martin Jones refutes Romkema’s claim. "He’s not going to find any FDLR in the neighborhood," he said referring to the forests and hills 20 to 40 miles southwest of Bakuvu, the capital of South Kivu, where one of Banro’s mines is located. Three years ago an FDLR column passed nearby without incident, admitted Jones.

Romkema agrees the mines are too big and no militia "will have the guts to…take control over one of those mines." But indirectly, he says, Banro’s mines could have "serious implications" if the company operates the same way other Western mining companies have, such as illegally moving resources out of the country and bribing corrupt DRC officials.

"They’ll help to maintain the illegal networks that have characterized the DRC for so long and that entirely destroyed the Congolese State." The FDLR has been part of these illegal networks for many years, networks that end with Western-based metal brokers selling the resources to corporations.

"If the people are not improving their lives as a result of the gold exploitation, it will be easy for rebel groups to recruit amongst the region’s youngsters," he says.

And as far as South Kivu is concerned: "I never had the impression that the population is benefiting anything from the exploitation (or mining) of minerals."

Jamie Kneen, director of MiningWatch Canada, says recent history clearly shows how a mining company from the West, like Banro, can so easily create more chaos in eastern DRC. In October of 2004, an apparent rebel uprising started in a village near a copper mine owned by the Anvil Mining, which has part of its operations based in Montreal. In the ensuing crackdown, 70 to 100 civilians were killed by the DRC military. Anvil admitted to giving the DRC forces company trucks, which were used to transport troops and then bodies.

What was equally tragic, says Kneen, was how the Canadian government responded. "They refused to investigate because there’s no legal mechanism in place."

"Anvil’s experience shows," he added, "that even a copper mine far from a conflict zone can be subject to attack."

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio. Photo from Flickr by Julien Harneis.