- Local residents living in the DRC’s ‘cobalt capital of the world’ are being forced to relocate in order to make way for a mine owned by Chinese company COMMUS (Compagnie miniere de Musonie).
- The relocation process is being done under questionable circumstances, including providing compensation payments under the table which don’t always meet amounts needed to buy a decent home, contradictory statements, lack of consultation, and few traces of written documentation to fact-check claims made by local government officials, the mining company and displaced people.
- The demand for cobalt, a critical mineral for the clean energy transition, is expected to increase and lead to the eviction of communities who find themselves living above their deposits, say energy experts.
- The mining company’s lawyer says the relocation process is happening fairly, payments are calculated alongside officials and civil society groups, and the land and buildings, like schools, rather belong to the company’s owners.
LUBUMBASHI, Congo—In Kolwezi, the self-proclaimed cobalt capital of the world, 400 households and a monastery are preparing to leave. Recently in 2022, one area, known as the Gécamines neighborhood, saw 40% of the land become a cobalt and copper mining quarry with 209 households leaving in a controversial relocation process.
A symbol of this controversy, Adelard Makonga refused to pack his bags and rather stayed put in his home. He demanded a “legal relocation process,” upping the ante against the Chinese mining company COMMUS (Compagnie miniere de Musonoie), which only agreed to cash compensations — avoiding the long relocation process called for in Congolese law.
“I’m not asking much from COMMUS. All I want is to be resettled in the same conditions as here,” Makonga declared on local television in May 2023, a month before his death.
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According to the law, companies seeking to displace locals are called to find a new location for the home, provide the same sized housing as the original homes, and assist with the moving process.
For displaced people like Makonga, leaving Gécamines is also difficult. It is one of the few areas in the region with safe modern roads, running water and stable electricity. It has some of the best infrastructure in Kolwezi, the second biggest city in the Katanga region, in southeastern DRC.
Built at the start of the 1940s to house employees of a Congolese state company, Société Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines), the Gécamines neighborhood is owned by its namesake public cobalt and copper company. Gécamines, the company, holds a minority stake in COMMUS while Zijin Mining Group Ltd, a Chinese mining company, holds the majority of shares.
Due to the global clean energy transition and the electrification of transport, the demand for critical minerals such as copper or cobalt for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase, according to the International Energy Agency. About three-quarters of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC. The Kolwezi mine has an annual production capacity of 120,000 tonnes of copper and 3,000 tonnes of cobalt.
Many African civil society organizations fear that, far from benefiting from their mineral wealth, communities that hold reserves of critical minerals will pay the highest price for their extraction — in the form of evictions. However in Kolwezi, this is already a reality.
Insufficient relocation compensation
The $25,000 offered for each household to relocate is not enough to buy or build another house, which can cost anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000, according to protesters featured in local media. This amount, however, has not been confirmed by other sources.
COMMUS has proposed “an average of $80,000” offer per household, according to their lawyer; including in it the value of the plot, the house and the furniture.
The discrepancy in reported figures is evidence of the lack of transparency, files and receipts created in the process, on the part of multiple parties: local government, the mining company and displaced people. A local government official who wishes to remain anonymous, stated, without evidence, that COMMUS paid some residents up to $100,000.
On Makonga’s part, he waited in his house surrounded by the wall that limits the COMMUS mine until a payment agreement of $90,000 was reached. He only received $3,000 to organize his move, a condition he had to meet before the mining company would pay the remainder. But Makonga died in his home on June 3, 2023, and his wife and six children, who remained in the half-destroyed house due to mining activities in the nearby quarry, are frightened about the uncertain cause of Makonga’s death.
Despite Makonga’s passing, his case will be resolved, and his family restored to their rights, assures Jean-Pierre Kalenga, the relocation commission president and Lualaba local government commissioner in charge of land affairs.
“We regret his death. However, the commission did everything to ensure that his situation was resolved,” he remarked.
In its September 2023 report, Amnesty International reported that local authorities did not organize real public consultations or consider evicted peoples’ complaints. According to the report, they requested fair compensation payments in writing, which would take into account the true value of the properties they were forced to leave. The Chinese mining company has also not published an environmental impact report, as required by law.
Despite the dispute, COMMUS’ lawyer still reports that “the relocation is going well.” The payments made to former residents, Patrick Ilunga explains to Mongabay, came “after the investigation conducted by the relocation commission, which included government officials and civil society groups.”
During the 2010s, Gécamines, the neighborhood, had an estimated population of 38,000 people, including Gécamines mining employees who received exclusive rights to the houses they occupied. Today, the district population has been reduced by approximately 2,000 inhabitants.
Settling into new neighborhoods proves difficult
While COMMUS and the relocation commission are satisfied with their work, some displaced people, like Edmond Chansa, 60, are not satisfied with their new living arrangements. He now lives in an unfinished house in Joli-Site on the eastern outskirts of Kolwezi and lacks several basic services. He says that COMMUS and the relocation commission denied their resettlement request.
