Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo May 14, 2024

Impunity and Pollution Abound in DRC Mining Along the Road to the Energy Transition


A person seated on a felled tree branch hewing wood

This project aims to show that corruption/misappropriation of public funds amplifies forest...


Loading of minerals from artisanal mines in Kakanda. Image by Didier Makal. Congo.
  • In the DRC’s copper belt, pollution from the mining of cobalt and copper, critical minerals for the energy transition, is on the rise and polluters are ignoring their legal obligations to clean it up.
  • Cases of pollution have caused deaths, health problems in babies, the destruction of crops, contaminated water and the relocation of homes or an entire village, residents and community organizations say.
  • Mining is the economic lifeblood of the region and the state-owned mining company, Gécamines, is a shareholder in several other companies — some accused of these same rights abuses.
  • Mongabay visited several villages in Lualaba province affected by pollution and human rights violations to assess the state of the unresolved damage — and whether companies are meeting their legal obligations.

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)  On Oct. 13, 2023, on National Road 39, a police officer gestures for us to slow down. The narrow road has been reduced to a single lane from the usual two. A damaged truck lies in the Dikulwe River, to the left of the bridge to Fungurume, in Lualaba province in southeast DRC. To the right, downstream of the river, the bridge’s guardrails are gone, and another wrecked truck lies overturned.

A yellowish substance remains on the riverbank. The reeds in the riverbed under the bridge are burned. It’s sulfuric acid, used for cobalt and copper mining, critical minerals in the energy transition and the lifeblood of the regional economy. Agents clean the river with masks that have seen better days.

Whistleblowers and others in possession of sensitive information of public concern can now securely and confidentially share tips, documents, and data with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN), its editors, and journalists.

Sulfur on the ground in Dikuluwe. Image by Didier Makal. Congo, 2023.

The cleanup will take more than a week, some say. Five kilometers (3 miles) downstream in Kibangabwa, residents continue to collect dead fish following the acid spill in the river, their source of drinking water. However, on the day of the accident, Jacques Mumba, the head of the Fungurume environmental department, wanted to assure everyone that there would be no danger to the population. According to Mumba, the river would decontaminate itself 30 minutes later.

The company that caused the spill faced no known consequences. It took more than a week to clean up, and traces of acid still remain. On Oct. 15, in the afternoon, we saw a traveler cleaning up the sulfur left on the ground after the cleaners had left. The companies profiting off of this product and the name of the company transporting it remains a secret, their identity protected by local authorities.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), toxic waste spills, as seen at Fungurume, are common. Hundreds of mining companies operate in the DRC and several companies continue to commit environmental violations and benefit from almost total impunity. In the rush for critical minerals to feed the energy transition, residents in Lualaba, which is rich in cobalt and copper, fear that their health and landscapes will be sacrificed. Certain serious violations that have already cost the lives of dozens of people, remain unresolved while victims continue to demand reparations.

In this investigation, Mongabay visited several villages in Lualaba province affected by pollution and human rights violations to assess the state of the unresolved damages.

Bye-bye Kabombwa

These polluted sites, like the Dikulwe River, are commonplace in the region, where more than 200 mining companies operate. Fourteen kilometers (about 8 mi) from Fungurume, (approximately 1.5 hours from Kolwezi), 11 people in Kabombwa lost their lives due to river pollution between 2020 and 2022, according to the NGO Afrewatch. Chinese company Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), holder of a 1,437-km2 (about 554-mi2) mining concession containing numerous cobalt and copper deposits, has installed a lime production plant nearby. This factory is upstream from the Kabombwa River, which gives the village its name. It has dumped acidic water into the river several times. All the residents left in February, except two who are still demanding fair and better compensation. Each homeowner who left received $5,000 and each tenant received $3,000, according to a Fungurume official.

According to Afrewatch, TFM did not consult Kabombwa residents and did not inform them of these environmental impacts, as required by mining regulations. Testimonies from Kabombwa residents corroborate this accusation. However, several documents are available online, including an analysis of the 2007 environmental impact study and the 2022 addendum, which indicates that the first health problems began to appear as soon as the lime plant was commissioned in 2020 — four years ago. The once-peaceful village, home to about 1,000 households reliant on agriculture, has been shattered.

Dying banana tree in a field in Yenge, near the mines of SICOMINES. Image by Didier Makal. Congo.

