NYAMURHALE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, May 2012
Demand for gold has been booming, but at present, the gold industry is concerned that too much of its origins cannot be traced. New international efforts are now underway to clean up the industry and make the supply chain more transparent. At present the black market for gold is flourishing. It is easy to smuggle and melt down. A new American law is focusing on one specific area – the Democratic Republic of Congo which produces what are known as ‘conflict minerals.’ The law requires any American company that believes it might be using minerals from there to register with the government. Many of the metals are used in our every-day gadgets such as phones and computers. Humphrey Hawksley has been to the Congo to look at the bottom end of the supply chain.
Two young men clamber up from inside a deep vertical mine shaft. Their faces are caked with grit. Their hands cling onto the rock face and strung their backs are heavy sacks
From far below comes the echo of hammers of the men still down there.
Espoir and Zemao are both twenty years old. They drop the sacks and collapse on the ground with a mixture of exhaustion and excitement.
Zemao is recently married, and Espoir hopes to get engaged soon.
They’re on the hunt for the big find.
Zemao thrusts his hand into his sack, brings out a chunk of rock and smashes it against the mountain side, breaking it in two. They both examine closely.
Espoir points, his face breaking into a smile. Zemao nods and brushes his finger along a yellow line that runs through the jagged surface. They stare at each other, laughing. Then they slap their hands together in the air.
“Is it gold?” I ask.
“Yes, for sure,” says Espoir.
“We don’t know. We’ll have to go down and see.”
The mine has a narrow, almost concealed entrance. As we emerge, a miner throws a stone at a young boy, about ten, sitting on top of a nearby hill. He scampers away. A group of children just below us run, too, as a stones pelt towards them.
The miners don’t want us to see the children.
We head off down a steep, precarious path. The arid, dusty landscape becomes covered in lush undergrowth. A river is at the bottom. As we approach a furtive young man in uniform, carrying a weapon, sees us and melts away behind a hut.
This is the gold mine of Nyamurhale has recently been certified as illicit – partly because of what we just saw, children work here and armed soldiers are around to pick up a cut of the profits.
Gold from mines like this is a conflict mineral – in that over the years its profits have been used to fund militia groups in wars that have killed millions.
The river area is a hive of activity. People are shouting instructions. There’s a constant banging as rocks are broken up. Water has been diverted for panners to separate off the gold.
Zemao and Espoir’s rocks are broken up, then we head down to a, muddy pool. Panners dip in a shovel and skilfully swirl water back and forth, until a man shouts: ‘Ora. Ora.’
In a crevice at the shovel’s edge is a tiny cluster of gold flakes, barely enough to cover the top of a thumb. Zemao and Espoir are beaming.
It’s not the big find, but, by their look, not bad for a day’s work.
A group of men in snappy clothes hear the shouts and come over. They carry wads of money, scales to check weight and phones for the latest prices.
These are the middle man who propel gold from here on its journey up its supply chain.
“How much is it worth?” I ask.
At this point the story becomes secretive and murky. No-one wants to say how much they pay, what they earn and how much goes for protection money and bribes.
Because this gold can no longer be legitimately sold – meaning that it immediately joins an international black market. Yet – still – it could end up in our as gold bars in bank vaults underwriting the wealth of nations, or in our wedding rings or lap tops.
The big companies say they do their best, but they can’t guarantee 100 per cent where their minerals originate.
The smuggling routes run through neighbouring countries such as Burundi and Uganda. The UN estimates that 85 per cent of Uganda’s gold could be undocumented. Much goes onto the United Arab Emirates where it’s melted down and bought often by Chinese companies that use it to make our gadgets.
About a billion dollars worth of gold a year comes from the eastern Congo arguably the most war-ravaged area in the world.
Back in the main city of Bukavu, Fidel Bafilemba, from a campaigning group the Enough Project, says even though the gold price is booming, miners are still struggling.
“Who’s making the money?” he asks.
He shows me the array of what he says are conflict minerals inside a lap top, a phone and other gadgets. He picks up a computer hard drive where gold in the socket is easily identifiable.
“The money’s not here. It all goes upstream in London and America. That’s why everyone should say ‘No’ we’re going to put an end to this. We’re going to make this business more viable. More human.”