The Democratic Republic of Congo has undergone a spasm of protests for the past few weeks as a post-election political crisis has gripped the resource-rich, conflict-ridden Central African country. But far from the protests in the capital Kinshasa, another, stealthier power grab is afoot in Congo’s remote mining towns.
An investigation by the DRC-based PREMICONGO, supported by the Dutch-based watchdog coalition GOOD Electronics Network, elucidates the brutal mechanics of foreign investment in the country’s mineral-rich Katanga region, including labor abuse, epidemic pollution, displacement, and corruption. Researchers accuse both foreign corporate investors and the Congolese state of perpetuating an oppressive, economically devastating, and environmentally unsustainable system of plunder.
In place of old-style European imperialism, neoliberal investment capital now fuels the DRC’s post–civil war export economy. China’s multinationals have joined Europe’s in culling high value minerals like cobalt to fuel their massive global supply chains for digital gadgets and other lucrative electronics.
The PREMICONGO study focuses on a major Chinese copper- and cobalt-mining corporation, CNMC Huachin Mabende. When assessed according to the voluntary environmental and human-rights ethics codes adopted by China Chamber of Commerce on Metals, Minerals and Chemical Importers & Exporters (CCCMC), the official entity that oversees China’s foreign mining investments, Huachin fails on basically every measure.
The environmental impacts of foreign-led mining operations, according to the investigation, have violated the community’s “right to reparations and to the restoration of subsistence living,” due to “the loss of arable earth and deforestation.” According to PREMICONGO, the company never secured informed consent from the local community before moving into the area. The stonewalling continues today; the group says the company has not formally responded to its research or the criticisms laid out in the report.
Advocates say the community’s initial optimism about the development has curdled into bitterness. Researcher Pauline Overeem of SOMO, a GOOD partner group, says via email that originally, “hopes were that this industry would offer employment and development. But, as this enterprise has been operating here now for years, and it has not delivered on its promises and in fact made things worse, the overall sentiment in the community is no longer in favour of the enterprise.’
The main job opportunities revolve around the grueling manual labor of so-called “subsistence mining.” Skilled workers typically earn just $250 monthly, and unskilled laborers as little as $100 per month. Without a livable wage, impoverished laborers are also separated from their families, living in dismal encampments “packed in with eight people in rooms of three square meters.”
Mabende’s workers, who have no union and few labor protections, demand a collective bargaining process with on-site worker housing with basic water sanitation. But some have reportedly been fired after simply “demanding better safety equipment,” which was exacerbated by having their social security numbers transferred to the workers hired to replace them—apparently “in complicity with agents of the National Institute of Social Security.” Suppression of freedom of assembly and social security fraud violate both Congolese law and Chinese mining regulations.
Huachin’s social impact on the tiny village of about 400 has been similarly dismal, according to the researchers. The mine has grown massively—extracting some 11,500 tons of cobalt in 2015, worth $19.7 million—and now employs more than 550 local laborers, overseen by 83 Chinese staff. Though the company touts “corporate social responsibility” programs in its publicity efforts, and has granted an access road for workers, the surrounding town still lacks even basic healthcare and social infrastructure.
PREMICONGO has also observed the industry’s toxic public-health consequences: a dyke built by the company has diverted the local Mabende River, and local wells have dwindled and drinking water supplies are endangered. Chemical discharges due to lack of sedimentation tanks have left swaths of the forest “destroyed by the spreading of acid on the ground,” without protective measures for endangered species. The only compensation from the company has been the installation of a faucet system, to which residents trek two miles to draw cloudy foul-tasting water that studies indicate to be “unfit for human consumption.”
Due to massive deforestation, villagers have lost crucial income sources due to the destruction of traditional forest-based food cultivation, including medicinal plants, fruits and mushrooms. The company has failed to offer compensation for the impact on these indigenous resources, one of the few other economic resources other than the unregulated artisanal mine work.
Mabende may be an isolated enclave, but is hardly an isolated example. Despite rising public backlash, Chinese investment has proliferated in recent years, and now dominates an estimated 90 percent of the companies operating in the region, mainly in copper and cobalt mining. According to SOMO’s 2016 report on DRC’s mining industry, tests of Katanga residents’ cobalt exposure have shown severe blood contamination, while air pollution blankets nearby communities. Earlier human-rights investigations of Chinese multinationals also described systematic displacement of local communities, including mass evictions.
Under public pressure, China has made efforts over the years to improve its ethical and environmental standards and has issued reams of guidelines for local business conduct. But advocates argue that Huachin and the CCCMC have flouted the company’s own ethics codes, which include provisions for public transparency, local consultation, and conducting environmental impact assessments.
Overeem points out that the recent electoral chaos surrounding the election, shows that after so many years of civil conflict, “DRC is not a functioning democracy. Weak governance, no rule of law, corruption, etc. make enforcement of existing laws, be they weak or strong on paper, a farce.” In the long term, environmental advocates have a massive agenda for the country. They demand legislative change and an overhauling of existing regulations. Yet, until such policies are in place, she adds, “investors should develop and uphold high standards in line with international standards and not profit/benefit from the lack of government oversight.” In the long run, however, the idea of equity is proving fundamentally at odds with China’s extractive model of development: “it is no coincidence that companies like to operate in the DRC (apart from the principal reason—the abundance of natural resources); the lawlessness also makes the place attractive for enterprises.”
While the opaque business deals of mine-industry investors fuel the global electronics trade, the villages at the bottom end of the supply chain are still waiting for a return on their investment.