Chinese mining companies left a Central African river 'in ruins'

The Ouham River in Bozoum on April 6. (Photo: Aurelio Gazzera)
The Ouham River in Bozoum on April 6. (Photo: Aurelio Gazzera)

The Central African Republic's ministry of mines and geology suspended four Chinese mining companies operating in Bozoum on March 25 for failing to protect the environment. Our Observer, Father Aurelio Gazzera, a missionary in Bozoum, says the affected areas include sections of the Ouham River. Gazzera sent The Observers photos of the river's deteriorating condition, which he says is the result of one company's hunt for gold.

"The river is in ruins"

In photos and videos taken by Gazzera, the Ouham River looks more like a construction site than a body of water, its levels low and its banks severely damaged. Gazzera said Chinese mining companies exploring for gold have set up around a dozen excavation sites in Bozoum and the surrounding area in recent months.

They build earth-filled dams to deviate the flow of the Ouham so they can excavate the riverbed. Then they use bulldozers and power shovels to reach the dirt, sand and gravel below, which they sift to find gold.

This method causes catastrophic damage to the environment. The river is in ruins. The banks are nothing but mountains of gravel and holes filled with water. The water is extremely dirty now, and locals still have to use it to wash themselves and sometimes to drink. People living in the nearby village of Boyélé started getting skin irritations after using the water. They now have to travel 10 kilometres to Bozoum to get large containers of water.

The river near the village of Boyélé, Central African Republic, in March 2018. (Photo: Aurelio Gazzera)

Gazzera condemned the damage inflicted by the mining companies and the lack of government action on his blog and on Facebook in late March.

On March 25, the ministry of mines and geology ordered the Tian Xian, Tian Run, Meng and Mao companies to cease work until further notice. A senior official in the ministry said the decision was not related to Gazzera's post.

The banks of the Ouham River near the village of Boyélé before mining work began.

Several other companies have been sanctioned for mining land not covered by their permits over the past year. HW-Lepo was fined 10 million CFA francs, or around €15,000, in July 2018 for its operations near the town of Yaloké and others for their mining activity in Nana-Mambéré prefecture close to Bozoum. At least one of these companies, Industrie minière de Centrafrique (IMC), still appears to be active in Bozoum, said Gazzera, who obtained a purchase order for fuel dated February 22 on "IMC in Bozoum" letterhead.

IMC was not named among the ministry's list of suspended companies on March 25.

Some companies may have simply shifted their operations to nearby locations after being sanctioned, Gazzera said.

Some of the Central Africans employed by these companies come from Nana-Mambéré prefecture, which has also been devastated by mining companies. Part of the forest there has been destroyed and the riverbanks were left pockmarked by holes and spotted with piles of sifted earth.

After encountering problems with their exploitation licence in Nana-Mambéré, a company like IMC might relocate to a nearby region to start work at the Ouham River.

The France 24 Observers spoke to a resident of Bouar, a city in Nana-Mambéré, who follows environmental issues closely and who confirmed the widespread damage caused by Chinese mining companies in the region.

The ministry's suspension is unlikely to prevent further deterioration of the Ouham River, said Gazzera, who added that he had witnessed prospecting activities on two separate occasions since March 25.

On April 3, shortly before 5am, I heard very clearly the sound of machines while I was on my way to church. And on April 6, I went to Doussa, which is less than 5 kilometres from Bozoum, to take a video of the prospecting activities that were going on in broad daylight despite the ban.

Keeping an eye on these companies' activities will be very difficult and I’m afraid they will just take the machines to another site. If they do, they should remember to redirect the river back to its natural path.

The Inspection Centrale des Mines, the authority tasked with regulating mines, said it had carried out an inspection in Bozoum and that a report would be publicly available soon.