A couple of weeks ago I visited a gold mining village more than 3,000 kilometres from the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa. Here the sad reality of my country has an even harsher face. Although other provinces are facing hunger and displacement caused by fighting, in this town the population is living under particularly difficult conditions.
Some of my first views when I drove in were of mothers who had walked for miles to get water from rivers and little girls carrying heavy crates up mountains, so they could sell doughnuts and alcohol to people digging for gold. The town has a population of around one million – many of whom carry out small-scale gold mining. Children as young as nine are exposed to appalling conditions – using their hands to collect raw material, surrounded by hazardous minerals with constant risks of open mine shafts, collapsing tunnels or drowning while mining underwater.
On my trip I meet Lionel*, a 10-year-old ‘little digger’ working in the mines. He told me: “If am lucky enough to get a kilogram of gold I could buy clothes for myself and my mum, a TV and I could marry a woman and eat well.”
Lionel is not alone in his dream. Thousands of children like him are arriving from Beni, Bunia, Kisangani to the mining towns across the DRC. Hunger often drives them here – more than 43 per cent of children in the DRC are chronically malnourished. They hope of better things to come if they can make their fortune digging.
The reality though is very different to the dream. Children here are raised in a world where corruption, drugs, alcohol and guns exist at the highest level. Here school is for girls – but only the fortunate ones, who can afford to pay the fees. The few boys that are at school are mixing both activities, like 17-year-old Olivier, who told me he pays his school fees and feeds his family back home with the money he gets from digging gold.
And for many the money has become so vital that despite the dangers, it’s not something they are willing to give up: “We are ready to go back into armed groups if anyone forbids us to dig the gold!” said Wilson, a teenage former child soldier who did not want to disclose his age.
The miners are not just former rebels though; they are teachers, professors, students, teenagers and very young children. Diggers come from all over the country, and live with the risk of murder, poor health, and – for children – the likelihood that they will never get a chance to go to school.
And this grim reality becomes even harsher when you know that the DRC – recently jointly named as the least developed country in the world, along with Niger – is sitting on an estimated 15 trillion pounds of mineral wealth. The disparity of such a large presence of underground wealth on the one hand, compared to such extreme poverty on the other has caused conflicts in the past and there’s no doubt it is one of the reasons the people of the DRC are facing such a chaotic situation.
People in my country battle every day just to cope with immediate needs like hunger and shelter. They don’t have the luxury to think about the future, about what their rights are and what the government should be doing to help them benefit from the country’s natural wealth. Because often the minerals that are mined in the DRC are taken to neighbouring countries to be sold, meaning people living in this naturally wealthy country are not benefitting from its own resources.
Forty-two-year-old Arthur owns a boutique which buys gold from the “little diggers” and explained to me why he sells outside of the DRC: “Once in the destination country, I have my clients to whom I sell the gold. One gram of gold is 50 dollars. I don’t pay any tax in this country. It’s the only one where we can go and sell our gold without paying any taxes. It’s easier here.”
And although in towns like this you’ll often be forced to pay money along the road, one digger I met confirmed that these fake ‘taxes’ end up in the pockets of “some people”. When I look at the issue of minerals in the Congo, it’s clear they are as much of a problem as illiteracy, conflict and disease.
Now is the time for us to put pressure on the people who can make a real difference. We must ensure that the companies extracting this mineral wealth pay a royalty for the privilege, so more people in my country can benefit from its riches. The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign is lobbying global leaders at this month’s G8 to ensure companies can no longer dodge the taxes they should be paying in towns like this, nor hide the truth about the deals they are doing in poor countries.
When they G8 meet in Enniskillen this week, they must keep the lives of children like Lionel, Olivier and Wilson at the top of their agenda.
*Names have been changed