Mining for our minerals

Meet the men and women who work in the Congolese mines to supply international companies’ insatiable demand for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold.



The countryside in Eastern Congo is scarred with mines of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold - precious minerals which are essential for products like mobile phones, cars, aeroplanes and jewellery.

Armed groups, including parts of the Congolese national army, have preyed on this lucrative trade to fund a brutal war in eastern Congo for almost 20 years, leaving over 1.4 million people displaced from their homes.

In recent years international efforts have aimed to change this situation by asking firms to take responsibility for what is happening along their mineral supply chains.

But, these international efforts will fall short unless firms take responsibility for their full supply chain, including the people who extract the minerals from the ground.

These are the stories of the people at the very bottom of the international mineral supply chain.

Donatien Vuninguba*, a small-scale mineral trader in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, spreads out a small stock of tantalum he has bought from local miners known as diggers.

Over a decade of academic studies and reports have revealed the links between eastern Congo’s mineral trade and its armed conflict.

International awareness of this problem is growing, as greater attention is paid to the economic forces behind the conflict. Slowly, the way that companies think about their impact and responsibilities is beginning to change.

The tools exist for firms to manage their supply chains responsibly and have done so for five years.

The OECD Due Diligence Guidance was developed in 2010 to help companies cultivate transparent supply chains and make sure they are not financing conflict or human rights abuses through their purchases. The tool allows them to continue sourcing minerals responsibly from high-risk areas like Congo.

Deogratias Mulumeoderhwa, member of a local mine site monitoring committee in Nzibira, Walungu territory, explains how new laws and international guidelines can help the miners:

US and EU laws are a good thing, because when the minerals pass through legal routes, they can no longer be considered conflict minerals because it’s all transparent. We see who owns the sites, where minerals are transported, right up to the big houses that sell them.

We want the supply chain to be properly controlled so it no longer profits warlords and the rest of the people who make war against the population.”

Since 2012 he has run programs that include teaching diggers, the locally stationed military and other members of mining communities about how the military are no longer allowed in mine sites.

Efforts like these, right at the bottom of the supply chain, can help create opportunities for more responsible sourcing.

Increased international scrutiny has helped to create opportunities for local civil society to improve working conditions at mine sites.

Noella and Romance from a women’s committee based in Mwenga territory have worked since 2011 to improve conditions for women employed on the outskirts of coltan and tin mines:

Before we started women had to carry baskets full of sand, rocks and stones… and pregnant women worked with their children alongside them crushing rocks. This work created a lot of illness. Instead of going to school children spent the entire day at the mine at work in order to earn money.
So we lobbied local authorities and their advisors. We did a survey of violence in the mines and found sexual violence and forced labour, forced marriage and non–payment of women.
The military or armed men aren’t there - before they were. Today things have changed for women in mines… We’re encouraging women to work together in solidarity with one another and form mutuals [a co-operative society."

Efforts to change the way that eastern Congo’s supply chains work have created opportunities for reform, but have also been accompanied by problems. A combination of a six-month mining ban by the Congolese President in 2010, over-stringent interpretation of the new supply chain laws and standards by some industry groups and a slump in market confidence badly affected some tin, tantalum and tungsten mining communities in 2010/11.

Although official mineral exports have now increased again, the decision by some companies to stop sourcing minerals from eastern Congo cost some artisanal diggers their jobs.
Espoir, a digger at a tin and tungsten mine in Walungu territory, said:

I thought mining would be a very difficult life, but we simply didn’t have a choice. The President suspended mining; before that time there were a lot of buyers.

Since then, the price has dropped dramatically and there are hardly any buyers. Before the ban it was US $5 at the pit for a kilo of cassiterite. Now it’s as little as US $1.50. Many diggers left and went to gold mines.”

International and domestic supply chain reforms are helping some, but many diggers and their families still face daily challenges linked to armed looting of minerals. A tin digger who asked to remain anonymous describes an attack he lived through at a tin mine, Mwenga territory in March 2015:

The attack happened because there is a conflict between two armed groups that’s linked to the heritage of the local throne. They came and circled the camp and began firing bullets.

After the attack they grouped us together because they had already taken all of our belongings - our tin, our clothes, our solar panels, food. We had to carry the pillaged goods to a place in the forest. We walked for a whole day.

They took everything. I had 300 kilos of tin in my house, which took me two months to amass which they took. I feel really distressed because I worked for two months and now my family will have nothing."

From the army chiefs down to the rank and file, some members of the army illegally prey on the mineral trade with impunity. Many diggers live in fear of attack by the very men who should provide their protection. Charles, a gold miner from Mwenga says:

I was attacked by armed men who stabbed me with a knife in my legs. They cut me here and here [indicates the top of his thighs]. I was asleep in my bed and the men came – they forced the door open. They took everything – all that I had.

