DR Congo: Video of miners beaten for trespassing shows stranglehold of foreign mining interests

Two artisanal miners who illegally entered a mining site were brutally beaten by soldiers on July 20.
Two artisanal miners who illegally entered a mining site were brutally beaten by soldiers on July 20. © Twitter

In southern DR Congo, soldiers beat and whipped two miners who were trespassing on a site managed by the Chinese-owned Commus company in Kolwezi, as site managers looked on. The incident shocked many after it was captured in a video that has been circulating on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp since July 21. However, several NGOs say that the incident is nothing new, the video highlighting the stranglehold foreign mining companies have on local communities.

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During the 30-second video, a soldier in uniform, accompanied by one of his colleagues, uses a rope to whip two people who are lying on the ground. The soldier lingers over one of them, hitting him repeatedly as three Chinese managers from the mining company look on.

Due to the shocking nature of the video, we have chosen to only publish screenshots.

The incident took place on July 20 on the site of the Chinese-owned Musunoi Mining Company (Commus) in Kolwezi, Lualaba province, according to Congolese media Actualite.cd. The two artisanal miners had allegedly entered the quarry without authorization, in search of copper.

The video went viral online, outraging people from across DR Congo. Fifi Masuka Saini, the interim governor of Lualaba province, also denounced the acts of violence. The case was taken to court and on July 23 the two soldiers, who hold the rank of officer and corporal, were sentenced to two years and 18 months, respectively, in prison, according to Radio Okapi. The three Chinese managers were also arrested.

‘Artisanal miners are regularly mistreated’

Papy Nsenga, the president of a union of miners in Kolwezi, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that this isn’t the first time trespassing miners have been assaulted at mining sites.

What happened here is unfortunately a tragedy that we see every day. The artisanal miners are regularly mistreated by the management of the mining companies when they are caught. They are beaten savagely by the mine’s security agents.

It’s true that we don’t have the right to mine in the mining projects that are authorised to other companies, but we don’t have our own sites. For a long time, we’ve asked for artisanal mining zones, but neither the Congolese state nor the province has granted us a space.

All the mining sites have been leased to foreign mining companies. We have no choice but to invade these mining areas to be able to make a living and feed our families.

‘An intruder has to be handed over to the police’

Freddy Kasongo, the secretary-general of the Observatory for Social and Environmental Responsibility Studies and Support, told the FRANCE 24 Observers that the procedure for dealing with trespassers on mining sites does not permit military personnel to “commit acts of violence against miners."

Normally, when an intruder is caught on a mining site, the mining company’s security service is supposed to restrain and process them, and then hand them over to the police.

Moreover, mining laws prohibit the military from being present at mining sites. Companies are supposed to use private security guards to protect their site. They can be backed up by police, who are armed as a deterrent.

But in practice, some military officers have set up their own private security company and they divert army and police personnel for these purposes.

Commus confirmed, in a July 26 statement published by Actualite.CD, that the incident took place at its mining site, but added that “the soldiers involved were on the mining concession on a special military mission which is legal in the vicinity of our property and was not ordered by the company.”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was unable to contact the two miners who were assaulted. Arther Ilunga, the public prosecutor of the Lualaba Court of Appeal in charge of the case, declined to comment.

Mining projects given to big companies at the expense of artisanal mining

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa's top producer of copper, is also the world's top producer of cobalt, with annual production estimated at 90,000 tonnes. The main deposits of these materials – which, when combined with nickel, are used in the manufacture of car batteries – are concentrated in the provinces of Lualaba and Haut-Katanga.

Several Western mining giants, such as Swiss company Glencore and Canadian Ivanhoe, operate there, but for several years, 80 percent of the market has been dominated by China. In particular, Chinese Tenke Fungurume Mining operates the country's largest copper mine near Kolwezi.

DR Congo has been leasing mining projects to foreign companies since the 1990s, when the state-owned Gécamines company went bankrupt. However, in handing out these projects, artisanal miners who had been operating in the region for years were left behind.

Tensions between local communities and these mining companies have become a regular occurrence, according to Richard Ilunga, executive director of African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), an NGO that campaigns for human rights in the mining sector.

After Gécamines’s bankruptcy, people looking for work took over some unexploited sites. More and more miners came over the years. And when the mining companies realised that the land being mined by the locals had a lot of good quality ore, they obtained mining leases for those areas. They became the legal operators and the miners had to leave the area. This has created escalating tensions.

On July 20, hundreds of miners in Kolwezi rose up, ransacking several administrative offices and protesting in the streets, after being forced out of a site belonging to an Indian company, Chemaf. 

In June 2019, 10,000 artisanal miners were forcibly removed from the Tenke Fungurume mines, according to Amnesty International.

35 cases of physical assault

To ease and prevent tensions, the state has asked mining companies to allow artisanal miners to exploit small portions of their property. However, this has not prevented rogue miners from trespassing or stealing ore. If they're caught, these miners are at the mercy of security personnel.

Afrewatch has documented nearly 35 known cases of physical abuse or torture of artisanal miners who have illegally entered mining projects since 2018.

Now, miners' unions are calling for sites dedicated entirely to artisanal workers. Provincial authorities have identified several potential sites, but they are not yet open for use.

Jean-Marie Tshizainga, the minister of mining in the province, could not be reached for comment at the time of publication of this article.