The high cost of the Congo’s conflict gold.
People familiar with the devastating impact of blood diamonds will most likely ask their jewellers for certificates proving that their ring or pendant hasn’t fuelled civil war or human rights violation. Experts suggest we do the same with gold. For almost two decades this precious metal has been causing death and despair in the African Great Lakes region.
All around the world, gold symbolises true and eternal love. A 50th anniversary is, after all, called ‘golden’ and wedding rings have long been made of this precious metal, which – like true love – should remain unaffected as time goes by. Gold is also associated with success, and as a result it is used in prestigious awards including Nobel prizes and Olympic medals.
To scores of people, however, gold has a much darker side; one that has nothing to do with love or success. Take the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In this country, formerly known as Zaire, the artisanal extraction of gold has for 15 years and counting gone hand in hand with human rights abuse, violence, exploitation, dangerous working conditions and never-ending armed conflict.
The situation in the northeast of the country in particular is a major cause of concern. The International Peace Information Centre (IPIS) writes in one of its most recent reports that armed groups and militias control the extraction activities in over 200 out of the 800 surveyed artisanal Congolese gold mines in the northeast. The national army, in addition, rules over 265 other sites.
IPIS, a Belgian organisation that is continuously researching the scope of so-called conflict gold in the DRC, furthermore estimates the total number of artisanal miners who are affected by this situation at around 130 000. This excludes their dependants.
The gold these men, women and often children dig up is classified as conflict gold: not just because it may be linked to the various conflicts that are raging in the region, but because of the systematic human rights violations; inhumane and dangerous working conditions; chronic exploitation and poverty; and systematic violence and abuse committed by those overseeing the mining sites.
“Artisanal miners work in extremely difficult conditions in eastern Congo and earn an average of $1-5 per day, largely because the armed groups extract such enormous profits on the backs of their labour,” the Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the UN and other global policy-makers, states on its website.
“Illegal mining is built on brutality, extortion and slave labour including the use of children. The UN... has stated that nearly every mine in eastern DRC is militarised, a signal that very few, if any, legitimate mining jobs exist at this point in the east.”
A December 2013 report by the UN Security Council doesn’t leave much to the imagination either. The document, which was drawn up by a Group of Experts on the DRC, makes specific reference to the dozens of armed groups that control artisanal gold mining activities. The Mai Mai led by the illusive Paul Sadala, nicknamed Morgan, is one of them.
“Morgan is infamous for poaching elephants in Okapi Faunal Reserve, but during 2013 he has shifted his focus to attacking gold mines. In September and October, Morgan and his men attacked several gold mines, including at Mutshatsha, Kulungu and Lubumbashi,” the report states.
“In these attacks, Morgan’s men typically steal gold, pillage food and other goods, rape women and girls, kidnap people to carry looted goods, and force women into sexual slavery to be ‘wives’ for militia members. In one attack on 22 October at Sohuma, in a gold mining area southwest of Mambasa town, Manu Mboko led an attack in which six women were raped and 50 people taken hostage; the hostages were released upon payment of money or gold.”
Apart from the Congolese army and various local militias, foreign armed groups too have sank their claws in the Congo’s gold reserves. The Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group formed by key Rwandan Hutus who were involved in the 1994 genocide in their homeland, is one of them.
“Several ex-combatants told that the FDLR sustains itself in North Kivu primarily through looting, gold mining and illegal taxation, as well as agriculture and charcoal production,” the 2013 UN Security Council report states.
“These sources also stated that gold mined by FDLR around Kasugho is traded in Butembo and then Kampala, and that FDLR collaborates with Mai Mai leaders… in the exploitation. In South Kivu, former FDLR combatants told the Group that FDLR mines gold at Birara, and collects taxes from mines at Miki and Kitopo.”
It is difficult to say how much conflict gold is being mined currently, and how much is in circulation.
The activities are after all informal, if not illegal, and therefore they don’t exist in the books. Additionally, gold as a substance is easily melted down and mixed with legitimate gold. This makes it hard to trace the metal’s origins.The World Gold Council (WGC) estimates the amount of conflict gold mined in the DRC to be 22 tonnes per annum.
The UN Group of Experts on the DRC has set the amount at 40 tonnes. Whilst this is just 1% to 2% of the country’s total output, the WGC is taking the issue very seriously. That is why the international network of gold producers has established the Conflict-Free Gold Standard.“In 2012, we adopted the Conflict-Free Gold Standard to combat the misuse of mined gold to fund armed conflict,” says Terry Heymann, the director of the WGC’s Responsible Gold department.
“The standard has been developed by our member companies, which are some of the world’s largest gold producers. They include Gold Fields and Rand Gold. Other stakeholders are involved too such as governments, civil society,
smelters and refiners.”
“The reason behind the standard was the increased concern about gold fuelling conflict predominantly in the DRC and the rest of the Great Lakes area. It was a proactive step to deal with the issues, whilst retaining the confidence of consumers and keeping the gold industry in the DRC alive,” Heymann told BBQ magazine.
Whilst the conflict gold problem is relatively small, it remains a problem for hundreds of thousands of people. According to the WGC, consumers can do their bit to make sure the market for tainted gold disappears.“Like with diamonds, ask you retailer for certificates before buying your golden necklace, particularly when you are venturing out in the Great Lakes area. Don’t buy if the retailer can’t guarantee the gold is honest.
“Taken that aside, one has to understand that not all gold from the DRC is conflict gold. If we would start boycotting Congolese gold, this will have dramatic consequences for the thousands of people who are employed in the legitimate sector. Ban conflict gold, yes, but not all Congolese gold.”