- The Democratic Republic of Congo’s environment minister recently suspended the operations of a Chinese company for polluting a major tributary of the Congo River in Tshopo province.
- Xiang Jiang Mining is accused of polluting the Aruwimi River, mining for gold without first conducting an environmental impact assessment, and failing to secure work permits for its foreign employees.
- In nearby South Kivu province, six other mining companies were suspended for similar offenses last year, pointing to a worrying pattern of companies ignoring mining and environmental regulations.
In August 2021, local communities accused a Chinese gold-mining company of polluting a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern province of Tshopo. Residents living near the town of Basoko shared images of the Aruwimi River discolored by waste disposal from Xiang Jiang Mining’s operations. The DRC environment minister, Ève Bazaiba, visited the area in January and ordered the company to suspend its operations.
According to Bazaiba, Xiang Jiang Mining was operating at least seven robotic dredges without permission, polluting the water and causing problems with navigation of this important waterway by dumping sand in the river.
“We have seen with our own eyes that the pollution of the Aruwimi River is real,” she said.
Running more than 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) through the northern and northeastern parts of the DRC, the Aruwimi River, also known as the Lohale, is an important tributary of the Congo River.
Bazaiba, who is also the DRC’s deputy prime minister, condemned Xiang Jiang Mining’s failure to secure an operating permit as required by law, as well as the absence of residence or work permits for its foreign employees. The minister also said Xiang Jiang had failed to carry out environmental impact studies before starting to mine. She ordered the company’s dredges be removed immediately to Lubumbashi, the DRC’s main mining hub in the country’s south.
Company executives declined media requests for comment.
Flouted regulations hurting local communities
According to Congolese activist Jean-François Mombia, local residents are suffering from the impacts of mining on the river. He told Mongabay that there has been an increase in cases of diarrhea in the region. “Dead fish are floating in the river and, unfortunately, people are eating them.”
Mombia and others in civil society have also criticized Xiang Jiang Mining’s plans to relocate at least 10,000 people living in the vicinity of the river. He said that communities living along the Aruwimi earn their livelihood from fishing and should not be forced to move.
The wholesale flouting of regulations by Xiang Jiang Mining is just one example of the many unlicensed mining companies operating in the DRC, some foreign-owned and others local.
Last August, Deutsche Welle and other European media outlets reported that six Chinese companies were forced to suspend operations in South Kivu province. Here, too, it was members of civil society that raised the alarm, among them Organisation des jeunes Lega au Sud-Kivu, a youth organization.
The group’s coordinator, Clement Mutewa, said the six companies — BM Global Business, Congo Blueant Minerals, Yellow Water, New Oriental Mineral, Oriental Ressources Congo, and Group Christal Services — used toxic substances that polluted the soil and treated their Congolese staff differently than Chinese employees.
“The [suspended] Chinese companies did not meet the conditions required by the mining code,” Mutewa said.
This pollution of rivers in the north and east was echoed by an incident in the country’s southwest in August 2021, where pollution of the Tshikapa and Kasai rivers, also tributaries of the Congo, resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people, with another 4,500 made ill.
The incident was linked to a tailings dam at a diamond mine across the border in Angola, and led to strained diplomatic relations between Kinshasa and Luanda. The mine’s owner, Catoca Diamonds, has since promised to compensate the affected families.
Government’s commitment to enforcement questioned
Reacting to outrage from activists and members of parliament, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi has called for an investigation into concessions and illegal activities of mining companies. But monitoring and enforcement of regulations by the government seems half-hearted. Many Congolese say they believe the suspensions handed out to companies are often too brief.
At least in the case of Xiang Jiang Mining on the Aruwimi, Environment Minister Bazaiba agrees: “The minister of mining, industries and geology previously ordered the suspension of the company’s activities, but it did not comply,” she said, adding that the company will be fined for its violations.
While the government is talking tough about enforcement, mining companies have continued to enjoy its support on the ground. In 2021, provincial legislators in South Kivu alerted the provincial government to the presence of soldiers at some mine sites, even though this is prohibited by law.
A commission of inquiry led by elected officials from the region was formed as a result of pressure from local civic organizations. According to Kasilembo Wabatinga, the commission’s rapporteur, the investigation found that in addition to damage to rivers, bridges and other infrastructure, members of the Congolese army have been illegally recruited by companies to guard mining sites.
The commission also uncovered signs of massive corruption. Reported gold production from one site in South Kivu, Mwenga, was inexplicably 300 times less than estimates expected.
Banner image: Screenshot of a road construction project in the Congo Basin funded by a Chinese.