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Congo's Small Miners Fill Hole Left by Big Businesses


Miners work at the Tilwizembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2016.

Miners work at the Tilwizembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2016.

As large mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo are eliminating jobs, government officials are expanding the role of small miners. Officials are permitting member-owned groups to mine 10 square kilometer plots of land that belong to the state-owned mining company.

The government usually does not permit this kind of small-scale mining. But it is trying to maintain the country’s economy as commodity prices drop.

Government officials are also trying to put the country in a good position if the price of cobalt rises. Cobalt is used to make batteries for electric vehicles. Its value is expected to rise 45 percent in the next four years.

About half the world’s supply of cobalt is in the DRC.

File - Excavators and drillers at work in an open pit at Tenke Fungurume, a copper and cobalt mine 110 kilometers northwest of Lubumbashi in Congo's copper-producing south, owned by miner Freeport McMoRan, Lundin Mining and state mining company Gecamines.

File - Excavators and drillers at work in an open pit at Tenke Fungurume, a copper and cobalt mine 110 kilometers northwest of Lubumbashi in Congo's copper-producing south, owned by miner Freeport McMoRan, Lundin Mining and state mining company Gecamines.


Chinese buyers

Yet poor local workers say that foreign buyers are the ones who are making most of the money. They accuse businessmen from China and Lebanon of dominating the market. The workers say the businessmen artificially reduce prices and adjust their instruments to make the ore appear less valuable.

At one market, miners and traders said almost all of the 140 businesses that buy ore are Chinese.

A man named Louis is one of the buyers there. He is Chinese. When he heard the miners’ complaints, he said, “Those who are happy with the price sell the product. Those who aren’t, leave.”

Dangerous conditions

Some workers in the DRC hope the member-owned groups will improve the situation for local diggers and traders.

Alain Chinois, who is Congolese, leads a cooperative with 34 members. Under his plan, diggers will earn 60 percent of the income from the mine. Cooperative members share the rest.

He expects this arrangement to result in better working conditions, equipment, and access to capital. For example, he says his group can request a loan from a bank.

But, he acknowledges, foreign buyers with money to invest will continue to have a major influence.

Stany, 42, is a miner in southeastern Congo. He is a father of five children. He left a job on a farm nearly 10 years ago to go to work in the copper mines of the Congo.

The mine where Stany works includes member-owned cooperatives. But research by Amnesty in 2013 still documented deadly accidents and mistreatment of workers.

“I do this because there is nothing else. If something else came along, I would do it,” Stany said.

Others express the same idea. Despite the problems with small-scale mining, few people in the DRC see better alternatives to it in the near future.

I’m John Russell.

This story was adapted from a report from Reuters. Jim Dresbach adapted this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

commodity – n. something that is bought and sold

cobaltn. a hard, shiny, silver-white metal that is often mixed with other metals

coppern. a reddish-brown metal that allows heat and electricity to pass through it easily

batteryn. a device that is placed inside a machine to supply it with power

ore – n. rocks, earth, etc., from which a valuable metal can be taken

cooperativen. a business or organization that is owned and operated by the people who work there or the people who use its services

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