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Mining Offers Potential, and Challenges, for Congo

The terraced dry section of the Kalukuluku mine in the southeast of the Congo, near the city of Lubumbashi.
Jason Beaubien, NPR
/
The terraced dry section of the Kalukuluku mine in the southeast of the Congo, near the city of Lubumbashi.
All the work in the copper mine is done by hand.
Jason Beaubien, NPR /
/
All the work in the copper mine is done by hand.

Mining is hugely important to the economy of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the later part of the 20th century, mines were the country's largest source of foreign export earnings.

But after the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and the ensuing civil war, Congo’s formal mining industry collapsed. When Laurent Kabila seized power, he looked at the paradox of so much poverty residing above so much mineral wealth and legalized freelance mining in what had been state-run pits. Congolese were free to try to grab as much raw ore as they could harvest.

As a result, more than 100,000 people in mineral-rich Katanga province now toil in the copper pits. Jean Katwala, who runs a union of miners in the city of Lubumbashi, says that most people work in the mines because there are no other jobs. It is hard to make a living picking copper by hand: the wages are low and the work is back-breaking.

As Congo's conflicts appear to be dying down and the country plans to hold its first democratic elections in four decades, large international mining companies are rushing to stake a claim to Congo's mineral wealth. A revival of the mining industry has the potential to jumpstart start the entire Congolese economy, if managed properly.

Corruption, however, is a huge threat: Bribes and kickbacks are still a standard part of doing business in the country. Despite pledges by the transitional government in Kinshasa to clean things up, underhanded dealings continue. Gaining control of the mining industry will be one of the new government's biggest challenges.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.