At What Cost?
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Blood and Treasure

Why one of the world's richest countries is also one of its poorest.

Today the Congolese army has taken over the villa as its local headquarters, and several dark-green military trucks are parked outside. Like the rebel warlords before them, many army officers have profited from gold, sometimes by directly controlling mines and forcing soldiers or villagers to work in them, and sometimes by brazenly insisting that anyone who wants to mine gold nearby has to buy permits from the army. The desirability of senior army posts is determined not by how many troops you command, but by which mining areas the position controls. In half a dozen larger Congolese cities, you can find luxurious houses, surrounded by high walls and security guards, owned by generals whose nominal pay is less than $100 a month.

 

THE BIG MINES may be closed, but that does not mean mining in Ituri has stopped. Along the side of the road walk men in gum boots and sweaty T-shirts, balancing heavy sacks of rocks on their heads. They will put the rocks in a metal bucket and pound them into dust with an iron bar. Then they will combine the dust with water and mercury—which attracts the specks of gold—and, trying not to breathe the toxic fumes, will heat the gold-mercury mix in a pot over an open wood fire to evaporate the mercury.

At one point our car is suddenly waved to a stop by two sentries at a checkpoint. "Du thé! Un sucré!" (some tea, something sweet—slang for bribes) they say through the car window, each rubbing thumb and forefinger together. Van Woudenberg, undaunted, gets out to deal with them and a superior, with a brimmed military cap and red braid, who emerges sternly from a little guardhouse. Anywhere you travel in Congo, uniformed men demand money; soldiers and police are paid little to begin with, and much of that vanishes into the pockets of higher-ups before it ever reaches them. But this time a curious thing happens. When the chief of this little extortion post examines Van Woudenberg's passport, he looks up and says, "You're the woman who wrote The Curse of Gold! I've read it three times!" He sends us on our way with a smile. There is something moving about this: a petty thief applauding someone who has exposed grand theft.

Some three hours up the road, we reach the town of Mongbwalu, which sits next to a gold deposit so coveted that the town changed hands five times in the battling between rival ethnic militias in the last decade, leaving some 2,000 people in the vicinity dead during one seven-month period. Warlords wanted the gold to buy weapons—often from the corrupt national army that supposedly was trying to suppress them. The old refinery here is now a rusted skeleton, destroyed by fighting in 2002. Some eerie video footage taken here that year provides a microcosm of the entire war. Civilians are seen fleeing, carrying rolled-up mattresses on their heads. Meanwhile, officers in berets, boots, and camouflage fatigues from the militia group Union des Patriotes Congolais, which had taken the town a few days before, are carefully examining still-intact refining machinery, a crushing mill, and football-size chunks of gold ore. A Ugandan TV correspondent, doubtless at the request of the militiamen who've invited him along, goes on camera to urge "foreign investors" to help get the mines working again. The warring militias assumed that multinational corporations would have few scruples about dealing with warlords if the stakes were high enough. They turned out to be right.

We spend the night under mosquito nets at the town's Catholic mission, where a priest was tortured and murdered during the war. The colonial-era guidebook describes Mongbwalu as having "hospitals for Europeans and natives," but today the grandest relic of those times is a spacious cathedral, built by the Belgians in the 1930s, with arched windows and a dark-stained wood ceiling within which other priests hid during the last round of massacres. From the cathedral's front steps is a lovely view of green hills that are the western edge of the great equatorial rainforest.

Above the altar hangs another glimpse into the colonial past: a huge, mural-like painting. Madonna and child float on a golden cloud; on the ground below, offering flowers in adoration, are nine or 10 African adults and children, several carrying a flag emblazoned with the name of the old Belgian mining company. In a bottom corner, a frightened-looking witch doctor, with feather headdress and necklace of shells, is fleeing the scene, vanquished by the combination of corporate power and the Virgin Mary.

Sakura LisiIn Mongbwalu, family members wash and bury eight-month-old Sakura Lisi, daughter of a gold miner, who died of malaria. Congo has virtually no public health system, and AngloGold Ashanti, a multinational company spending millions prospecting for gold in the desperately poor community, has largely ignored pleas for help.

ALTHOUGH corporate mining has reaped billions from Ituri over the decades, during the war it was largely on hold. Multinational corporations prefer a government weak enough not to tax and regulate heavily but strong enough to guarantee order. Today the fighting in the goldfields area has subsided, the price of gold is soaring, and the conveniently weak Congolese government is back in control. Industrial mining is about to begin again, big-time.

Just as Australian prospectors set off the first scramble for Ituri gold a century ago, an Australian is chief prospector in Mongbwalu today. Geologist Adrian Woolford, who is 30 "and getting older by the minute," is exploration manager for a subsidiary of South Africa-based AngloGold Ashanti, the world's third-largest gold mining company. Tall, thin, bearded, in khaki shorts and khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Woolford draws the good pay necessary to lure highly trained specialists to this remote spot. He gets two weeks off for every six he works. On his last two-week break, he vacationed in Cambodia; on the next he will go to Brazil. Several hundred yards away people are living in dirt-floored huts lit by candles or kerosene lanterns, but in the mining company's hilltop compound we are in a little Western island of flush toilets and working electricity. On his computer monitor Woolford shows us a three-dimensional image, which he can rotate so we can see it from any side or from above or below, of what's underground at Mongbwalu. Bodies of gold ore in brilliant red and yellow are separated by thin green lines of other rock. The image also shows some of the more than 500 sampling holes that have been sunk in the ground with diamond-bit drills, some of them extending nearly 2,000 feet down.

The drilling has confirmed a treasure trove. Beneath less than one square kilometer of ground, next to the hill we're on, Woolford says, are more than 2.5 million ounces of gold, worth about $3 billion at current prices. And it is found at the rate of about three grams per ton of rock—an extraordinarily high batting average for a deposit this big—all of it within an easy 800 feet of the surface.

The company has about 250 employees on this site. Mostly they work inside the compound, tightly protected by guards who include Nepalese Gurkha veterans of the British army. (These are provided by a subsidiary of ArmorGroup, the security firm whose guards at the US Embassy in Afghanistan were at the center of a hazing scandal disclosed last September.) The compound's gates, floodlights, and high razor-wire fence prompt Joel Bisubu, a Congolese human rights activist traveling with us, to call it "Guantánamo."

AngloGold Ashanti recently finalized a series of agreements with the government under which it will begin mining here and at another major site in the northeast. At Mongbwalu, it will have an 86 percent share of the operation; the near-bankrupt former state mining company, now being privatized, will have the remainder. Four other multinationals—based in London, Canada, and South Africa—have likewise concluded closed-door agreements over mining rights. No one will ever know what Congolese government officials may have reaped from these deals in the way of quietly promised jobs, favors, or money under the table, in a country where such rewards are routine. Representatives of local communities, meanwhile, found it hard to get a seat at the negotiating table.

Seldom, in fact, do local communities gain much from such agreements; that is part of the resource curse. This pattern is all the stronger in a place where the national government has as fragmentary a hold as it does here. A failed state fails its people in many ways, and one of them is that, in a world of powerful corporate players, a weak and corrupt government has no bargaining power. For industrial mining that could create new skilled jobs, Congo desperately needs the expertise and investment capital that, for better or worse, only a multinational can offer. But a company like AngloGold Ashanti, with more than 60,000 employees at work on four continents, can easily invest elsewhere if the terms in Congo are not to its liking.

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