Miners take a break from digging pits at a mine in south Kivu.

 
Miners take a break from digging pits at a mine in south Kivu.   - 
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Biyamungu Ngalikyana, in his mid-20s, sports shiny white rubber boots and a mining helmet as he walks down a dirt road in the mining town of Luhwindja in south Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. A former Mai Mai rebel fighter, he now digs for gold hundreds of feet beneath the surface. He’s what’s known as an "artisanal miner," which means he’s just a regular person with hand tools, as opposed to a mechanized industrial outfit.

Mining in the Eastern DRC has, over the past two decades, become an important source of revenue for individuals and towns during periods of insecurity and war. There are an estimated half million artisanal miners in Congo. At Luhwindja, 6,000 people in this town depend on the gold in the hills.

Perhaps not for much longer.

“Banro comes and tells us to leave fairly regularly,” says Ngalikyana. 

Banro is an industrial mining company that has held concession rights to this land for decades. 

“These miners are a handicap,” says Maitre Crispin Mutwedu, in charge of stakeholder relations for Banro. “The law that says no [outside] miner is allowed to work inside these areas covered by the concession, and yet every time we show up at a place, we find we were beat to it by several years by artisanal miners.” 

The Democratic Republic of Congo has granted thousands of mining concessions to industrial mining companies over the years. Industrial mines, when they can operate in conflict-free areas, can prevent minerals from seeping into the black market or funding armed groups. They also provide tax revenue or infrastructure construction services. 

They do not, however, come close to providing the kind of employment that less efficient hand-mining provides to communities. And in regions that have been courting war for decades, unemployment can have dire consequences.

“I’m not leaving,” says Ngalikyana. “There’s nowhere else to go, there’s no work. If I end up in the street, I”ll go back to the bush and start robbing people again, and maybe I’ll rob Banro.”

These risks are not lost on Mutwedu of Banro.

“These people who are here, these are people who we have to take seriously. Because if you don’t, and if they’re out of work, you will be too,” he says.

More than most mining companies, Banro has engaged with communities to determine compensation packages or the possibility of relocating to "artisanal zones" set aside elsewhere. 

Valentin Lubala, president of the miners association at a mine called Mukwunge (also in the Banro concession), is frank about the reality: “We understand the site belongs to them. We negotiated, and Banro said they’d give us some time, and the government could help us relocate.”

“The problem comes from the regional government,” he says. 

Technically, it’s not legal to share a concession with artisanal miners, and the regional minister of mines, Adalbert Murhi, has refused to sign off on their agreement. 

A group of non-governmental organizations in South Kivu has accused him of mismanagement and corruption, charges he firmly denies. 

Meanwhile, groups are trying to convince the government to alter the law or be more flexible. For the moment, it’s easier to find gold than solutions.

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