“We have experienced various symptoms: skin rashes, premature births. A couple children were born with deformities. The most common problem is stillborns. We don’t drink water from this river anymore,” explains Kabombwa resident Mumba Léonard, 70.

Since this incident, Mumba no longer sees a future in Kabombwa. “Before they left, the Americans [Editor’s note: TFM was owned by U.S. company Freeport-McMoRan before being acquired by a Chinese company] told us that a “dangerous factory” was going to be built nearby, and that it had to be opposed.”

For Ngoy Kipopo Maximien, who has lived in Kabombwa since 1998, the river water has been irritating his skin since the lime factory opened. Scratching causes sores to appear on his skin.

“Even if you get treatment, the problems will keep coming back. The only option is to leave the village,” Ngoy says, echoing the advice of medical professionals who treated his children for skin rashes.

TFM is a subsidiary of CMOC (China Molybdenum), which owns an 80% stake, with the other 20% owned by the Congolese state-owned company Gécamines (Générale des Carrières et des Mines). Including TFM, Chinese companies now control just more than 70% of Congolese cobalt production.

CMOC got off to a bad start with its partner Gécamines after U.S. company Freeport McMoRan sold TFM in 2016. In 2022, Gécamines accused it of lying about its mineral reserves and demanded $7.6 billion before an agreement could be reached. The same year, in December 2022, TFM exported 127,055.15 metric tons valued at $1.2 billion ($9,445 per ton) according to figures from the Ministry of Mines.

About Gécamines:

Gécamines (Générale des Carrières et des Mines) is a mining company based in Lubumbasi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Created in 1906 during Belgian colonization, it is the largest Congolese mining company operating in the country. Since 2000, it has signed 27 partnership contracts (joint ventures).

Since President Joseph Kabila’s time in office, and even earlier under Mobutu Sese Seko, Gécamines has played an important role in the DRC’s politics in its capacity as a public company that manages deposits and mining contracts. Its leaders, appointed by the DRC president, are constantly involved in the DRC’s political upheavals. Albert Yuma, president of Gécamines from 2011-21, is an ally of former President Kabila. Alphonse Kaputo Kalubi, who later took over the management of the company, has a close relationship with Sama Lukonde Kyenge. Kyenge served as the company’s chief executive until he became prime minister in February 2021.

Fleeing pollution in Gécamines and Musonoïe

Cobalt is an important metal that manufacturers used over the last decade to develop renewable energy technologies. It is primarily used in the production of lithium-ion batteries, which are expected to contribute to a global decrease in fossil fuel consumption. The DRC holds more than 64% of the world’s cobalt reserves (3.5 million metric tons of cobalt and 31 million metric tons of copper) and could benefit from these precious metals by becoming a major player in the energy transition.

However, the health and lives of many residents living near the mines is sometimes at risk. Pollution in the mining process, sometimes coupled with damage to homes, makes residents permanently insecure, often unable to resettle elsewhere. This is the case for people living in cities in Gécamines, Kolwezi and Musonoïe, where the Chinese company COMMUS’ (Musonoïe Mining Company) mining operations have destroyed several homes.

In 2022, Gécamines district witnessed nearly 40% of its area become a mining quarry. About 209 households left in a controversial relocation process. Image by Eric Cibamba. Congo.

“Living in the Congo is like living in a prison,” says Emmanuel Lokinu, the national coordinator of the Congolese Mine Action Centre, a human rights organization. On Oct. 29, 2023, he discovered damaged homes in the city of Musonoïe.

“How is it that a foreign company [COMMUS] can come to our country and start mining in the middle of an inhabited city, when I don’t even know if this company is legally allowed to operate here? This is truly unacceptable. We visited a few houses. If it rains tomorrow, these houses might even collapse on people,” remarks Emmanuel Lokinu.

The COMMUS mine has come dangerously close to the cities of Musonoïe and Gécamines, built during Belgian colonization for Gécamines employees. Some residents are demanding fair compensation before they leave. But, up until 2023, COMMUS had only relocated the 209 residents in Gécamines who lived closest to the mine. Each household received around $25,000, according to local sources including Wangu TV, and $100,000 for certain residents, according to a COMMUS lawyer. Residents say the $25,000 offered is not enough for them to build or buy a new house, which can cost between $40,000 and $100,000.

