The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has emerged from brutal conflict fuelled by its vast mineral wealth to become one of the world’s largest producers of cobalt, copper, diamonds, tantalum and tin. In 2012 cobalt produced in the DRC reached 55% of global production, and the country still has an estimated $24 trillion of untapped minerals.
While post-war fighting still persists in regions such as North Kivu and South Kivu, 1,600km from the capital of the mining region Katanga, it is estimated that most of Congo’s mines are now conflict-free.
International companies such as Glencore Xstrata through Katanga Mining, Randgold Resources, AngloGold Ashanti, Lundin Mining and Freeport McMoRanall, have all invested in concessions in the DRC, often in partnership with state-owned mining firm Gécamines.
In February, ambassador Bene M’Poko, speaking at the Investing in African Mining indaba on behalf of the mines minister, was keen to show his gratitude to these companies for investing in "difficult times", adding: "I am sure they have no regrets."
Though the DRC is slowly emerging from these ‘difficult times’ it is still classified as the second least developed county in the world, according to the Human Development Index – up one from last year – and ranks 154 on the Corruptions Perception Index (2013). Therefore mining in the region can be fraught with challenges including corruption, unstable governance and community management.
Investor Peter Ruxton from Tembo Capital says investment interest in the DRC is picking up, albeit the market being quite slow on the whole. He points to a recent deal where Tiger Resources purchased state-owned Gécamines’ stake in Tiger’s copper project in Katanga Province.
"[This] gives investors hope that in the future Gécamines’ positions can be eventually unwound – these equity holdings have been – and still are – significant deterrents for the investment of foreign capital into copper and cobalt in Katanga Province," Ruxton says.
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He adds that investors are also watching to see the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections and are "keen to see a stable democracy".
However, Marc Elliott from securities at Investec cautions that elections can also lead to political unrest. He also points out that, in the past, the government has been somewhat unpredictable.
"There can be issues with government policy; note the problems First Quantum had with their Kolwezi asset some years ago," he says.
The Canadian company had its asset seized and sold to Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation PLC.
"It is one of the unpredictable facets of working in the country…though I don’t think there has been an issue on quite that scale before or since," he adds.
Miners and investors will also be watching closely for the details of the proposed mining code revision that has been in the pipeline for some time.
The revision is intended to encourage investment in the DRC’s mineral sector. According to reports, proposals include increasing state participation in mining ventures to 35% from 5%, hiking corporate taxes to 35% from 30%, imposing royalties of 6% on nonferrous and precious metals and reducing the term of exploration permits to six years from 15.
"Typically revised mining codes are normally negative but in this tougher commodity environment we have occasionally seen a reversal of some of the tougher proposed policies," Elliott suggests.
Regarding existing contracts, however, Katanga province governor Moïse Katumbi Chapwe is quoted in an interview with the Mining in Africa Country Investment Guide, produced by Global Business Reports, as saying: "We should keep the promises we made to these investors when they first came here.
"Perhaps new players can be subjected to these laws, but it is essential to have a dialogue and an agreement between the mining sector players, the chamber of commerce and government."
One of the most persistent challenges facing mining companies and the country as a whole is the prevalence of artisanal mining. The occupation is a major source of employment and income for the DRC, and there are an estimated 500,000 artisanal miners.
Artisanal miners often enter mine sites illegally or pay off security to do so. In 2010 artisanal miners illegally seized Glencore Xstrata’s Tilwezembe concession. The concession has not yet been re-seized. It has also been reported artisan miners are stealing stock from Tenke Fungurume Mining near Kolwezi in Katanga Province which is majority-owned by US-based Freeport¬McMoRan Copper & Gold.
Up until recently artisanal miners had a monopoly on gold production in the region, with industrial production only starting up in the last few years.
Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Director at Phuzumoya Consulting, writing about DRC artisan miners in The African Report, said: "They are difficult, costly and sometimes dangerous to move, nearly always come back and have not formed unions because they remain on the move." He adds that they’re a problem that will "probably never go away".
However, the militarized approach mining companies such as Glencore and Freeport¬McMoRan have taken to address the incursion of artisan miners on their sites has been criticised by human rights groups.
Executive Director of Rights & Accountability in Development (RAID) Tricia Feeney says mines are often regarded as "military bases" that are "armed to the teeth" which can mean security "almost automatically see those people around them as a threat and potential criminals".
A report by RAID, Bread For All and Fastenopfer, published in June 2014, entitled ‘PR or Progress: Glencore’s Corporate Responsibility in the DRC‘ alleges that mine police at Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) site in Katanga often use disproportionate force when trying to prevent incursions of artisanal miners and this has resulted in death and serious injury.
