DRC: Chinese gold mining in Okapi forest reserve risks undermining green lung claims

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Thursday, 20 October 2022 06:00

Satellite view of the Okapi wildlife reserve in DRC. Photo supplied.

Civil society groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are calling for an end to gold mining in the Okapi wildlife reserve and the cancellation of a permit given to a Chinese company

The reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, occupies about a fifth of the Ituri forest in the north-east DRC. Industrial activity is banned across its 13,000 square kilometres. But the Alerte Congolaise pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme (ACEDH) and the Council for Environmental Defense through Legality and Traceability (CODELT) say that gold mining is continuing and called on the government to revoke the license granted to China’s Kimia Mining.

The permit given to Kimia violates DRC law, CODELT lawyer Augustin Mpoyi told an online briefing. In environmental terms the mining has been “devastating,” ACEDH executive secretary Olivier Ndoole said. “There has been no attempt to practice responsible mining, and, to our knowledge, no environmental impact assessments have been carried out.” The mining has caused “major deforestation and degradation” which extends outside the concession, Ndoole said.

The COP27 meeting in Egypt may increase scrutiny of the DRC’s mining sector. The Congo Basin forest absorbs nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, or 4% of global emissions.  COP26 in 2021 led to agreement to protect the Congo Basin rainforest, the second-largest in the world. The accord, intended to provide $500m of funding over five years, aims to cap forest cover loss at its 2014-2018 average and then bring about a decline in deforestation.

  • The letter of intent signed in 2021 states that no agro-industrial concessions will be allocated in the DRC’s high-value forests and peatlands.
  • Geologist Gabriel Nenungo told the briefing that Chinese-managed dredgers have been seen in the Ituri river and that open pits are visible from the air, with water discolouration indicating possible mercury pollution.
  • The intensive use of mercury which has been observed means the local population will face contamination lasting for decades, mining consultant Yves Bertran Alvarez said.
  • According to UNESCO, the reserve is home to threatened species of primates and birds and about 5,000 of the estimated 30,000 okapi surviving in the wild. The Congo river basin is one Africa’s largest drainage systems.

Armed forces

The civil society groups claim that Kimia has benefitted from the protection of the DRC’s armed forces. The country’s mining code and military regulations forbid the presence of the military on mining sites. A group of UN-mandated experts found that in 2020 Kimia operated at least three large gold dredging machines and 10 excavators, yet official statistics show that Kimia did not record any exports that year. In 2021, the DRC authorities seized 31 kg of gold, worth around $1.9m, from the Muchacha mine on the reserve.

The KGOR holding company which represents Kimia told the UN experts that the group has never asked the DRC military to intervene, though the experts found that the presence of the armed forces was established.

  • KGOR head Rudy Cornet has said that the companies held by KGOR are the victims of external individuals who illicitly enter its operating areas to mine gold.
  • Such instances are reported to the authorities and KGOR has initiated legal action against the perpetrators, Cornet wrote in a statement in March.

Bottom line

The DRC needs a credible response to claims of mining in forest reserves if it wants to be seen as part of the global climate solution.

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