They were military, they wore military clothes and all four of them were carrying guns. As soon as they arrived they attacked me – they cut me – so I lay there crying out. I didn’t see their faces. The whole thing lasted for an hour or so. Afterwards I went to hospital . I was there for one and a half months.

At some sites, artisanal diggers are forced to pay illegal taxes to members of the state army and armed groups.

Local chiefs and representatives of local government mining bodies also demand off-the-book payments. These taxes are both illegal and diminish diggers’ often meagre revenues even further. The head of a team of 60 gold diggers, who asked to remain anonymous, explains:

Our military do tax gold diggers. They come and demand their portion of what we find in the river.

People working here really suffer. Some of them get hernias. They spend the whole day in the river and then the military come and demand money and if you don’t have any money they stop you working. They say “we provide your security so give us a gram of gold”.

We pay state taxes but the military take too. If you don’t pay it becomes a big problem. The military ask us to pay every month. In March 2015 I paid 1 gram of gold, the same in February.”

John represents all the gold traders in Lugushwa. He explains how armed attacks have brought insecurity to the area which has in turn affected business.

Since the insecurity situation, [some of the traders]
left. There are 12 gold houses that no longer function because of the insecurity.

Earlier this year [2015] there was an incident at Claude’s [gold trading] House. The so-called military entered his house at around 2am. They tied up the manager and asked him for everything he had. There was gunfire.The manager was forced to show where they hid the money. They took everything and left.

On 26th February at night they came to my trading house. They took 1,850,000 francs [about US $1900] and 48g of gold. After me, it was three other gold trading houses' turn to be visited. The military should provide us with security but they don’t.”

Even those diggers who work in one of eastern Congo’s many mines which are free from armed control often work in extremely difficult conditions. They work for long hours, with unpredictable and low returns for their minerals and without the right tools or protective equipment. Many diggers die each year because of accidents around mine sites or mine shaft collapses.

A digger wishing to remain anonymous explains:

Life is really hard. There [in the mines] people work but they don’t taste money.There’s a lot of harassment [by state agents]… there are so many taxes, there are armed thieves… that’s why life there isn’t good.”

Artisanal miners are vulnerable to both local and international market price fluctuations. Many diggers interviewed by Global Witness feel at the mercy of the market and that profits generated from the sale or export of the minerals they dig do not benefit their own communities.

Mushagalusa Alfonse, who works in Muhinga tin mine, Walungu territory, describes his experience:

By April 2015 the price dropped to US $4 per kilo. I don’t know why the price is dropping – it’s the trader who fixes the price.

I start work every day at 8am and I finish around 4pm or 5pm. There are whole weeks when I don’t find anything, there are other weeks when I earn money. I don’t make money at the moment because the price has dropped.

They promised us that our lives would change because there would be a stable price. But now we are very disappointed. Since the price has dropped many people have been discouraged and they went to dig gold."

Diggers working at sites where reforms are taking place continue to talk about the low price that they receive for their minerals. More must be done to ensure that the diggers themselves benefit from supply chain reforms, including ensuring diggers receive fair wages. An anonymous digger (not pictured) at a site where a mineral bagging, tagging and due diligence scheme run by ITRI (International Tin Research Institute) has been set up explains:

Since we’ve had tagging, the traders have started to impose the prices, because they know the diggers can no longer return with their product and sell it somewhere else. It’s the traders and the managers who gain the money because they’re the ones imposing the prices.

In the awareness raising, about tagging, they told us that the diggers would gain something from these changes. They promised us a good price and that there would be money that would go back into the community to construct schools. The promises have not yet materialised.”

In an effort to protect miners’ rights, the Congolese government has made membership of a cooperative a legal obligation for all artisanal diggers in Congo. But, diggers interviewed by Global Witness say that they have often received nothing at all in return for the membership fee that they have paid. A digger at a mine in Mwenga said:

You have to be a member of a cooperative here. It’s US $10 to join and then you have to pay US $1 each month. But… with the cooperative I still have to find my own buyer. And it’s the buyer [who] provides me with the tools I need, not the cooperative. The cooperative has brought nothing for the diggers up to today.”

As the global appetite for electronics, machinery and consumer goods increases minerals from places like Congo are likely to remain in high demand.

Although some companies are slowly beginning to take greater responsibility for the way their supply chains work and what’s going on along them, the speed and breadth of international developments are in stark contrast to the pace of change on the ground in eastern Congo.

Companies should source minerals – responsibly - from Congo, but the terms of the deal must be urgently changed: eastern Congo’s mineral wealth should benefit, first and foremost, those living and working in its artisanal mining communities.

Every company in each mineral supply chain, from the household names to the much lesser known traders, smelters and refiners tucked further along the route that Congo’s minerals pass through, must take responsibility for the impact their business has at every step of the supply chain.