Border hotspot: Transport vehicles and small traders at the Kasumbalesa border post. An agent from the customs and excise department said every year arrests and seizures involving wildlife traffickers take place at this location. Photo © Jonas Kiriko

Foreign miners among entities stripping DRC’s natural assets

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25 mins read

Jonas Kiriko

Oxpeckers

Democratic Republic of Congo–Mining companies cashing in on global demand for cobalt are destroying protected nature reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jonas Kiriko visits reserves in the south of the country to investigate.

Border hotspot: Transport vehicles and small traders at the Kasumbalesa border post. An agent from the customs and excise department said every year arrests and seizures involving wildlife traffickers take place at this location. Photo © Jonas Kiriko

The hum of machinery, piles of soil, makeshift villages, vehicles coming and going, mud in the rainy season: this is the atmosphere you experience when you travel to Basse Kando nature reserve from the village of Kisanfu in southern DRC.

It is a far cry from the impenetrable greenery, wandering wild animals such as black antelopes and elephants, and hippos in the Kando river, as was the scene back in the 1980s and 1990s in Basse Kando reserve, remembered an octogenarian living in Kisanfu village.

Today there is an illegal occupation of large swathes of land inside the protected area by communities relocated to make way for mining concessions that have destroyed their habitat. The main cause is the scramble for cobalt, a critical “new energy” mineral used in batteries and electric vehicles.

The DRC supplies an estimated 70% of the world’s demand for cobalt, and its reserves have been occupied by national and international mining companies since the beginning of the 2000s. Artisanal miners who have joined the rush and the displaced communities resort to poaching and producing charcoal in the protected areas, explained Christian Bwenda, coordinator at environmental NGO PremiCongo.

King of cobalt: One of the mining concessions owned by China’s CMOC Group, through its subsidiary Tenke Fungurume Mining, on the outskirts of the city of Fungurume. Photo © Jonas Kiriko

Mining concessions

An estimated 77% of the Basse Kando reserve is currently allocated to mining concessions. Basse Kando is a protected area measuring 17,500 hectares, according to the 1957 Decree that established it, and it extends over a portion of the territory of Lubudi and Kolwezi in the province of Lualaba. This decree was amended in 2006 without mention of the limits of the reserve, and mining authorities have been granting concessions in the area for years..

Several companies run by expatriates and nationals hold mining concessions that are encroaching inside the boundaries of Basse Kando. They include CMOC Kisanfu Mining SARL, a mining company owned by China Molybdenum Co Ltd (CMOC).

In 2023 China’s CMOC Group became the new king of cobalt in the DRC, according to calculations by Bloomberg media cited by Cyntia Bashizi, a mining journalist at Radio Okapi, a United Nations media outlet in the DRC.

“It [CMOC] dethroned mining giant Glencore, which has not yet made its production data public. CMOC, through its subsidiary Tenke Fungurume Mining and its new Kinsafu mine (US$1.8-billion investment) reported that its cobalt production jumped 174% over the previous year, reaching 55,000 tons in 2023. The DRC is responsible for approximately 70% of the world’s supply of cobalt and is home to the world’s largest producers of this very strategic resource,” Bashizi posted on her X account.

In 2020 CMOC was also part of a deal that saw the transfer of mining assets in the Kisanfu area from American company Phelps Dodge Congo Sarl.

Mineral expansion: An estimated 77% of the Basse Kando reserve is currently allocated to mining concessions. Declared a protected area measuring 17,500ha in 1957, mining authorities have been granting concessions in the area for years. Graphics courtesy C4ADS

Ramped-up production

The benefits of this ramped-up production are not evident to local communities, complained Edgard Kyusa, a resident of Kisanfu village.

“There are no schools, no hospitals, no roads, no houses in Kisanfu. The communities are poor yet they are walking and sleeping on top of minerals. Where is the money from royalties and other societal obligations going?” he asked.

Kyusa said if the protected area of Basse Kando was promoted, the inhabitants would benefit from the resulting tourism rather than living under the curse of minerals, the income from which he believes benefits authorities in the DRC capital city Kinshasa to the detriment of the local community.

The reserve is named after the Kando, a large river that flows into the Lualaba (Congo River) and used to be filled with hippos and crocodiles. There are more now because another company, MUMI (Mutanda Mining SARL), spilled acid into it, according to a charcoal seller living in the village of Kapaso inside Basse Kando who asked not to be named for security reasons.

The Lualaba River, one of the boundaries of the Basse Kando reserve on the Kolwezi-Fungurume road (above). The village of Kisanfu near the Basse Kando reserve (below). Photos © Jonas Kiriko

Artisanal miners

In addition to the large multinationals, there are also artisanal miners operating in and around the reserve. They mined gold at the Kawama village site before the shift was made to copper and cobalt. The gold was washed in a small stream called the Mutala, which flows into the Kando river. According to villagers in the area, the “diggers” did not hesitate to use mercury to wash the precious material, which killed off all the biodiversity.

The boundaries of the Basse Kando reserve are known to the management authorities, but they are not reported nor enforced and they are contested by local communities and mining companies. The management team comprises 23 permanent personnel – a site manager and 22 guards.

