Kolwezi town in the Democratic Republic of Congo was nicknamed the cobalt capital of the world for having plenty of the mineral. The town in Lualaba Province in the south of the country is one of the reasons the DRC has nearly half the world’s cobalt reserves and accounts for 70 percent of global production.
There are other things that tick. The DRC also holds the 7th largest copper reserves in the world. And according to the IEA, copper is the mineral most widely used in “clean energy” technologies, while cobalt is an essential mineral in most lithium-ion batteries, an important element in the energy transitions the world is moving towards.
Yet, this town’s blessings are also its curses. Its mined areas are turning inhabitants into sacrificial lambs of displacement as mining operations by multinational companies in Kolwezi push communities out of their homes.
In its report entitled Fueling change or the status quo? rights watchdog Amnesty International studied the activities of four mining investment projects in Kolwezi.
Together with the NGO Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights (IBGDH), based in Kolwezi, Amnesty International came to one: behind the prosperous face of a flourishing mining industry in Kolwezi, communities are dying in silence, victims of brutal expropriation that began 11 years ago.
Kolwezi reflects the world’s latest quest for clean energy to accelerate the establishment of a low-carbon economy by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. And the DRC is attracting investment in the mining sector, targeting all minerals that can help the world achieve those goals. Since 2002, with the publication of the Mining Code (which was revised in 2018), the DRC relaunched the mining sector by attracting foreign companies.
Kinshasa granted advantages to mining investments in order to boost a sector that had fallen into ruin following the general downturn in the economy.
This led to massive investment in Kolwezi. Mining majors, in search of minerals for the energy transition, are landing in Kolwezi, a town of around 215 km2 with an estimated population of between 500,000 and one million.
Subsequently, companies discovered that deposits rich in cobalt and copper were hidden beneath the soil of inhabited areas. The deposits were even discovered on land where farmers had their fields. This led to the forced eviction of farmers and landowners.
Ms Ilunga Kadjele Elysée, brought to Kinshasa by Amnesty International to testify on the occasion of the publication of its report, told The EastAfrican how she and 143 other farmers were evicted from their land (in Tshamudenda village, on the outskirts of Kolwezi) and fields in 2017 by the Republican Guard, a presidential unit, in return for small sums of money.
“We had gone to our fields but were chased away by the soldiers. Some women were raped during these brutal evictions. We have nowhere to go and grow food to survive. We have been resettled on other land, but the fields are a long way away. My age no longer allows me to travel long distances. We are asking the government to help us.”
The woman, in her sixties, is demanding fair compensation from Metalkol RTR, which, in response to strong pressure from the community of Tshamudenda, wrote that it “has no command or control over the deployment of the FARDC (Congolese army).”
Amnesty International and the Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights spoke in 2022 with more than 130 people who had been affected by four similar mining projects in and around the town of Kolwezi.
The EastAfrican spoke with former residents village in Mukumbi and whose homes were torched in November 2016, by soldiers (from the Republican Guard) torched to force the villagers to leave, in preparation for a mining operation.
The village has become a concession where the Chemaf Company extracts 20,000 tonnes of copper and 16,000 tonnes of cobalt every year.
Other testimonies were given by residents of the Gécamines neighbourhood in Kolwezi. In this residential area, gigantic mining sites stand next to houses. Several homeowners were relocated so that Compagnie Commus could begin mining. Since 2012, this company, 28 percent owned by the DRC and 72 percent by China, has been producing 128,000 tonnes of copper and 2,506 tonnes of cobalt every year.
“In 2020, Commus informed a second group of more than 200 families that they would be evicted,” reads the report. One of those relocated, Edmond Musans, who came to Kinshasa with Amnesty International, still complains about the “modest sum” he received in compensation.
“I had no say in how much I received. I had a big house. But now I’m unable to rebuild the same house. I used to live in the city. We were relocated 20 kilometres from this area, in poor conditions”, Edmond Musans told The EastAfrican. Amnesty International states that “the evictions carried out by Commus between 2016 and 2021 did not comply with the procedural criteria”.
“We know that there are economic interests involved, but the important thing is to remember that the DRC has also ratified international treaties that oblige it to respect human rights in all areas.
“The important thing is to respect not only international law, but also the Congolese mining code. We hold the Congolese government accountable to a standard that it has set itself,” Candy Ofime, a lawyer and member of Amnesty International’s climate team, told The EastAfrican.
“I think it’s important for the Congolese government not to talk out of both sides of its mouth, because the DRC has positioned itself as a country that is a solution to the climate crisis because of its peat bogs, minerals and tropical forest”, added Candy Ofime, before concluding: “I don’t even think that the Congolese authorities are completely reluctant”.