CONGO: All that glitters...
Conflict over gold has cost thousands of lives in developing countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, the Philippines, Honduras and Guatemala.
Around the world, gold mining is the cause of water shortages, polluted water supplies and land poisoned by toxic waste. Gold mining is one of the world's dirtiest industries. It damages communities and the environment and can fuel conflict.
The complexity of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the third largest country in Africa with a population nearing 50 million, has been staggering. The DRC and the nine nations surrounding it sit on one of the richest patches of mineral wealth on the planet. Congo has abundant key mineral resources such as gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan and copper.
But from 1998 to 2003, the country has also been one of the biggest battlefields in Africa's history, the object of a conflict so broad it has been dubbed "Africa's first world war".
Peaceful and successful elections have been held last year for the first time since independence was gained from Belgium in 1960. Joseph Kabila was elected as the first president of Congo for almost 45 years after democratic and transparent elections held in 2006. Now, the task is huge to rebuild the war-torn Congo and the international community must stay engaged in order to continue to address the underlying causes of the conflict beyond elections.
Credit is due to the international community (the UN), the EU and especially the British government for their commitment to support the peace process in the DRC. The UK has been the largest bilateral donor to the electoral process in Congo.
Since civil war in 1996, the plundering of gold has done little but fuel conflict in the DRC, with the army, militia and other elites growing rich on the profits. For Congo, decades of gold mining should have provided a ticket to prosperity. In reality it has trapped the country in a cycle of violence and poverty.
In the gold-mining area around Mongbwalu in the north-east of the country, 80% of the population lives from mining. But much of the wealth from the mines is smuggled out of the country. The government is now encouraging international mining companies to return to the region in an attempt to increase its revenue. Large-scale mining stopped when civil war broke out in 1996, leaving mining company employees unpaid and jobless. Since then, people have been working in abandoned mines in harsh and dangerous conditions.
Now AngloGold Ashanti, one of the world's major gold companies, is exploring its concession in the conflict-torn north-east for a potential new mining operation.
In 2005, human rights researchers alleged that, in the past, AngloGold Ashanti had links with a local militia which was responsible for human rights abuses. The company responded by cutting all links with the militia and also denied having given them financial assistance.
If large-scale mining goes ahead in the concession, AngloGold Ashanti's future actions will play a critical role in ensuring that gold promotes peace and reduces poverty in the area. That is the challenge.
The DRC has Africa's richest deposits of copper and cobalt, as well as abundant reserves of gold, diamonds and coltan (used in mobile phones). It is estimated that 1,200 people die each day from conflict-related disease, hunger and violence in the DRC. Conflict has been fuelled by the struggle for mineral wealth.
Congo's mineral resources could be used to fund development. Instead, the government allows foreign mining companies to exploit the gold while giving relatively little back to the country or to local communities. Communities living close to gold mines are suffering from pollution (cyanide and arsenic have been found in water); water shortages (wells have dried up); relocation (families have been forced to move, losing farmland and forest); and lack of a voice (community members say they were not adequately consulted before mining licenses were approved). These are serious concerns.
Why are countries rich in natural resources such as gold and oil often home to many millions of the world's poorest people? It is painful to see how much gold is produced and yet how difficult it is for local communities to benefit. Clearly local communities should benefit from their mines that give so much gold.
Highlighting the harm caused by extractive industries, and calling for poor communities to have a much greater say in whether, and how, minerals are mined, and who benefits are very important. I call on governments and multinational businesses to make changes in mining practices that will end this injustice. It is necessary to adopt regulatory mechanisms that guarantee these industries are made responsible for their actions and behaviour - not only in the countries where they operate, but also in their countries of origin.
In order to boost transparency, good governance and accountability in Congo in the wake of elections, will AngloGold Ashanti share information with local people and consult them about its plans? Will it publish details of what it currently pays for the right to mine, and other payments to government, setting a standard for other mining companies in the DRC? Finally, will it develop a formal and sustainable programme for working with artisanal miners?
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