The biggest threat facing all the large mammals in Kahuzi-Biega NP is illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade. In the illegal mining camps in the park, miners who spend their days doing hard physical labour need protein. They buy bushmeat from teams of hunters who comb the forest for animals and trade meat for minerals – so much ore bartered for so much meat. Traditionally the Bashi people of this area do not eat ape meat, but it seems that in the mining camps, traditional taboos are swept aside in the turmoil of war and the desire for profit. And as numerous reports have observed, from NGOs such as Global Witness right up to the UN Security Council, those profits are used by the militias who control the mines to acquire weapons and ammunition. For the miners themselves, if the choice is between ape-meat and no meat, it is hardly surprising they choose to eat – as John Kahekwa, founder of the Pole Pole Foundation is fond of saying ‘an empty stomach has no ears’.
I was keen to meet some of the miners, but the lowland sector of the park is still under the control of ‘negative forces’. After clearing our plans with MONUC yesterday, we drove instead to Kalehe today, along the lake-side road with stunning views of islands and inlets. The mine we had arranged to visit was extracting a tin ore called cassiterite rather than the better known coltan, but both minerals are used in the manufacture of electronic devices. We were accompanied by a government security man from Bukavu, and after meeting the Kalehe local authorities, another one from there. Finally we met the chief of the village near the mines, and he too decided to accompany us. We drove a few more kilometres to a steep-sided valley with sides scarred by mining waste. Down in the valley, the stream had been repeatedly dammed and diverted to produce small alcoves with waterfalls to wash the ore. Clusters of people were shovelling gravel or swishing it with their hands to release the sediment which was carried downstream. The sediment-filled water was in stark contrast to the clear mountain streams that flowed down the hill before meeting the mine tailings.
Many of the people in the stream-bed were clearly teenagers, some even younger. Mines in eastern DRC are notorious for using child labour, but although many of these miners were minors, to be fair it was the school holidays and like teenagers everywhere they were working to earn a few bob. The presence of mothers with babies and people of both sexes and all ages carrying sacks and washing ore gave it the feel of a sort of community mine. There was no apparent overseer forcing the kids to work, they seemed self-motivated and cheerful despite their obvious poverty. At my request, the village chief asked some of them if they attended school, and of course they dutifully nodded..
A smallish woman came down the steep path with a fore-head strap supporting a sack of ore on her lower back. I helped to lift it off and – impressed by the weight – borrowed a spring balance. It weighed 36 Kg but she laughed at my surprise and said it wasn’t particularly heavy. We followed the path up the hillside to the mines – simple holes dug into the ground by men with torches strapped to the side of their head, wielding lump-hammers and chisels. Outside the mine entrance, a boy sat pounding ore into smaller fragments and picking out the heavy bits that contained cassiterite. The waste was tipped down the hillside, causing the scarring we had seen from the opposite side, and promising bits were put into sacks to be taken down and washed in the stream. Jason the camera-man followed the miners down into the ground and I followed him down the steep descent, slippery with mud. This kind of mining is known as artisanal mining, and it doesn’t get much more basic than this. Squatting in the dark with weak batteries in their torches (another expense to come out of the meagre earnings) men were hammering their chisels into the rock face and assessing by weight and appearance the lumps they chipped off. After taking some video of the work, I gave my camera to one of the security men behind me and gave it a go. I used to work for a builder when I was a teenager, so using a lump-hammer and chisel was not new to me, but in the confined space it was difficult to swing the hammer, and when I did chisel off a few lumps, the owner of the tools pointed out that there was no cassiterite in them. It may be hot, sweaty manual work, but you need to know what you are doing if you want to make a living out of it.
Back at the cars, I interviewed the president of the Kalimbi miners, Mr Safari Kulimushi, and asked him about the laundering of illegally mined minerals. He said that the biggest problem was the insecurity – people never knew when the next armed gang would come through killing, raping and looting homes. Because of that, it was difficult to monitor what was going on in all the mines. Things were much better organised when there were expatriates running the mines, he opined, because they had machines gave training.and maintained the roads better. We both agreed that what the area needed was investment from the industries that used the tin and tantalum being mined here – then workers would get a fair wage and be taught how to mine safely (we saw not a single helmet, pit-prop or safety device) whilst minimising the environmental impact.
And if the industry investment included developing a system of certification, then the use of ‘conflict minerals’ would be reduced if not eliminated. This is what the Gorilla Organization has been trying to do with the Durban Process (so called because they first got miners, traders and end-users around a table in Durban to hammer out an agreement and develop plans to set up a model mine to show how it should be done). Unfortunately the process has stalled due to lack of resources – there is only so much a small NGO can do. So again, one has to ask where is the investment from the wealthiest industries on the planet – electronic goods manufacturers who use the tin in solder and tantalum in capacitors, or for that matter the media and telecommunications companies that depend on electronic goods?
The journey back to Bukavu was long, bumpy, dusty and – for most of it – dark. When the steel plate that protects the sump rattled loose for the second time, I got out my Swiss Army knife and cut another length of para-cord to tie it up again. You are a sitting duck in such a situation, and indeed we were ambushed – but by kindness not bullets – as locals came out to see what was going on, and one man immediately volunteered to crawl under the vehicle to tie up the plate. He didn’t even ask for payment, just shook our hand and wished us a safe journey, which is what we had – arriving back at the hotel at nearly 10.00pm for a late supper.
That’s all for now folks – tomorrow, on to Goma.