In one particular incident in February a 23- year-old man who was alleged to be taking a short cut across the mine site was intercepted by KCC security, beaten and later died at the mine site hospital. Glencore in a rebuttal to RAID said the man was apprehended by the Mine Police placed on site by the State to protect their interests.
"The Mine Police are not contracted out or subordinated to the mines and hence remain outside of the control of the mining companies," the company added. Two policemen have been charged for the man’s unlawful killing.
Solid CSR and allegations of corruption
This incident is not uncommon and highlights the need for solid human rights due diligence and appropriate community management.
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Human rights lawyer and partner at Leigh Day, Shanta Martin, is currently acting on behalf of villagers in Tanzania who have made allegations against British-based African Barrick Gold. The villagers allege that the company is liable for deaths and injuries that took place at their North Mara site, due, they say, to excessive force of mine security and police. Martin advises ways to avoid such incidences that are more frequently ending up in international courts: "It is absolutely essential to get security set up in a way that is respectful of human rights from the very outset.
"If that involves using police that are known to be basically very ill-disciplined, have a reputation for using live ammunition in a way that is pretty trigger-happy, then look for other means for ensuring the asset will be secure and try to ensure that if there is a need to deal with people who are coming on to the mine site, that it is in compliance with international standards and minimises the use of live ammunition, and, of course, avoid the use of excess force."
"Artisanal mining is a huge socioeconomic challenge for the country as a whole in the DRC… The issue of addressing artisanal mining is bigger than any one company. However, we can work together with the government and the other mining companies to help find a long term sustainable solution," says a Glencore spokesperson.
To stop people wandering onto a mine, particularly in the case of Glencore’s KCC site, which is a brownfield site situated in a densely populated area, Feeney suggests providing transport or safe corridors for local people to ease some of the tension and for people to cross without being suspected a thief.
Although industrial mining contributes a lot to the Congo economy – mining accounts for around 12% of the country’s GDP – it can also be disruptive to the local communities and some mining firms have been criticised for not investing enough money back in to the community.
"In an impoverished post-conflict country like Congo with huge legacy issues, you cannot just apply a very narrow balance sheet approach," says Feeney.
"There is a balance to the good that investment can bring as long as it is carefully mediated how they [mining firms] integrate into local society and their real tangible contribution to the communities, particularly around the mine."
Corruption is also seen as an investor risk and with the upcoming election in 2016 it is possible so-called ‘opaque’ deals could come under spotlight
Global Witness, in a report entitled ‘Glencore and the Gatekeeper‘, allege that Glencore and ENRC of Kazakhstan both participated in shady deals involving controversial Israeli businessman, Dan Gertler, a known friend of DRC President, Joseph Kabila. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office is currently investigating ENRC’s dealings in Africa.
Opaque deals can cause tension within local communities, says Feeney.
"If taxes are just being siphoned off into private bank accounts and not re-invested, there is that tension there for all of the companies [operating in the DRC]."
In July 2014 the DRC was announced Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) compliant, showing a positive step towards cutting out corruption from its extractives industry.
Infrastructure – an ongoing problem
Ambassador M’Poko has said the DRC government is keen for processing and manufacturing entities, especially in diamonds and gemstones, gold refineries and other minerals smelters. The government did propose an export ban on copper and colbalt but has not yet implemented it. However, this seems premature, considering that the country lacks the energy infrastructure to cope with such substantial downstream processing.
Elliott says he believes there are investments taking place in hydropower but that it is a slow process.
"It takes years to build these things and before you go and make a massive capital investment you need to have some sense of the stability of the fiscal environment you are going to work in," he says.
Adding, "It’s a very tough place to operate. The geography can be quite challenging; thick jungle, hills, mountains and limited infrastructure and road access."
A spokesperson for Glencore said that although infrastructure in the country has come on "leaps and bounds" thanks to mining investment, the company would like to see more investment in rail, which is easier and more efficient than transporting with trucks.
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Katanga in particular is landlocked but connects with two highways, one connecting to Durban and the other to Dar es Saalam, but there are several border crossings to pass, which take up a great deal of time.
The Congolese government has said it is focusing on completing the railway between the DRC and Angola. This railway is part of the Lobito-Lusaka corridor, running 1344km from the port of Lobito in Angola, through Lusaka in Zambia, to Lubumbashi in the DRC. Angola has completed its side but the DRC has yet to complete its share.
Still too much uncertainty
Despite potential challenges of mining in the DRC – infrastructure, CSR and otherwise – the Mining Africa Country Investment Guide includes the DRC in its top twenty, the only Central African country to make the list. It says that while the DRC is a byword for political instability, "signs of improvement are evident".
However, Elliott says that, for some investors, the DRC is a straight ‘no’. Until the government provides a stable political environment by stamping out corruption, participating in improved transparency, pushing out a fair mining code and reinvesting mining money back into its people and infrastructure, investor response is likely to remain lacklustre.