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The deaths of 43 illegal miners at a Glencore facility in Congo last week
highlighted a growing challenge for mining companies struggling to secure sites
from small-scale prospectors digging for cobalt, copper and other minerals.
Many mines span hundreds of square kilometers across rural terrains, a
tantalizing prospect for illegal miners, also known as artisanal miners, who
break into sites in search of metals, some of which end up in electric cars and
But even as last Thursday’s tragedy ratcheted up pressure on companies to
make changes to security and community outreach, industry consultants and
analysts say the task will be difficult given the geographic constraints and
economic challenges faced by the world’s estimated 40 million artisanal miners.
“If people do not have work or an industry, they rely on this activity,”
said Patrick Hickey, a mining industry consultant who has worked at mines
“Where you can fence off the mine site, you do. Where you can’t, you try to
use security. But it is difficult.”
Thursday’s tragedy occurred in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kamoto Copper
Company (KCC) concession, which spans kilometers of flat terrain on the
outskirts of Kolwezi in the southern part of the country. The mine is operated
by Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), a joint venture between Glencore-controlled
Katanga Mining Ltd and the state-owned Gecamines.
Only part of the perimeter, which abuts densely-populated residential areas,
is protected by fencing, giving the local population easy access. Young men can
often be seen just outside the mine carrying shovels and sacks brimming with
freshly-mined ore to nearby trading depots dominated by Chinese buyers.
Private contractors provide most of the security,
but activists say they are often ineffective and easily bought off by the
miners in exchange for ignoring trespassers.
About 2,000 illegal miners regularly access the site, Glencore said.
Congo’s military plans to deploy troops to the KCC site, as it did in late
June when it sent hundreds of soldiers to protect the Tenke copper and cobalt
mine, which is owned by China Molybdenum Co Ltd.
“Security is not a highly-paid profession, so if you can get kickbacks from
turning a blind eye, it can make you money,” said Nicholas Garrett of RCS
Global, a consultancy which audits mining supply chains.
In South Africa, there are an estimated 30,000 illegal miners providing one
of the biggest sources of illicit gold on the continent, with an output of around
14 billion rand ($994.4 million) per year, according to ENACT, which conducts
research into transnational organized crime.
The illegal miners are known in Zulu as
“zama-zamas,” which loosely translates as “those who try to get something from
Sibanye-Stillwater, which spent millions upgrading its security
infrastructure, found almost 1,400 zama-zamas in its Cooke gold mine during a
2017 security sweep.
“We have been continually arresting and trying to control
access to the mines, but it’s been difficult,” said Sibanye-Stillwater
spokesman James Wellsted.
Governments and industry have been setting aside
concessions for artisanal mining, but there are not nearly enough of those
concessions to employ all the artisanal miners, many of whom continue to target
Miners operating in risky jurisdictions, as a result, employ a variety of
measures – ranging from antagonistic to collaborative – to safeguard
Such steps include the use of private security with military or police
backgrounds; fences or other physical structures; regular border patrols; and
even allowing artisanal miners access to certain areas of their operations,
according to presentations from Barrick Gold Corp, Freeport-McMoRan Inc, Kinross
Gold Corp and Newmont Goldcorp Corp.
Even still, artisanal miners slip through surveillance. In 2013, two were
killed at Barrick’s Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea in a confrontation with
police after a large crowd of illegal miners gathered at the mine, Barrick said
at the time.
A spokeswoman for Barrick, the world’s largest gold miner by market value,
declined to comment on the company’s latest security measures.
Delphin Monga, provincial secretary of the UCDT union, which represents KCC
employees, said police fired teargas a few months ago to try to chase off the
diggers, but it was only a temporary deterrence.