DIG­GING IN THE DRC

An in­trepid team is start­ing to build a tin mine in the con­flict-rid­den North Kivu province, but it has to over­come in­tim­i­dat­ing ob­sta­cles. This is our first-per­son ac­count

Financial Mail - - FEATURE - Charlotte Mathews math­ewsc@fm.co.za

Those who think that min­ing com­pa­nies sit idly over rich re­sources and reap fat prof­its from them should think again. The ob­sta­cles to build­ing new mines in vir­gin ar­eas in po­lit­i­cally un­sta­ble coun­tries would de­ter all but the most de­ter­mined, op­ti­mistic and prag­matic in­di­vid­u­als.

SA has plenty of them.

Our group of five jour­nal­ists took 10½ hours to travel the 3,800 km from Jo­han­nes­burg to the site of Al­phamin Re­sources’ Bisie tin project in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC).

Bisie is 180 km from Goma and 60 km from the vil­lage of Wa­likali in North Kivu province. It is be­ing de­vel­oped by a team of South Africans and Con­golese.

Get­ting there is the first hur­dle. The jour­ney in­volved a 3½-hour flight from Jo­han­nes­burg to Kigali in Rwanda, a three-hour taxi ride to the DRC bor­der, a 30-minute char­ter flight from Goma to land on the road near Wa­likali (there is no airstrip), and a 30-minute drive along the N3 to the vil­lage of Logu.

The last 32 km from Logu to the mine took three hours in 4x4 ve­hi­cles over a sticky clay road, in­clud­ing sev­eral bridges, built by the Bisie team. They are also busy with an airstrip.

Trans­port­ing peo­ple is a lot eas­ier than get­ting heavy equip­ment and sup­plies to the mine, which is com­plex, time con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive.

At Bisie, ac­com­mo­da­tion for the 70 spe­cial­ists work­ing on the mine (all men) and their visi­tors is in small sa­fari tents pitched un­der roof­ing, with shared ablu­tions. That is where we spent a night.

On re­turn­ing to SA, I dis­cov­ered that I had been com­pre­hen­sively bit­ten by bed bugs. Other wildlife is scarce, though a few birds can be heard.

The area we trav­elled through has a tragic his­tory go­ing back to the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide, and it un­der­scores why it is so dif­fi­cult to do busi­ness in parts of this re­gion. More than 800,000 Rwan­dans, mostly from the Tutsi mi­nor­ity, were mur­dered in a three-month killing spree be­gun by the Hutu ma­jor­ity.

Hu­tus who fled to the DRC to avoid ret­ri­bu­tion in Rwanda formed rebel groups that are be­hind the al­most con­tin­u­ous fight­ing that has plagued North Kivu ever since — be­tween DRC and Rwan­dan forces, and be­tween DRC forces and rebels.

The fight­ing was fi­nanced by ar­ti­sanal min­ing of gold, tan­ta­lum, tin and tung­sten.

In 2010 the US passed the Dodd-frank Act, which con­tains pro­vi­sions re­quir­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of those four min­er­als mined in the Great Lakes re­gion. Overnight the price of un­cer­ti­fied tin fell through the floor. Most of the 15,000 ar­ti­sanal min­ers on the Bisie site left.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the mine man­agers and the few hun­dred ar­ti­sanal min­ers who re­main is rel­a­tively peace­ful, but se­cu­rity mea­sures are tight. Fifty po­lice of­fi­cers are per­ma­nently sta­tioned on the mine and we had an armed es­cort ev­ery­where we went. The mine’s man­agers have re­ceived death threats and ex­pe­ri­enced other forms of harassment.

Rwan­dan Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame and his Con­golese coun­ter­part, Joseph Ka­bila, seem equally un­will­ing to give up power.

But there are stark dif­fer­ences in the way the two economies have been man­aged. Rwanda has 12m peo­ple and no min­eral re­sources, yet GDP per capita is US$702. DRC, with 79m peo­ple, is richly en­dowed with cop­per, cobalt, gold and other min­er­als. Its per capita GDP is only $444.

Kigali has mod­ern of­fice build­ings and apart­ments near the air­port, in­clud­ing a domed con­fer­ence cen­tre that changes colour all night, and sev­eral good ho­tels. Pave­ments are neat and lit­ter-free. Down­town is full of small traders, pedes­tri­ans and chaotic traf­fic.

The Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment is ea­ger to en­cour­age tourists. Go­rilla trekking is the most fa­mous at­trac­tion, but visi­tors can also hike up ac­tive vol­ca­noes and stay overnight to won­der at the glow­ing lava. Spec­tac­u­lar Lake Kivu on the DRC bor­der has mod­ern ho­tels and lux­ury houses.

While Rwanda has a brand-new, im­pos­ing bor­der post fi­nanced by the Howard G Buf­fett Foun­da­tion, only 100 m away the DRC bor­der post is a sin­gle-storey house in a dusty park­ing lot.

Goma is only a re­gional cap­i­tal, but it is rea­son­ably well de­vel­oped, per­haps partly be­cause of the long­stand­ing UN pres­ence there. It has some good ho­tels and shops, in­clud­ing a French bak­ery, and a bustling down­town area.

One of the more star­tling sights is chukudus, wooden scoot­ers with no en­gines that lo­cals have put to­gether from scrap. They weave around the traf­fic, car­ry­ing goods.

For the DRC and par­tic­u­larly North Kivu, min­er­als have been a curse. But if the DRC’S po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship had been more like Rwanda’s, it might have man­aged its re­sources bet­ter. In­stead, its gov­ern­ment is in the process of re­vis­ing the min­ing code again to ex­tract more money from the few com­pa­nies that op­er­ate there, in­stead of of­fer­ing con­ces­sions to at­tract le­git­i­mate busi­nesses that could help to sta­bilise the econ­omy.

Al­phamin Re­sources

Un­der con­struc­tion: En­trance to the Bisie tin mine

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