Many of the 38,000 inhabitants remain exposed to noise, vibrations, dust and damage to their homes. However, according to mining regulations, COMMUS must consult the population before starting any operations, and take mitigation and rehabilitation measures “to eliminate or reduce noise and vibration nuisances caused by mining activities.”

For Schadrack Mukad, community leader in Lualaba, all people exposed to these dangers must be relocated by COMMUS. In the dry season, he explains, “residents do not realize they should stay inside or avoid exposure from hanging clothes outside to dry.” Moreover, due to deep digging in the mine, “the water table in Gécamines and Musonoie has gotten deeper to the point that to find drilling water, you have to go 100 or 150 meters [328-492 feet] deep,” explains Mukad.

Jean-Pierre Kamb, a geologist who works with consultants prospecting and evaluating deposits in Kolwezi, says the exposure to pollution that Kolwezi residents face is serious, “even for those who do not work in the mining industry.”

Adéarld Mkonga, a resident who refused to leave and relocate, sits at Gécamines mining site. He demanded a “legal relocation” process and better compensation. Image by Eric Cibamba. Congo.

According to a statement from the mining company received by Mongabay, relocations are managed by a commission of the provincial government, which receives the funds from the company. The provincial government did not respond to Mongabay questions by the time of publication.

Mines, the economic lifeblood of the DRC

Mining plays a large role in the economy and jobs of the region, with both foreign and domestic heavyweights as big players. Faced with the power and influence of many of these companies, residents feel like many of their complaints reach deaf ears. And with the state-owned company Gécamines as a shareholder in many of these big players, legal experts and locals impacted by mining say the country has an even more important obligation to make sure it follows environmental and human rights. But many investigations, including this one, find Gécamines either complicit in the impunity companies benefit from, or a victim of it.

For example, COMMUS is a subsidiary of China’s Zinjin Mining, a company linked to the Chinese government through a state-owned investment company (Minxi Xinghang State-owned Investment & Operation Co., Ltd.) which owns 23.11% of its shares. Zinjin Mining owns 72% of COMMUS assets acquired in 2014 and 2016 and Gécamines owns a 28% stake. The Chinese company already controls Kamoa, one of the future copper giants, which is also a joint venture between the Canadian Ivanhoe (39.6%, publicly listed), the Chinese Zijin Mining (39.6%) and the Congolese state (20%).

However, Kamoa and COMMUS were indexed by a Carter Center report conducted from 2019-21, which examined the damage caused by Kamoa dumping toxic materials in waterways in Mutshatsha and the degradation of COMMUS habitats in Kolwezi. According to the report, neither Canada nor China — the countries from which these mining investments originate — have monitored the implementation of their overseas policies by their respective companies. Additionally, the Congolese state has failed to protect its citizens and uphold its own laws.

“The communities made several complaints and denounced the astonishing silence of the Congolese state, which seemed unconcerned,” the report indicates.

For human rights defender Donat Kambola, “In several cases, the victims have not had their rights restored. There have been no reparations,” while some cases have dragged on for 5-6 years, and new cases are still cropping up.

“At the state level, it’s as if there’s no state at all: authority is nearly nonexistent, control is ineffective and companies exploit this government inaction,” states Kambola.

Private mining companies indeed play an important role in the DRC’s national economy. They contributed at least $1 billion between 2022 and 2023, reported Radio Okapi, the U.N. mission’s media outlet in Congo. In an economy dependent on natural resources, and where the influence of public figures is significant, these companies are easily politicized. This applies to some of the companies among the six under investigation, which are partners with the Congolese state, holding stakes ranging from 20-49%.

In 2023, Gécamines executives were hit by a report from the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF), a public service established by the DRC’s president, in a $10 million case. In the report, IGF and NGOs showed that Gécamines had still not published six private mining contracts signed between 2000 and 2008. According to the IGF, some of Gécamines’ partner companies were established without requiring any equity capital. Instead, the Congolese government provided the mining deposits, which were then used to settle debts incurred by the partners of the Congolese state-owned enterprise.

To top it off, Gécamines received only $564 million in royalties from its partnerships, “or 1.6% while Gécamines’ partners achieved a total turnover estimated at $35 billion” from 2012-20. The total shortfall during the same period amounted to more than $360 million for TFM alone, which did not pay royalties, according to the IGF report.