“It was an outright refusal. We were paid to leave, and the arbitrary amount of money we were paid was chosen without consulting us,” explains Chansa. He used his $70,000 payment to buy land and build a house, which he is now struggling to complete with the rest of the funds.
“We have no electricity or water here. I have to spend 2,500 Congolese francs [around $1] per day for 10 containers of water, while in Gécamines water is easily available,” complains Chansa.
Abandoning the noise, air pollution
But Céline Lenge, a 58-year-old mother of eight children, plans to leave the area and is awaiting relocation. She has lived about 100 meters (328 feet) from the boundary separating residential areas from COMMUS since she was 17. Life near the mining quarry is punctuated by permanent environmental disturbances: dust, earthquakes and collapsing or cracking walls.
COMMUS has built a wall limiting quarry access in a bid to prevent pollution. Kolwezi saw another wall emerge, one in 2017 in Kasulo, where the Chinese company Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) bought an artisanal quarry in the middle of Kasulo and displaced 600 families. Similarly, the wall was not enough to limit air pollution caused by quarry dust. Destroyed private buildings are also generally not accounted for.
Building walls is not enough, according to local Lualaba leader Schadrack Mukad. He is calling for all displaced people exposed to these dangers to be rehomed safely as Gécamines and Musonoie can no longer guarantee the right to a healthy environment. Common problems in these areas include; pollution and noise from mining explosions, atmospheric pollution caused by rock explosions releasing dust, and damage to homes.
“Residents do not risk staying outside or hanging their clothes out to dry,” explains Schadrack Mukad. Moreover, he indicates, “the water table in the Gécamines and Musonoie districts has gotten so deep that you have to go 100 or 150 meters [328 to 492 feet] down to find water.”
Geologist Jean-Pierre Kamb says that this pollution exposure is no longer just a small matter of concern. “It’s not just baseless fears. This is real damage that is being done, even to those not working in the mining sector.”
It is still uncertain if the residents will be relocated or if they will receive compensation, although some, like Céline Lenge, are clearly ready to leave.
‘The schools and hospital belong to Gécamines’
The nearby mining quarry has also disrupted childrens’ education and threatens a local hospital. Having already lost one school, some kids cross over an old, dangerous quarry to attend another in the neighboring town of Musonoie. Masega primary school, for example, was neither spared from mining damage nor relocated elsewhere. Here, time stood still on November 11, 2021. Poignantly, on a blackboard in the 5th grade classroom, the last grammar lesson focused on the French conjugation of the verb “to finish.”
Close to the current limit of the mine, the Gécamines-owned HPK hospital is also at risk and could disappear.
Approached for a comment, COMMUS lawyer Patrick Ilunga responded to criticism about destroyed infrastructure used by the public: “The destroyed schools belong to Gécamines and if anyone should care it is neither us, COMMUS, nor you, journalists. Only Gécamines, COMMUS’ boss, should be worrying about it.”
Lualaba local land official, Jean-Pierre Kalenga, also remains vague: “my role is to ensure that the relocation conditions have been respected.”
Contradictory plans all ‘in progress’
About ten kilometers (about 6 miles) from Kolwezi’s commercial center is the village of Tshabula, a quiet and peaceful area until COMMUS’ arrival in 2015. The village was previously known for monks training in its Salvatorian Catholic monastery. In total, about 400 households are affected by mining plans, and waiting for relocation payments is proving stressful.
“Once everyone gets their money, we can go and build our new village,” explains the Tshabula leader. This plan, however, is contradicted by what officials of the mining company have in mind.
“We are going to build Tshabula 2, although most people in Tshabula want compensation payments,” observed COMMUS lawyer Patrick Ilunga.
COMMUS’ mining activity is continuing apace, notes the president of the relocation commission, Jean-Pierre Kalenga. The two factors combined, speed and contradictory approaches, is leading to an unconcerned approach to the relocation process. This is all the more so because, to date, no one has indicated precisely where Tshabula 2 will be built and how. Everything still seems to be “in progress.”
“We want relocation to be done better in Tshabula. COMMUS will have to set up [Tshabula] somewhere else,” commented Mr. Kalenga.
This vagueness, however, seems to suit some residents, including those coming from Kolwezi. People are quickly moving in to newly built houses in Tshabula. The strategy is building “big, beautiful, sustainable” houses in the village, in order to receive higher relocation compensation when they have to leave, says an anonymous local government official.
Moving the Salvatorian monks, who have lived in large buildings in Tshabula since the 1980s, seems to be the most controversial relocation in the region. It is a significant investment, and the issue can sometimes strain relations due to agreements between the Congolese state and the Vatican on the church’s heritage.
“My responsibility is to support the relocation. I am not the one who takes care of the archiving or discusses what will become of the Monastery. I am not even from the ministry of mines which take precedence over land in the event of conflicts,” replied Jean-Pierre Kalenga. It is, however, up to the same state the land commissioner represents that is responsible for dealing with cultural or religious aspects.
The monks have declined to comment on the relocation process.