Putting People First: Lessons Learned from Unsustainable Mining Practices in the DRC

Updated: May 3

by Edward Bonner

[TL;DR] In the summer of 2014, I was working as a junior geologist on a mining development in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the local reaction to the project was far from what we expected. The project was well prepared for the Ps of planet and profit but did not fully appreciate the potential impacts of the final P - people.


The three Ps of sustainable development – people, planet and profit – are the backbone of modern, sustainable businesses. The three Ps – also referred to as the triple bottom line – dictate much of the corporate landscape, with a company’s success heavily dependent on how well they maintain the balance.

Extractive industries are no exception and, with activities so widely publicized today, may well be one of its harshest victims. Indeed, mining companies have been attempting this balancing act for over a quarter century and by doing so, have developed more effective ways of addressing these issues, i.e. Environmental and Social/Health Impacts Assessments (ESIAs/EHIAs)and Social License to Operate (SLO). Yet, the mining sector is still far from finding its equilibrium point as conflicts continue to arise between communities and developers. Indeed, the sector has often prioritized maximizing profit and protecting the planet over engaging with the quite often, most directly affected party – people.


[To learn more about the type of conflicts that can occur and the ways they can be resolved, please have a read of our article on the impacts of iron mining in northeast Thailand.]


In the summer of 2014, I was working as a junior geologist on a mining development in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the local reaction to the project was far from what we expected. The project was well prepared for the Ps of planet and profit but did not fully appreciate the potential impacts of the final P - people. In the text below, I provide a first-hand account of the events. For the purpose of this article, and to respect the anonymity of project stakeholders, the mining organization will be referred to as ‘the developer’ and members of local rebel group as ‘the rebels’.


Walikale, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo:


July 16th 2014

1 PM: I am on my lunch break in the developer’s office. My colleague comes rushing in: "you have to go, now!" Wide-eyed and frantic, he points at the helicopter out in the yard. Confused, I grab my computer, the charger, my hand lens and a few other geo-tools... A bullet hits the window. "They're shooting at us!" Another colleague exclaims from behind me. The helicopter takes off without us. There is no time. The rebels are at our doorstep. The police, already on site, start shooting back. This gives us time to escape by the side door towards Manoire, south of the camp. My two colleagues and I, accompanied by a couple policemen, run up the hill. At the top, I look back and one of my colleagues is gone. I think he is captured or worse, dead. 


"He's with a good policeman, he'll be safe," I am assured. We continue onto Manoire. Gunshots crack behind us. Shouting echoes up the hill: "Musungu, musungu!" [white man]. We descend the other side of hill. In front of me, the landscape is wide-open terrain and the gunshots resonate even louder. The group starts sprinting down the mountain. We duck into some tall grass and the shots grow more distant.


The rest of the geologists, accompanied by a few more guards, manage to meet us at the entrance of the village. We send some scouts to check if the path is clear. They return and we head in. The remaining villagers welcome us and bring us to a courtyard where we try to rest while we work out a plan.


2PM: The chase continues. We are hurried along through the village and arrive at a church. A priest ushers us into his living quarters to hide us. He blesses us and whispers a short prayer. Gunshots resonate once more. The rebels are on the other side of a hill to the west. We decide to move. Scouts check ahead and we set out. We head up the mountain Southwest of Manoire, passing hundreds of refugees, carrying their belongings (mattresses and all). Murmurs spread through the line. The village escapees are apparently blaming us for what had happened. Outnumbered, the guards tense and we hurry up the mountain. The rebels are still on our tail. We arrive at a house where we rest for a few minutes, after which we continue on to Cocoli. There, we could get protection and send word to the exploration manager and the pilots. We don’t have a SAT phone so we had to send a scout to Osokara to message them. We follow a bulldozed trail through the forest.


6PM: We reach Cocoli. At the village, we sit down with the chief and local police, and explain what happened. They are speaking in Swahili. I don’t understand. It seems like they want us to leave. The village chief does not have enough men to protect the village from the rebels. We are allowed to stay there for the night.Shortly after, we get word that our third colleague is on his way. He is covered in mud. He slipped on the way up and fell down the hill. Knowing the rebels would be following us to Manoire, he took another route. He remembers seeing the rebels run closely after us as he hid in the bushes off the trail. He had covered himself in mud to prevent his reflective outfit from catching their attention. If we had waited for him at the top, we may not have made it to Cocoli.


9PM: More refugees, geologists and drillers start showing up. The locals prepare some food, consisting of manioc, fish, chicken and bananas. We eat. Everyone seems to relax a little.


10PM: We see people running away from the square. We hear a very loud gunshot coming from the square. We all panic and scramble to hide. The shots continue. Uncertainty. We are told that the gunshots were from two hunters getting into an argument, nothing to do with us. We try to get some shut-eye. Most of us sleep on the ground. 


July 17th

3 AM: My colleague knocks on the door to the room where we were "sleeping". The police captured three men coming into Cocoli holding the camp TV. If these three men could get all the way here, the rebels would have no trouble doing the same. We pack up our gear and march out of Cocoli on route towards Osokara.


5AM: Many hills, gullies and streams later, the bulldozed trail we were on ends and a narrow footpath begins. We trek through the thick jungle.


6AM: Dehydrated and hungry, we keep on going. We finally cross a stream. We drink, savoring every gulp. We quench our thirst and carry on.


7AM: There comes a fork in the path. The locals take off on the main road to Osokara. We decide it is too risky for 'musungus' to be traveling on the main road. So we take the long and less travelled path to Osokara.

9AM: We reach an abandoned corn plantation. We run into two hunters who seem to know how to get to where we need to go.


11AM: We reach the main road where a truck is waiting for us. The locals greet us with sodas and crackers. We wait an hour in Osokara. The helicopter arrives. We leave. We pass over the camp or at least what is left of it. The tents were gone, the main house had been reduced to ashes and the rigs stood smoking. 


The incident was a big blow to the mining company, but in less than three months they were back in full swing. During my time on this project, there had been a few tense exchanges between the villagers and the company until the 'bush telegram' went dark and we had no idea of the activity surrounding the camp. The camp was on the border of three rebel groups' territory. Country risk and local opposition can be cost prohibitive to exploration and mining companies but for those who choose to take it on, working to build sustainable and beneficial relations with local communities is a reality and needs to be integrated through effective EHIAs/ESIAs and SLO processes at all stages of the project life cycle.


When it comes to mining exploration projects, it all starts with the geologist who makes first contact with community. How that geologist represents the company's interest and manages the community's expectations, is somewhat dependent on company culture and standard operating procedures (SOPs in military slang). However, small companies may choose to be cagier when prospecting in new communities because they don't want to alert any other exploration company of their presence there. By trying to protect their stake, they can also damage their reputation. It's a delicate balancing act but experience in the sector shows that engaging proactively and transparently with affected communities as opposed to responding to a situation, like what happened in DRC, will positively affect a project by reducing risk and increasing the long-term sustainability of project benefits for all.


[Please stay tuned for a follow up article on Social License to Operate in the mining sector where I explore how to integrate best practices in development strategies and identify the key players to do so.]

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