Sitting on a gold mine, forced to live in abject poverty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am

Congolese often say their country is the richest in the world, given the vast amounts of gold, diamonds, oil, timber and other resources it contains. But like the rest of Congo's resources, the gold of Iga Barriere, about 25km from Bunia, does little for the people here.

War and anarchy have plagued the area for the last 10 years, but locals hope that with a cessation of fighting and the elections tomorrow, a new government and stability in this region will attract foreign mining companies and regular work.

The situation is so bad that the Belgian colonisation, otherwise generally remembered for its brutality, is remembered fondly.

'It would be good for some international companies to come,' said Jacques Djombu Sukulu Wanjou, the chief of Iga Barriere. 'During the colonial era the Belgians did a lot of good things, those working for the Belgian gold companies got paid well, they could send their children to high school.'

The situation for the gold industry is already better than it was just a few years ago, when fighting raged across this region and militia groups controlled the gold mines, stealing the gold to fund arms purchases. But now the locals are free to pan the river again and international gold buyers, mainly from India, have set up shop in the district capital of Bunia. Several South African companies recently received government contracts for prospecting the larger, industrial mines in this area. Congolese government officials say that in just one mine in Ituri, at Mongbwalu , there are an estimated 700 tonnes of gold to be mined, worth nearly US$16 billion.

But the big business, observers say, will not come until a more legitimate, elected government comes in. More stability will allow long-term contracts to be signed with foreign companies.

Still, to hope for salvation from foreign mining companies is a leap of faith. A 123-page report released last year by Human Rights Watch detailed the close links between mining companies involved in eastern Congo and the militia groups.

A few minutes' walk away from the village's river panning site is a twice-weekly gold market, where dozens of boys and men of all ages come to sell small packets of gold dust wrapped in cigarette foil.

Gold that is bought in Iga Barriere usually next makes its way to Bunia, the district capital, and then on to Uganda. The Ugandan connection is a sensitive one here: the Ugandan military controlled gold mining areas of Ituri from 1998 to 2003 and its soldiers stole US$9 million worth of gold, according to Human Rights Watch.

One gold buyer in Bunia, when asked where he passes the gold on to, answered only: 'That's our secret.''When the Ugandan soldiers were here and Uganda controlled this area, they looted the gold from here, as well as timber,' said Mr Wanjou, the Iga Barriere chief. 'That was the main objective of the Ugandans.' The militias also used to collect the 30 per cent tariff on gold panned here; that money is now collected by the government.

Uganda no longer occupies the area but it continues to be a key hub in the Congolese gold trade. Official Ugandan government statistics show that gold exports from Uganda totalled US$45 million in 2003, the last year for which data is available. Domestic production accounted for just US$23,000 of that gold, and imports for US$2,000.

The huge discrepancy in the numbers, Human Rights Watch alleged, was due to the fact that the vast majority of the gold was smuggled in from Congo.

United Nations officials in Congo believe that the militia groups - which are still active in eastern Congo, though not to the degree they were a few years ago - use the gold trade to buy arms.

One UN military intelligence official says the militias are benefiting from the illegal trade. 'Uganda is the number one gold exporting country in this area without having a single gold mine,' the official says.' Tell me how that happens.'