Mongbwalu: Fighting for livelihoods and the environment amidst an abundance of gold
Mongbwalu is a mining town located 85 kms north of the city of Bunia in Ituri Province in north-eastern DR Congo. The area is rich in gold, but as soon as one arrives in this rural town, it is misery. One can read poverty on the faces of the population. Many children are malnourished. Obviously, the government and economic operators are indifferent to the population’s plight. They just extract gold, without implementing projects that could improve people’s lives.
The road linking Mongbwalu to Bunia is a vivid testimony to this indifference. The road is in such a bad condition that it can only be travelled by motorbike, which takes an entire day. Motorized vehicles reach their destination after no less than three or four days of travel. The trip is extremely expensive, costing over 120,000 Francs congolais (FC, slightly over USD70) for one motorbike ride. As a result, the prices of merchandise have spiked.
Travelling this road has also become increasingly dangerous. Since the start of 2020, Mongbwalu has been attacked several times by a faction of the CODECO militia named Bon temple (Good Temple). These attackshave led to displacement, further complicating the struggle to make ends meet
The feast of gold
The word Mongbwalu comes from Nangbalu, which means a place of feast in the language of the Banyali, a group claiming to be indigenous to this area. But the population does not partake in the festive reality of the abundance of gold. Around 70% is illiterate. Only children aged 5 to 10 go to school. Beyond this age, all eyes are on the mines.
That poverty is rampant shows that the long history of gold mining in Mongbwalu has not had a durable impact on the population’s wealth and wellbeing. Gold exploitation already started in the colonial era. The Belgian colonial authorities built the mines of Makala and Sincère as well as a processing plant and a laboratory, which were both destroyed during the Congo Wars (1996–2003).
In the postcolonial era, the concession at Mongbwalu (concession 40) was in the hands of the state mining company Office de Kilo Moto (OKIMO), which employed more than 1,700 workers. In 1996, parts of concession 40 were granted to a company that became AngloGoldfields Kilo (AGK) - a joint venture of OKIMO and Anglogold Ashanti - in 2003, when the area around Mongbwalu was still under control of a militia. According to Human Rights Watch, AGK developed links with this militia to facilitate prospecting operations.
Over the years, relations between AGK and the population deteriorated. The company chased artisanal miners away from parts of its concession, which created serious tensions. It also refused to invest in socio-economic development, such as building schools and hospitals. While this is not legally required for companies involved in exploration, it was still expected by the population. Moreover, the company was preparing to start production.
Despite having invested USD 520 million in prospecting and development and having 70% of the mechanical equipment needed for production already on site, AGK stopped the construction of the mine in 2013. They invoked various reasons for this sudden decision: a change in calculations following the drop in the world market price of gold, the high costs of construction, and the thorny problem of the presence of thousands of artisanal miners on its concession. In 2015, it sold its shares to FIMOSA, a consortium of Congolese businesspeople, which created Mongbwalu Gold Mines (MGM).
Instead of confronting the artisanal miners, locally called nzengeneurs, MGM has tried to coexist with them, entering into an agreement with four artisanal mining cooperatives located in parts of their concession that are less suitable for industrial exploitation. These cooperatives cede 30% of their proceeds to MGM, which also buys their minerals. Despite this initiative, cohabitation has remained difficult, and has been complicated by a strong rise in the number of artisanal diggers.
In early 2019, the Australian company Vector Resources entered into a joint venture with MGM and Fimosa Capital, obtaining a 60% interest in the Adidi Kanga project on MGM’s concession, which it seeks to develop. This creates new risks of confrontation with artisanal miners.
MGM does not authorize artisanal activity in the so called “exclusion zone” of its concession, which has created conflicts. A woman from a local civil society organization explains:
“The company demarcates its area, it is called the target area, but artisanal miners also seek to dig in that area. And when the miners find gold in non-target areas, the company claims that it was in its target area.”
These conflicts prompt artisanal miners from time to time to march to express their anger and claim their rights. In July 2015, more than 3,000 gold miners took to the streets to protest MGM's decision to expel artisanal miners from the quarry called “Mondial” by force. The seizure by MGM of around one hundred sacks of minerals produced by artisanal diggers in February 2017 sparked another manifestation, which was bloodily suppressed. Company security officers fired bullets to disperse the crowd, injuring four people.
Another source of tensions is MGM’s weak contribution to socio-economic development. According to a local leader: “MGM was trying to build [drink water sources], yet they overvalued the work. For one source they would calculate thousands of dollars, while we can build one here for around USD800”.
In March this year, civil society organizations and youth leaders in Mongbwalu demanded the company’s departure, citing its negligible contribution to employment and its failure to honour its agreement with the local community regarding social investments. They also denounced the company’s continued reliance on buying gold from artisanal miners, instead of developing industrial mining and building a gold production plant.
Dried up river due to mining activity (Paul Vikanza)
The various mining companies that have been present in Mongbwalu since the colonial era have destroyed the flora. At Kpamgba, a hill situated south-east of the town, there are no longer any reeds, previously the dominant vegetation in the area. This area has also been profoundly deforested due to mining activity.
Artisanal miners do not respect the environment either. They have cleared forests to create mining pits and use large quantities of mercury to extract gold. “You will find mercury being sold everywhere here and its use is not even regulated”, said one observer.
In addition, the "under-current" (sous courant) system pollutes the water. This practice displaces riverbeds, clogs gutters and creates floods in villages. In Mabilindi, the hills are almost all washed away. According to a member of civil society: “All the rivers are filled with mud. Even Ituri [the river] no longer has water, it is sand. Many rivers have abandoned their beds, so we are even losing the fish."
Underground mining often causes landslides, leading to accidents that kill a growing number of artisanal miners. These incidents mainly take place in times of heavy rain. Due to climate change, Periods of torrential rain have become more and more frequent, showing the deadly stakes of ecological problems.
These problems raise the issue of corporate responsibility. “The company doesn't care about the environment. They have regrouped the artisanal miners within cooperatives, but these cooperatives are not engaged in environmental protection. This renders MGM a motor of environmental destruction here”, said a member of a local NGO.
Between the devil and the deep sea
Despite the efforts by civil society activists to reduce the destructive impact of gold mining on the environment and promote socio-economic development, there has been little progress. MGM hides behind the cooperatives and says it has no control. The artisanal miners focus on survival, and do not feel responsible for the environment.
There is also a lack of action from the national authorities. While some see the arrival of Vector Resources as an opportunity to promote development, civil society organizations stress that the contract it has signed with MGM and Fimosa Capital has not been made public, which is concerning.
Because of all these vested interests, those who strive for change often meet resistance. A member of a civil society organization explains:
“There are heavy threats, it is thanks to God that we have not yet experienced any harm. There are the artisanal miners. When we tell them that after digging they have to cover the pits, they think we are bullies. There are also state services that seek to muzzle our freedom of expression. They don't want us to talk about environmental issues because of their interests.”
Despite these threats, civil society organizations tirelessly continue their advocacy and activism, hoping that one day, the people of Mongbwalu can also participate in the "feast of gold" within a healthy ecosystem.
This blogpost is part of a series on socio-environmental struggles in North-eastern DR Congo
Evariste Mahamba is a journalist, writer, researcher and expert/trainer in communication for behavourial change. He has conducted research and written several articles on issues related to security, development, and conflicts over protected areas and the exploitation of natural resources in eastern DRC. He has also directed several training courses on journalism and the management and marketing of community radio stations.
Judith Verweijen is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the interplay of violence, conflicts around natural resources and social mobilisation. She focuses on eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has regularly conducted fieldwork since 2010.