Katanga was once renowned as the “jewel in the Congo’s crown.” Its rich natural resources and thriving mining activities served as the financial bulwark of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo). Today, following generations of political instability and systematic destruction, life for the majority of people in Katanga is dire and prospects for improvement seem remote.
Katanga is renowned for its mineral wealth. It has 34% of the world’s cobalt reserves and 10% or the world’s copper. It is also rich in zinc, lead, uranium, tin, manganese, chromium, cadmium, silver, gold, germanium, and coal.
The province is located at about 10 degrees south of the equator on a plateau that rises 900 to 1800 metres above sea level. While summers are warm and damp (about 1300 mm of rain fall annually), the winters are cool and dry. The region, vegetated by thorn scrub and savannah is at times given to periods of drought.
The city of Kolwezi, the heart of the region where Pamoja is targeting its efforts, epitomizes the fate of Katanga. Once surrounded and supported by numerous active mines, it was a flourishing urban centre and a favourite colonial vacation destination. In the 1990’s, the confluence of political conflict in the north, economic uncertainty, and dramatic reversals in mineral prices closed the mines.
Now, a population of 320,000 (in 2004) lives in an economic wasteland. Connections to the central government and economic supports have been severed; schools and hospitals have been closed. Social infrastructure is in tatters, roads are in ruins, farming activity has all but collapsed. Unemployment is rampant and unrelenting.
One of the few opportunities for employment has come in the insidious form of the “cobalt rush,” driven by a sudden demand for cobalt and a leap in the price of the mineral on the international market. The rush has ignited an explosion in illicit trade, which has spurred massive smuggling activities that are now ravaging the land’s resources, transporting the ore out of the country, and impoverishing a nation already reduced to direst poverty.
Lured by the prospect of earnings, young men and boys are leaving their families and abandoning farms for the prospects, and the hazards, of “artisanal mining” — handpicking ore in open pit mines. For twelve hours a day, the young men dig and bag the ore, while boys — because they are small enough to negotiate tortuous and treacherous tunnels — haul the ore up through mineshafts. The wage is as little as US $1 per day. The price is a country and its people.
Rampant unregulated mining has far reaching impacts on the environment, economy, social structures and health. At the centre of it all is a pattern of global environmental change now known as the Katanga Syndrome.
The city of Kolwezi
Kolwezi is a city in Katanga Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, west of Likasi. It is home to an airport and a railway to Lubumbashi. The population is approximately 418,000.
The city was created in 1937 to be the headquarters for the western mining group of the High Katanga Mining Association (UMHK). Kolwezi is an important mining centre for copper and cobalt. There are also uranium, radium, oxide ores, and lime deposits.
The pattern of environmental destruction now known as the Katanga Syndrome is a nexus of ecological, economic, social and health crises in the rural south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo).
The devastating effects of mining in the southern province of the Congo characterize one of the critical patterns implicated in global environmental change. So much so that the province has become the namesake of what is known as the Katanga Syndrome: environmental degradation resulting from the depletion of non-renewable resources, particularly by unregulated mining.
Illicit mining operations, typically employing obsolete and inefficient technologies such as artisanal handpicking of minerals, are carried out in Katanga without consideration for the natural environment or the consequences for the economy, for communities, and for human health.
Widespread damage, often irredeemable, proceeds by two primary pathways:
- the entry of toxic compounds into the environment, including the heavy metals mined in Katanga — lead, cobalt, nickel, zinc, and manganese
- large scale and often irreversible alteration of natural structures, chemistry, or energy relations, resulting from the removal of extreme quantities of rock, earth or ore.
The consequences reach far beyond local geology. The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU, 1996) provides a thumbnail sketch of the causal nexus of devastation.
- A typical feature of the syndrome is large-scale destruction of natural ecosystems and arable soils, particularly in the case of open- mining in developing countries.
- Other effects include changes in morphology and subsidence of the land surface.
- This, in turn, has severe impacts on hydrological processes, such as surface run-off, increased sediment pollution in rivers and the groundwater table, as well as on soil erosion.
- The release of toxic substances leads to contamination of soils, surface and ground water, and the concomitant effects this has on biodiversity.
- The negative consequences for the local population range from serious damage to health to forced migration or resettlement
Ultimately, the fallout from the depletion of non-renewable resources touches every aspect of life — environment, human health, food production, communities, and economy.
Cobalt is found naturally in conjunction with other metals, such as copper, nickel, manganese and arsenic. It is widely used in industrial processes such as electroplating and catalysis in petroleum production; it is also used in battery electrodes and in radiotherapy. However, its predominant use is superalloys — metal alloys that are mechanically strong, resistant to corrosion, and capable of withstanding high temperatures — used in jet engines, gas turbines, steel-belted radial tires, and magnets, such as those found in hard drives.
Demand for superalloys has fueled the “cobalt rush” in Katanga, but such demand is subject to the vicissitudes of the market. The unpredictability of this demand was demonstrated in 2003, when the international demand for superalloys collapsed. However, record summer heat in Europe “boosted global demand for cobalt metal; not for superalloys production, but for wear parts of nickel-cobalt alloys in industrial, commercial and residential air conditioning. As the weather has cooled, though, so has demand and pricing for cobalt-based alloys”.
A reduced demand from industrialized countries for commodities produced in DCR such as base metals, wood, and coffee as well as the decline in export prices of mine products during the 2009 economic crisis have adversely affected economic activity and employment in the province of Katanga.
Mines in Katanga
Images from the history of mining in DRC (aka Shaba from 1971 to 1997) can be found on the web site of the Euromin Project.
More information on the environmental effects of mining in Katanga and on the Katanga Syndrome is available at the following web sites:
- World in Transition: The Research Challenge by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU),
- Syndromes of Global Change: An Integrated Analysis of Environmental Development Issues by Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber (PDF file)
- Rush and Ruin: The Devastating Mineral Trade in Southern Katanga by Global Witness
- Same Old Story: A Background Study on Natural Resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Global Witness
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