- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

IGA BARRIERE, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Here in one of the richest gold areas in the world, dozens of boys and young men are mining using techniques that California’s ‘49ers would recognize.

They have dammed half of the Nizi River and are digging 20 feet down into the muddy riverbed in search of ore. Generator-driven pumps suck water out of the pit, and a team of teenagers, knee-deep in the muck, sifts the most promising mud through a sluice box.

To the side, even younger boys sift the castoff mud in plastic basins, hoping to glean a few specks of gold dust, while other children play in the rushing current created by the narrowing of the river.

Congolese are fond of saying their country is the richest in the world, given the vast amounts of gold, diamonds, oil, timber and other resources found here. But the gold of Iga Barriere, like the rest of Congo’s resources, does little for the people here.

War and anarchy have plagued this part of eastern Congo for the past 10 years, and like everything else here, the gold industry has suffered.

But locals hope that with a cessation of fighting and elections scheduled for July 30, a new government and stability in this region will attract foreign companies to resume large-scale mining, and bring regular jobs back to this area.

Joseph Kabila, 35, who became president in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated, is favored to win the presidential race, the first democratic election in the Democratic Republic of Congo — formerly known as Zaire — since independence from Belgium in 1960. Laurent Kabila led a guerrilla movement that overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

The situation is so bad that the Belgian colonial rule, otherwise generally remembered for its brutality, is thought of fondly here for how it developed gold mining.

“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.

Now, with the fighting diminishing, 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 think that in just one mine in Ituri, at Mongbwalu, there are an estimated 700 tons of gold to be mined.

But the big business, observers say, won’t come until a more legitimate, elected government takes over. 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.

Gold market

A few minutes’ walk 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.

The measuring system is arcane. The units are kicheles (an out-of-use Zairian coin), weighing a Congolese gram (actually 1.25 grams), and wooden matches, which weigh an eighth of a gram — unless they are small matches, in which case they weigh one-sixteenth of a gram.

Most sellers are in tattered T-shirts and shorts. Several of the buyers wear thick parkas, despite the baking heat, to protect the gold and stacks of Congolese francs and U.S. dollars they carry on their body.

Even the small amounts of gold gathered in Iga Barriere can be worth good money. On one recent visit to the market, a gram of gold — which an industrious panner can find in one day — was selling for $19. But it’s precisely that sort of easy money that has led to a literal gold-rush mentality, said Jacques Kininga, the director of external relations for Okimo, the Congolese state mining company that manages the mines in this area.

“People get a lot of gold, but in their house they don’t have electricity; they don’t have water; they don’t have clothes. The problem is, after getting all that money, they don’t think about saving it because they can always get more tomorrow. So [a miner] gets that $19 and doesn’t work anymore until he spends it all, and then he’ll go out and mine again,” he said.

“It’s the same everywhere people mine for gold — those who get rich are the buyers. The miners are always poor,” he said.

In addition, the anarchic situation in Congo means that ordinary people spend too much of their income paying — or bribing — people who normally would be paid by the state: teachers, police and bureaucrats.

“The elections can improve the situation,” Mr. Wanjou said. “Congolese people can make a lot of money here. We just don’t have a government, so it’s hard to make ends meet.”

One miner at the market, 48-year-old Jean Lokpa, said the living from mining is not good, but added: “What other job could I do? This is all there is. I started in this when I was young, and now I’m getting old in this work.”

Ugandan looting

Gold that is bought in Iga Barriere usually makes its way to Bunia and then 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 $9 million worth of gold, according to Human Rights Watch.

When asked where he passes the gold on to, one buyer in Bunia, working out of an unmarked one-room office, 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,” Mr. Wanjou said. “That was the main objective of the Ugandans.”

The militias also used to collect the 30 percent tariff on gold panned here. That money is now collected by the government.

Uganda no longer occupies this area, but it continues to be a key hub in the Congolese gold trade. Official Ugandan government statistics show that gold exports from Uganda totaled $45 million in 2003, the last year for which data are available.

Domestic production accounted for $23,000 of that gold, and imports for $2,000. The huge discrepancy in the numbers, Human Rights Watch said, is a result of the fact that the vast majority of the gold is smuggled in from Congo.

U.N. officials in Congo say the militia groups — which remain active in eastern Congo, though not to the degree they were a few years ago — use the gold trade to buy arms.

“Uganda is the No. 1 gold-exporting country in this area without having a single gold mine. Tell me how that happens,” said one military intelligence official from the United Nations, who added that the militias were benefiting from the illegal trade.

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