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DR Congo: Huge expansion in cobalt and copper mining is ‘wrecking lives’ - new report

Kolwezi, where many homes have been destroyed since the mine was reopened in 2015 © Amnesty International videographers: Reportage Sans Frontières

One-hundred page report shows how multinational mining companies are driving people from their homes and land

Massive expansion in demand for metals for lithium-ion batteries for electric cars is fuelling abuse

‘Decarbonising the global economy must not lead to further human rights violations’ - Agnès Callamard

The expansion of industrial-scale cobalt and copper mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has led to the forced eviction of entire communities and grievous human rights abuses, including sexual assault, arson and beatings.

In a new 100-page report, Powering Change or Business as Usual?, Amnesty International and the Democratic Republic of the Congo-based organisation Initiative pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (IBGDH), detail how the scramble by multinational companies to expand mining operations has resulted in communities being forced from their homes and farmland.

Growing demand for so-called clean energy technologies has created a corresponding demand for certain metals, including copper and cobalt which are essential for making most lithium-ion batteries used to power a wide range of devices, including electric cars and mobile phones. The DRC has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, and the seventh-largest reserves of copper. Demand for cobalt has tripled since 2010 and is expected to reach 222,000 tonnes by 2025.

Amnesty and IBGDH interviewed more than 130 people at six different mining projects in and around the city of Kolwezi in the southern province of Lualaba during two separate visits in 2022. Researchers reviewed documents, correspondence, photographs, videos, satellite images and company responses.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“The forced evictions taking place as companies seek to expand industrial-scale copper and cobalt mining projects are wrecking lives and must stop now.

“Amnesty International recognises the vital function of rechargeable batteries in the energy transition from fossil fuels, but climate justice demands a just transition. Decarbonising the global economy must not lead to further human rights violations.

“The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced significant exploitation and abuse during the colonial and post-colonial era, and their rights are still being sacrificed as the wealth around them is stripped away.

“The DRC can play a pivotal role in the world’s transition from fossil fuels, but the rights of communities must not be trampled in the rush to mine minerals critical to decarbonising the global economy.”

Donat Kambola, president of Initiative pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains, said:

“People are being forcibly evicted, or threatened or intimidated into leaving their homes, or misled into consenting to derisory settlements. Often there was no grievance mechanism, accountability, or access to justice.

"The international mining companies involved have deep pockets and can readily afford to make the changes necessary to safeguard human rights, establish processes that improve the lives of people in the region, and provide remedy for the abuses suffered.”

Homes demolished

Since the reopening of a vast open-pit copper and cobalt mine in 2015, long-established communities have been destroyed in the heart of the city of Kolwezi. The project is operated by Compagnie Minière de Musonoie Global SAS (COMMUS), a joint venture between Chinese company Zijin Mining Group Ltd and the DRC’s state mining company Générale des Carrières et des Mines SA (Gécamines). 

The affected neighbourhood of Cité Gécamines, home to about 39,000 people, has multi-roomed houses set in walled compounds with running water and electricity, with schools and hospitals nearby. Since mining activities resumed, hundreds of residents have been told to leave, or have already been forced to. Communities were not adequately consulted and plans to expand the mine have not been made public. Some residents found out their houses were going to be demolished only after red crosses appeared on their properties.

Edmond Musans, 62, who had to dismantle his home and leave, said:

“We did not ask to be moved, the company and the Government came and told us: ‘There are minerals here’.”

People who were evicted said the compensation offered by COMMUS was not enough for them to be able to buy an equivalent standard of home. As a result, many have suffered a significant fall in their standard of living, including having to move to properties without running water or reliable power on the outskirts of the city. They have no effective means of appeal or redress.

One former resident said:

“I had a large house, with electricity, water … Now, I have a small house that was all I could afford with the compensation … we have to drink water from wells … almost no electricity.”

Cécile Isaka, another former resident, said blasting to enlarge the mine caused cracks so large she feared her home would collapse. With no other viable option, she accepted the compensation offer and dismantled her damaged property in 2022 so she could reuse the bricks to rebuild elsewhere.

Edmond Musans helped form a committee to represent the interests of more than 200 households at risk of eviction, seeking higher compensation from COMMUS. The committee has shared its grievances with the provincial authorities, but no progress has been made. COMMUS told Amnesty that it aimed to improve communication with the people affected.

Houses burned, people beaten and wounded

Near the site of the Mutoshi project, run by Chemicals of Africa SA (Chemaf), a subsidiary of Chemaf Resources Ltd, which is headquartered in Dubai, interviewees described how soldiers burned down a settlement called Mukumbi. Ernest Miji, the local chief, said that in 2015 after Chemaf acquired the concession, three representatives of the company, accompanied by two police officers, came to tell him it was time for Mukumbi’s residents to move away. He said they visited four more times.

Former resident Kanini Maska, 57, recalling one of the visits, said:

“Chemaf’s representative told us: ‘You need to leave the village now’. We asked him: ‘Where would we go? It is … where we’re raising our children, where we’re farming land and where our kids are registered to go to school’. We weren’t able to retrieve anything ... We had nothing to survive on, and spent nights in the forest.”

Interviewees said soldiers of the Republican Guard, an elite military force, arrived one morning and began burning houses and beat villagers who tried to stop them. One girl, who was two at the time, was severely burned, resulting in life-altering scarring. Her uncle said the mattress she was lying on had caught fire.

Satellite images support accounts that Mukumbi - which previously comprised about 400 structures, including a school, a health facility and a church - was destroyed by 7 November 2016. Following protests, in 2019 Chemaf agreed to pay US$1.5 million (£1.2 million) via the local authority, but some former residents received as little as US$300 (£239). Chemaf denies any wrongdoing, liability or involvement in the destruction of Mukumbi, or directing military forces to destroy it.

Brutally raped while trying to protect fields

Near Kolwezi, a subsidiary of Eurasian Resources Group runs the Metalkol Roan Tailings Reclamation project. Eurasian Resources Group is headquartered in Luxembourg and the Government of Kazakhstan is the largest shareholder. Twenty-one farmers - part of a collective growing crops on the fringes of the concession near the village of Tshamundenda - said that in February 2020, without any meaningful consultation or notice of eviction, a detachment of soldiers, some with dogs, occupied the area and bulldozed their fields.

Kabibi (name changed to protect her identity) described how she was trying to harvest crops before they were destroyed when she was seized by three soldiers who gang-raped her while other soldiers watched. She was two months pregnant at the time and needed medical treatment. She told her family and village chief about the attack, but was too afraid to report it to Metalkol or the local authorities.

Response from companies

The report urges the DRC authorities to immediately end forced evictions, instigate an impartial commission of inquiry, and strengthen and enforce national laws related to mining and evictions in line with international human rights standards. The companies involved have a responsibility to investigate the abuses identified, provide effective redress and act to prevent further harm. All companies must ensure their operations do not harm frontline communities. Responses from the companies named in the report can be accessed here.

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