This protected area was previously under the management of officials from the Upemba National Park. Today it is under the management of Institute Congolais de la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), a government body responsible for the management of parks and protected areas in the DRC that reports directly to the national minister of the environment.

Felix Mbayo, the provincial director of ICCN in Katanga, confirmed the increased presence of mining companies in Basse Kando and the inability of ICCN to remove them from the area, which he said has not been decommissioned as a protected area.

“We tried to alert our superiors without success. The operators have permits from the Ministry of Mines. We are unable to remove them at our level,” he said, indicating that they are protected at the highest level. “It’s up to you journalists to help us in this fight.”

He suggested that the Ministry of Mines, which issues the operating permits, cooperate with the Ministry of Environment, which oversees protected areas, in order to prevent more of these types of situations. A provincial official at the Ministry of Mines who asked not to be named said the mining permits are issued in the capital Kinshasha, and local officials are simply required to implement their instructions.

Bushmeat pantries: Upemba and Kundelungu national parks are the main suppliers of bushmeat for large urban centres, while cross-border traffickers use the Kasumbalesa border post with Zambia in the south. Map courtesy C4ADS. (Below) A sign indicating a private mining concession near Upemba National Park warns ‘Forbidden to burn the bush’ in Kiluba. Photo © Jonas Kiriko

National parks

National parks are also in the cross-hairs of mining operators. According to Antonio Longangi, communications manager of the Upemba National Park in Haut-Lomami, one of the oldest and largest of the DRC’s protected areas, actions have been taken to recover the integrity of the park in response to mining concession holders who do not hesitate to resort to militias to achieve their goals.

We have taken various measures such as closing the mining concession in Kitembwe and setting up patrol posts throughout the park. But the armed groups involved remain a threat. In 2023 we had several skirmishes that resulted in injuries to our eco-guards, and one was even killed just last year,” Longangi said.

Upemba and Kundelungu, a national park established in Haut-Katanga province in 1970, are the main suppliers of bushmeat for large urban centres. This meat is on the menu of most restaurants in the provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba. In large markets such as Mzee Laurent, Désiré Kabila and Kenya, entire sections are reserved for bushmeat.

Close to the various sources of the bushmeat there are mining concessions held by Thermo Metals Processer (an Indian company) adjacent to Kundelungu; and Lida Afriming (a Chinese cobalt mining company) next to Upemba National Park. Near the village of Lutandula, also a supplier of bushmeat from Kundelungu park, there are mining concessions held by Da Tong Mining and Da Fei Mining, both Chinese companies; and Chemical of Africa SA, an Indian company located adjacent to the Kundelungu National Park.

Managed since 2017 by the Forgotten Parks Foundation through a public-private partnership with ICCN, the Upemba park remains the largest employer in the region with 95% of eco-guards coming from surrounding communities, said Longangi. This includes civilian staff who, in large part, are locals.

“The 200 guards, coming from neighbouring communities, benefit from a bonus which makes it possible to inject funds into the local economy beyond the provisions we obtain locally. Directly and indirectly, operations at Upemba National Park have a positive impact on local communities in terms of economic and professional opportunities,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the invasion of the park by communities can be justified.

Bushmeat trade

The owners of private concessions granted in the area for mining, farming and agricultural estates restrict access to these concession areas, thereby reducing hunting space for the communities. Thus the park has become an alternative for the hunters.

Nestor, a community hunter from Mufunga Sampwe, said the concessions are the reason why he goes into the park. “The little space left to communities no longer has animals. Also, artisanal mining of minerals is not authorised because many spaces belong to concession holders, so you risk losing your life or being imprisoned,” he said.

Maloba Madeleine has been selling bush meat since 1972. “There is kasha, mupenge, makaka, samba [local names for antelope], monkeys, etc. This meat comes from Kyubo in the territory of Mitwaba [located between Kundelungu and Upemba parks], and it also comes from Mitandula, Lubanda and Vuwa to the territory of Kasenga in the Kundelungu park.”

Once the animal is killed, it is smoked and then transported either on motorbikes or in vehicles to supply the busy city of Lubumbashi, capital of the province of Haut-Katanga.

“We are in constant contact with the hunters. When they have product, they call us or they just show up without calling because they know where to find us. We sell it for around 5,000 Congolese francs [about US$2]. We don’t sell by weight because when we dry the meat, the weight decreases,” Madeleine explained. This meat is sold without any restrictions from state services, she and other sellers said.

According to Upemba’s Longangi, incidents involving poachers are reported on a regular basis. “Every week we record at least one incident. With increased patrols, we are finally becoming able to detect and respond to illegal movements in key sectors of the park.The target species are mainly warthogs, reedbucks and small rodents,” he said.

The economic profitability of bushmeat, traditional beliefs, the need for subsistence and the lack of economic alternatives are the main reasons for poaching inside the Upemba National Park, he added.

There is high demand for bushmeat in the large cities, and this encourages poachers to enter the park and kill the animals. Poaching remains the main threat to the biodiversity of the Upemba National Park. In 2022, for example, 51 incidents related to poaching were recorded and 32 poachers were apprehended. This includes poaching for both bushmeat and ivory, driven by cultural practices and an increasingly growing external market demand.