This means the DRC has lost $1.95 billion and could lose another $3.71 billion in the years to come, according to the most recent financial survey by Le Congo n’est pas à vendre (Congo is not for sale), an anti-corruption coalition of Congolese community groups. The country could also lose almost $2 billion ($1.76 billion, specifically) in the KCC (Kamoto Copper Company) and Mutanda Mining projects.

Israeli Dan Gertler, and “the Kabila clan” behind him, have been mentioned as key players in several opaque Gécamines mining contracts and joint venture partnerships, according to certain media outlets. Former President Joseph Kabila is a friend of the Israeli magnate. In the KCC and Mutanda Mining projects, Gertler is projected to earn royalties of $200,000 per day, until 2039. President Félix Tshisekedi, however, renegotiated some of these contracts, which have allowed the DRC to recover assets worth $2.5 million.

Forgotten victims, stolen livelihoods

Due to the inaction of the Congolese environmental administration, victims of pollution and environmental damage face prolonged waits for compensation, leading to a sense of hopelessness. For Kolwezi human rights activist Kambola, “the inaction of government agencies that are supposed to oversee and monitor the mining sector gives them a sense of impunity.”

In March 2022, the Ministry for the Environment’s investigation into polluted acidified water affecting the Yenge fields on the outskirts of Kolwezi was limited to Sino-Congolese mines (SICOMINES), located about 1 km (0.6 miles) from Yenge, and 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the supposedly polluted fields. Its ad hoc report omitted residents’ testimonies and praised the company’s “colossal investments” and environmental protection. In Yenge, however, cassava crops are still rotting to this day, and sugar cane and banana trees are growing too slowly and are no longer profitable since acid water from a waste pool was dumped nearby. Mongabay observed these conditions in October 2023.

“We saw that the water basin was affected. There was no way to go through the swamp to remove fishing nets or harvest crops,” explains Yenge resident Jean, 40.

“Cassava is still rotting,” comments Ngoyi wa Ilunga, a village resident, holding a disintegrating cassava root. He is angry: “What are we going to eat? The state that should be watching over us is failing. We are suffering so much! They came here and made promises; now they’ve disappeared.”

For 70-year-old Cathy Katende, poor harvests caused by soil pollution have reduced her income. “We went after SICOMINES to demand reparations [after the February 2022 accident]. They promised to come. Until today, we haven’t seen anyone,” she explains.

SICOMINES denies the pollution accusations, referring to a joint environmental report issued shortly after the Yenge incident, which concludes that there was no overflow of water from its factory. However, SICOMINES has stopped responding to the findings from the Provincial Mines Division’s supervisory analyses regarding the soil and water samples taken during their inspections. The findings of these samples were not shared with Mongabay.

The feeling in Yenge is the same as those reported in Mongabay by the victims of the KCC acidified water spills in Sapatelo in Luilu city, Kolwezi, which have also yet to respond. Similarly, Mutanda Mining, subsidiary of Anglo-Swiss company Glencore, has not completed the compensation process for the victims of an accident that cost the lives of 21 people in 2018 in Kabwe village, a few kilometers from Tenke, Kolwezi. Mutanda Mining and its parent company held their subcontracting partner, Access Logistics, responsible for the accident involving the transportation of sulfuric acid. This incident led to several victims drowning in the acid.

Our efforts to contact the companies for comment (apart from SICOMINES and COMMUS) were unsuccessful. Sapatelo resident Aimérance Kamisongo says she is tired of explaining her problem to journalists and community group activists — the mining companies’ silence is proof that they do not even fear the Congolese state, she says.

“Our authorities are, in most cases, in a conflict of interest,” says Kolwezi human rights defender Kambola. He is referring to, among other factors, the strong politicization and influence of the mining sector. “Many people have business relationships with mining companies. This makes people prioritize their interests over the interests of communities.”

Hard-to-grow cassava tuber at Yenge near SICOMINES. Image by Didier Makal.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
yellow halftone illustration of two construction workers moving a wheelbarrow of dirt


Extractive Industries

Extractive Industries
a yellow halftone illustration of a seal with a plastic net around its neck



a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs





logo for the Rainforest Investigations Network


Rainforest Investigations Network

Rainforest Investigations Network

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues