By Daniel Litvin – This article appeared in the Mining Journal publication, Mining Environmental Management
Foreign miners are showing renewed interest in the Congo – how they conduct themselves will help determine the fate of a nation.
Foreign interference and resource extraction are not the only causes of the miserable, war-torn history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) but they have a lot to answer for. From King Leopold’s notoriously brutal quest for rubber in the late nineteenth century, to the disastrous Katanga secession in the 1960s, in which foreign mining interests were implicated, to more recent conflicts paid for by mineral revenues, resource extraction in the country has a dubious record to say the least.
Now, with relative peace having broken out across much of the country, new mining legislation in place, and a new government formed following the first free election in decades, foreign mining investment appears set to flood in again. As well as various smaller firms staking claims, a number of world’s biggest mining companies are also now stepping up their activities in the country with some already considering big investments. The DRC’s enormous untapped resource wealth means that mining investment has the potential to drive economic growth, and government revenues, for decade to come.
So will mining this time create development, stability and underpin a general revival in the DRC’s fortunes? Or will it perpetuate conflict, corruption, human rights abuses and poverty? In reality either outcome is possible – and, in what is likely to be a test case for the industry’s sustainability efforts, the outcome depends at least in part on how the foreign firms conduct themselves.
In the balance
Without doubt, mining has the potential – under the right conditions – to help drive broad-based development and poverty reduction: witness the success of at least some mineral-dependant economies such as Chile, Botswana and Australia. Success in this respect also clearly depends to a large degree on factors outside companies’ direct control, such as the way governments spend revenues, both at a national and regional level, and on the willingness of politicians to work together for the national good rather than to fight over the spoils.
But mining firms can no longer, if they ever could, claim that this broader environment is entirely beyond their control. They now have at their disposal a growing array of best practice, internationally-supported, tools and initiatives to help them, for example, to promote community development, reduce the risk of conflict, guard again human rights abuses, and generally to try to ensure that the potentially huge fiscal revenues brought by mining turn out to be economically and socially constructive rather than destructive. Examples of such initiatives include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the Communities and Small Scale Mining project, the best practices and research developed by the International Council on Mining & Metals in this area (including on revenue management), and also tools used by individual companies (such as to assess conflict risk).
Companies, large and small, need to implement or support such initiatives, collaborating through industry groups wherever necessary (which can minimise the burden on any one company), and also working jointly with those outside the industry so as to manage mining’s broader impacts. The latter should include diplomatically nudging state and other public bodies in the right direction. And companies need to push this whole agenda with real energy, rather than just to provide material for their sustainability and CSR reports (assuming they produce these). For no less than the eventual fate of a nation – and thereby the long-term stability of their investments – may be at stake.