Kasumbalesa customs administration building (below): In an attempt to understand the scope of fraudulent trafficking at the border crossing (above), this Oxpeckers journalist pretended to be a trafficker and proposed smuggling ivory and a lion skin to Zambia. Photos © Jonas Kiriko

Border crossing

The entry and exit point in the south of the country is the Kasumbalesa border post with Zambia. According to an agent from the customs and excise department stationed in Kasumbalesa for almost 10 years who requested anonymity, every year arrests and seizures involving wildlife traffickers take place at this location.

“In July and August of 2023, we seized a shipment of ivory. The owner unfortunately escaped our services. The ivory was cut into small pieces and hidden in a bag of corn flour. Rice and corn routinely come from Zambia to the DRC. This reverse movement caught the attention of our services,” he explained

Fraud at the border post is carried out in several ways, including through agents (police, migration service, army) assigned to customs who receive a percentage or cut based on the value of the goods trafficked.

In an attempt to understand the scope of fraudulent trafficking at the border crossing, this Oxpeckers journalist pretended to be a trafficker. The journalist proposed smuggling ivory and a lion skin to Zambia. Three people were contacted to assist, one of whom worked at the General Directorate of Customs and Excise (DGDA), another in the migration service and another in the security forces. The first demanded a fee of $500 to facilitate the operation and the other two demanded between $200 and $300.

“Bring these items to me tonight as our contact [a Congolese police officer] is already prepared for this purpose. Don’t forget my cut,” suggested a bar owner not far from the border post, who was going to serve as an intermediary in this operation. The journalist did not pursue the deal.

There are also cases of fraud which involve the hierarchy of the DGDA. Oxpeckers was told that in such cases, it is the deputy director of this public agency himself who gives the order not to hold vehicles involved in the warehouses for the normal checks and procedures.

“We handled vehicle parking and security for loading during their customs formalities. This can take at least three days of parking, given the high number of vehicles passing through this border crossing. It is called the “Whiskey” checkpoint.

“However, there are goods that pass through without any formality or verification of content. You get a call from your higher-up that there are instructions from the DGDA not to hold vehicles for the normal procedures. This is called “direct” crossing. Most of it is customs fraud,” revealed a former guard at one of the Pacific Trading warehouses, a company responsible at the time for managing the parking of import and export vehicles at the Kasumbalesa border post. Today, this company only handles vehicles importing goods in partnership with the customs department.

Small traders and couriers crossing the border on foot smuggle small quantities of contraband across in several batches. For example, they cut ivory into small, easily concealable pieces. Observation on site indicated many women commit this type of fraud.

Restoration model: The forest at Mikembo Sanctuary, located some 30km from the city centre of Lubumbashi, has been completely protected since 2005 and wildlife species such as zebras (above) have been introduced. Stephan Banza (below), from a civic environmental organisation in Lubumbashi, said the parks must guarantee the safety and livelihoods of local communities if they are to prosper. Photos © Jonas Kiriko

Mitigation measures

Longangi noted that the mining sector has set its sights set on other protected areas in the DRC, such as the Virunga National Park in the east of the country and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the north-east. However, he said park officials at Upemba remain confident in the authorities’ desire to put an end to the illegal exploitation of minerals in protected areas.

They propose reforming the mining sector in order to shelter protected areas and facilitate collaboration under the Green Alliance, a green economy approach that reconciles development with environmental protection.

PremiCongo, which works for the conservation of the open forests of Katanga, wants the government to remove the concessions in Basse Kando reserve, given the advanced degradation of its biodiversity. The organisation also recommends that companies based in Basse Kando pay substantial financial compensation to ICCN, which should use the money exclusively to improve the management of the country’s protected areas, in particular by re-establishing guards and minimum infrastructure in each protected area.

Many local communities do not feel concerned about the conservation of these parks, which is why they invade them, explained Ngoy Bupe Don, a traditional chief in Kyubo. His argument was supported by Stephan Banza, from a civic environmental organisation in Lubumbashi, who said the parks must guarantee the safety and livelihoods of local communities if they are to prosper.

Mikembo Sanctuary

In response to the degradation of forests, the disappearance of wild species due to poaching, and the disappearance of timber from overexploitation, one individual initiated a project to restore the forest and endangered wildlife species. This is the Mikembo Sanctuary, located some 30km from the city centre of Lubumbashi.

The forest was completely protected between 2005 and 2006. Its animal species, including giraffes, zebras, kudus, antelopes, warthogs and reptile species, including venomous snakes, were introduced in 2011.

Professor Jonathan Ilunga from the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of Lubumbashi has been conducting research there since 2010. “This is a regeneration forest, and we have seen substantial plant growth over a 10-year period. It is a true model of reforestation and restoration of biodiversity,” he said.

Jonas Kiriko is an investigative journalist based in the DRC specialising in topics related to environment, agriculture and water. This investigation is part of the Oxpeckers #PowerTracker series titled ‘The human cost of energy in Africa’, and was produced in collaboration with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).