“I am powerless”: Chinese company mines with impunity in Congo Basin
In January, officials ordered Xiang Jiang Mining to cease operations. Nine months on, the mine is still open and residents are still protesting.
Not a day goes by without the motorised sound of dredgers blasting through Charles Baima’s village in Basoko, around 195 km along the Congo River from the northern inland port of Kisangani, at the confluence with the Aruwimi River. As the dredgers sweep down the Aruwimi, the noise scares away the catch of the day, Baima says, and now he fears for his livelihood.
The dredgers belong to the Chinese company Xiang Jiang Mining, which in 2019 obtained permits from the country’s Ministry of Mines to research three areas along the Aruwimi River for gold, diamonds and other minerals.
For months, Basoko residents have complained about water pollution, the disappearance of fish, and the proliferation of sandbanks along the river – so much so that, in January, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Environment Ève Bazaiba visited the area and told Xiang Jiang Mining to shut down all operations and relocate the dredgers to Kisangani.
And in May, an investigation by Mongabay, a US-based news outlet focused on environmental issues, found that Xiang Jiang Mining had violated the scope of its permits by using mercury, bought in Kisangani and later dumped into the river, to extract gold. All samples collected during the research stage belong to the state, according to DRC’s Mining Code.
Nine months after the minister’s visit and the publication of Mongabay’s investigation, nothing has changed in Basoko: Xiang Jiang Mining continues to operate as usual.
Stanis Bilanga, a Basoko resident, says soldiers and police patrol the dredging area constantly. He adds that he witnessed the military escorting the installation of the machines two years ago, despite local protests. “The military presence in this part of the country is in complicity with the provincial authorities, who act by force,” he says.
The provincial authorities interviewed for this article denied any responsibility for the water pollution, military presence, and alleged illegal extraction. “The mining sector is managed by the national ministry. Everything goes through the national level; all I do is execute,” says Tshopo’s Minister of Mining Mesemo Wa Mesemo Thomas.
Tshopo’s Minister of Environment, Lokula Lolisambo Norbert, says he only heard about the situation with Xiang Jiang Mining “through hearsay”. “I don’t have any documents. I haven’t received any Chinese subject in my office to talk about this exploitation,” he says. “This subject is beyond my level.”
Xiang Jiang Mining, whose research permits expire in 2024, didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment. Neither DRC’s Ministry of the Environment nor the Ministry of Mines responded to multiple requests for comment.
“This river is a source of revenue for me and my family, but for the past two years, I haven’t been able to catch,” says 35-year-old Baima, who has fished these waters since he was 15. “Life has become too hard for me.”
Xiang Jiang Mining’s Tshopo operations offer a look into the world of Chinese mining in DRC. Nearly 70% of the country’s mining portfolio is under Chinese control, John Kanyoni, vice president of the country’s Chamber of Mines, a private association of businesses, said in an online conference in 2020. Most of this presence came in the wake of a 2008 deal that saw China offer DRC a $6 billion line of credit for infrastructure projects, in exchange for 11 million tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt, worth around $50 billion, to be extracted over 25 years from a mining project in DRC’s Katanga province.
After the loan is repaid, the mining profits will go to the shareholders of Sicomines, a giant joint venture established by the deal. Chinese stakeholders control 68% of the shares.
In the wake of the deal, smaller mining companies and traders followed. According to a 2019 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Chinese traders dominate the artisanal and small-scale mining supply chains in DRC’s southern and eastern provinces.
The Aruwimi River, which flows through the territories of Basoko and Banalia, home to some 340,000 and 494,000 people respectively, has been cut up and sold into multiple mining concessions by the national and provincial governments. A 2021 study by Congolese researchers Jean De Dieu Mangambu Mokoso, Asimbo Bondoo Norbert and Ekele Mbenga Robert says that will almost certainly lead to pollution of the air, water and soil; deforestation; riverbank erosion; flooding; and massive carbon dioxide emissions from the destruction of peat bogs.
All of this is unfolding in the Congo River Basin, the world’s second-largest tropical forest. Last year, global leaders at the COP26 climate summit pledged $500 million to protect this area from deforestation.
In July, DRC’s government came under fire from environmental organisations after announcing it would auction vast tracts of lands in the basin to oil and gas projects.
Criticism of Xiang Jiang in particular has mounted over the years. In 2020, it was reported to the DRC branch of African Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption. In 2021, the Congolese state fined Xiang Jiang $90,000 for not complying with mining regulations, Mesemo says.
Michel Basosila, 40, is a Basoko resident who came to the port of Kisangani to sell goods. He says he used to sell smoked fish from Basoko, but catching has become so difficult, he started trading fufu.
“This has become my only stream of income,” Basosila says. “Today, I sell cassava fufu because fish have become too rare and too expensive and I don’t make any profit.”
Not all Basoko residents are unhappy with the mine. Xiang Jiang provides jobs such as transportation for its personnel, usually in canoes, as well as diving, sifting and running errands. Célestin Bokula, for example, earns daily income by transporting mining personnel in his canoe.
Still, some Basoko residents, with the help of national NGOs, held a protest in early March to oppose the mine. “We condemn the continuation of illegal and illicit gold mining by the company Xiang Jiang Mining, which, until now, has worked in the river despite the measure of suspension taken by the minister,” says resident Albert Lina.
Sabrina Dako, administrator of Basoko Territory, has been involved in the mobilisation against Xiang Jiang Mining. “In this situation that is beyond my level,” she says, “I am powerless.”
Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French. This story was originally published by Global Press Journal. Global Press is an award-winning international news publication with more than 40 independent news bureaus across Africa, Asia and Latin America.