Destructive mining activities in protected areas in the DRC are commonplace as they generate money for citizens, officials and armed groups.
The conflict-affected eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are home to many protected areas. These areas are home to unique biodiversity and several endangered species, such as the okapi, forest elephant and mountain gorilla. They are also part of the Congo Basin rainforest, which forms a line of crucial defense against climate change.
These same protected areas abound in deposits of globally significant minerals, including gold, coltan and cassiterite.
THEmining is widespread in these areas, including Itombwe Nature Reserve, Maiko National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
Most of these mines are labour-intensive artisanal mines, which use basic technologies. However, in recent years there has been a sharp increase in semi-industrial mining, which requires significant start-up capital for the purchase of intermediate technologies, such as dredgers and pumps.
Both forms of mining have negative impacts on the conservation of biodiversity. Direct effects include deforestation, land degradation and water pollution.
More indirect effects stem from the construction of new roads to make mine sites accessible, and from the growth of the population near the mines. This leads to increased exploitation of natural resources, such as the extraction of firewood and construction wood, bushmeat hunting and shifting cultivation.
This destructive mining in protected areas often takes place with the complicity of state and non-state armed actors, who appropriate some of the revenue. Thousands of people also depend on these mining activities for their livelihood.
The economic importance of mining makes it difficult to stop mining in protected areas. It is also at the heart of the complex links between mining, armed conflict and environmental protection in eastern DRC. OUR survey sought to capture these links, which is crucial for designing effective measures to safeguard protected areas.
Based on research in the Okapi and Itombwe reserves, we have found that mining generates conflicts between different branches of the state, between entrepreneurs and local populations, and between artisanal miners and semi-industrial. In a militarized environment, these conflicts can trigger violence.
Livelihoods and Enrichment
Mining is widespread in protected areas as it generates revenue for citizens, officials and armed actors.
Entry barriers are low and income of miners are higher than those of comparable groups of the population. For many families, mining is one of the few opportunities for social mobility.
Mining revenues also help supplement the meager salaries of many administrators, soldiers, and other state officials. In the DRC, official salaries civil servants are weak or remain unpaid. Most of these workers earn money on the side and extract revenue from citizens through various forms of taxes, protection fees and extortion. They are also under pressure from their superiors, who expect a share of this income.
Officials from the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Assistance and Support Service (SAEMAPE) and the provincial Ministry of Mines often tax mining activities in protected areas. The Congolese armed forces also enrich themselves considerably by protecting this mining, which is prohibited in most conservation areas. armed groups in benefit also by imposing taxes on mine sites and roadblocks.
The recent increase in semi-industrial mining, often run by Chinese entrepreneurs, greatly benefited the Congolese army. The senior officers who protect these mining operations deploy army units to guard the facilities and deny access to the area to unwanted visitors.
The mining administration has also benefited from this development. For example, the Cadastre Minier, the agency responsible for issuing and managing mining titles, has begun circulating a new card of the okapi wildlife reserve with a different perimeter. This allowed the agency to issue grants within the boundaries of the reservation, while maintaining that they are located outside of it.
Since mining is lucrative for many people, our research show that it has considerable knock-on effects on conflict dynamics.
First of all, mining creates friction between the different state services and the different administrative levels. The Ministry of the Environment challenged the new map of the okapi wildlife reserve released by the Mining Cadastre. The Governor and Ministry of Mines of South Kivu province have taken steps to regulate semi-industrial mining by Chinese companies around the Itombwe reserve. These measures were, however, stopped by the national authorities who asserted that those at the provincial level did not have the powers to do so.
On the ground, semi-industrial mining has triggered conflicts by provoking move sometimes violent artisanal miners. This has led some of them to join armed groups, or to an upsurge in violent banditry.
Semi-industrial mining has also led to disagreements between mining companies and local populations regarding social investments, employment and compensation for the destruction of agricultural fields.
Combined with competition for access to revenue, these conflicts have contributed to a wave of attacks by armed groups on Chinese mining operations.
No easy solutions
The involvement of senior officials and the importance of mining revenues make it difficult to prevent destructive mining in protected areas.
In addition, the forcible closure of artisanal mining operations without providing other livelihood opportunities has often proven against-productive. Displaced miners may simply return to mining sites, sometimes getting help from armed groups to do so, sometimes with the help of armed groups.
When armed groups and army units lose the revenue they earn from mining, they may resort to other means to raise money, such as violent banditry.
The fact that different government departments disagree with each other poses further difficulties. It is impossible to curb or better regulate mining in protected areas when national and provincial authorities do not follow the same policy or when the military violates restrictions imposed by civilian authorities.
The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), which is responsible for the management of protected areas, does not have the political weight and resources needed to make a difference.
For example, the okapi wildlife reserve covers more than 13 square kilometers, but ICCN does not have enough rangers. They carry out regular patrols in only 000% of this area. In some areas, it was found that ICCN staff were accomplice illegal exploitation of resources.
So what can be done to improve this situation?
To begin with, it is important to differentiate between semi-industrial and artisanal mining. Semi-industrial mining, especially gold dredging, is more environmentally destructive and benefits fewer people. It is more urgent and easier to ban it in protected areas.
It seems difficult to ban artisanal mining, therefore better regulation and control would be a more effective strategy in the short term. This is what happened in the Itombwe nature reserve, where artisanal mining activities are still authorized in certain parts.
It is also crucial that the various state agencies and departments cooperate. To promote this collaboration, international donors supporting administrative and security sector reform must convey the message that it is unacceptable to profit from mining in protected areas.
However, the Congolese government bears the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that civil servants are properly paid and follow the law.
Judith Verweijen, Teaching Assistant, University of Groningen; Fergus O'Leary Simpson, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Antwerpand Peer Schouten, senior researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies