Mining Menaces Itombwe Nature Reserve

Categories: Journal no. 66, Mining for mineral resources, Conflicts, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Itombwe, Grauer's Gorilla

Semi-industrialised gold dredging operation in the Elila River at the edge of Itombwe Nature Reserve (© Fergus O'Leary Simpson)

In the remote Itombwe Nature Reserve in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), mining increasingly threatens nature conservation efforts. Mining activities are widespread in and around the reserve and often take place under the protection of armed actors. This has negative impacts on biodiversity conservation and has proved an intractable challenge for the Congolese conservation agency (ICCN) and its partners. In field research funded by a grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), we set out to discover why.

The reserve is home to numerous rare and threatened species, including eastern lowland (Grauer's) gorillas, eastern chimpanzees, and a variety of bird and amphibian species. Its mountain forests represent one of the most biodiverse regions on the African continent. The reserve is located in a region long impacted by violent conflict. Up until today, various armed groups use its secluded forests as a hideout and rear operating base. The Congolese government's military also has bases around the reserve. Both state and non-state armed actors are engaged in illicit resource extraction, including mining.

The reserve overlaps with deposits of various minerals, including gold, coltan and cassiterite. Based on our field research, we discovered three types of mining taking place in the region. Large-scale industrial mining is organized by international companies that use heavy machinery to extract mineral ores. Semi-industrial mining is based on intermediate technologies such as river dredges, pumps and small mechanical excavators. Artisanal mining is practised informally, by local communities, usually with basic hand-held tools.


Overlaps between mining and conservation 

Itombwe Nature Reserve was established in 2006. However, mining activities have taken place in South Kivu, where the reserve is located, since the colonial era. For instance, the Belgian mining company Minière des Grands-Lacs (MGL) began exploiting minerals in the 1930s, including in several sites that are now inside the reserve's boundaries.

Fourteen state-issued mining permits currently overlap with the reserve's limits. Three of these are exploitation permits, nine are research permits, and two are artisanal mining zones (ZEAs). The Canadian company Banro previously owned five of these permits. Looking to expand its business in 2018, Banro even prospected for gold in six sites inside the reserve. However, after significant international backlash, the company decided not to mine these sites. Following persistent insecurity around its mining concessions, Banro sold off all its assets in DRC to Strategos Group in November 2022. Depending on investment conditions, industrial mining operations could therefore still menace the reserve in the future.

Recent years have witnessed a surge of semi-industrial mining in the region of South Kivu. Chinese companies established semi-industrial gold mining operations at the southeastern edge of the reserve in 2019. They established mining sites in the Elila River using boat dredges as well as open-pit mines with mechanized diggers. Artisanal gold and cassiterite mining are even more widespread in the region. Our research identified as many as 40 artisanal mining sites inside the reserve's boundaries, although the total figure is likely much higher. Some of these sites host significant numbers of miners. For instance, the large cassiterite mine of Zombe draws in up to 1,000 miners at a busy time of year.

Mining activities at all scales have significant negative environmental impacts on the reserve. Large areas of forest are cut down to prepare landscapes for mining. For instance, since operations started in 2019, the semi-industrial mining site at the edge of the reserve in Kitumba has generated about 82 hectares of tree cover loss. This deforestation severely fragments habitats for the reserve's wildlife. In turn, the process of mineral extraction overturns soils, uproots plant life and despoils landscapes. These impacts are further compounded by the construction of new roads which generates yet more deforestation and encourages in-migration to remote areas. This fuels additional logging, hunting and agricultural expansion and human habitation in the vicinity of the reserve.

Mining not only affects the land. It also disrupts local water sources and river ecosystems. All forms of mining typically involve the use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide that are toxic to the environment and human health. When mineral extraction takes place through river dredging, water quality is degraded and fish stocks diminish. This also undermines local people's access to clean water and other essential livelihood resources.

An intractable problem

Despite it being illegal and causing substantial damage to biodiversity and ecosystems, what makes mining inside the reserve so pervasive? Here, we identify three factors.

First, there does not appear to be much political will to deal with the issue. The Ministry of Mines has issued several mining concessions that overlap with the reserve, which makes them appear legal. Given that mining permits have the potential to bring in significant revenues for different actors within the Ministry of Mines and other state agencies, it is unlikely they would suspend them and cede control over the territory to ICCN. Thus, competition between the Ministry of Mines and ICCN makes it difficult to invalidate the mining permits inside the reserve, or to find a compromise.

In conjunction with this, high-level state agents are themselves implicated in the illicit extraction and trade of minerals from within and around the reserve. This is apparent in the involvement of the national army in the protection of semi-industrial mining operations in the region since 2019. The units posted to protect mining sites organize illegal charcoal and timber production in the reserve, further impacting biodiversity conservation efforts.

Second, ICCN lacks the resources to end mining in the reserve. The Itombwe Reserve covers over 5,000 km² of mountainous forests isolated from regional road infrastructure. Yet, with around just 30 eco-guards, it is only present in a small western part of the reserve. At this point, ICCN is unable to increase the number and coverage of patrols due to increasing budgetary constraints. Law enforcement is further hampered by the fragmentation of government authority and control around the reserve.

Part of the reason artisanal mining activities have been so difficult to stop is that they take place under the protection of non-state armed actors. Several artisanal mining sites located inside the reserve are under the direct control of armed groups or occasionally pay taxes to those groups. Conflict over mining sites further restricts ICCN's activities. For example, when a non-state armed group carried out a raid on a Chinese semi-industrial mining operation in Kitumba, the ICCN guards posted in the village were forced to flee the site and relocate to another area.

Third, artisanal mining can bring significant economic opportunities, certainly when compared to smallholder agriculture. It is an important livelihood activity for thousands of people living around the reserve and is therefore difficult to prevent or shut down without sparking conflict and resistance. This is particularly the case where artisanal sites are located in the zones of influence of non-state armed groups that operate inside the reserve. For instance, the large cassiterite mine of Zombe is frequently referred to as the economic 'lung' of Basile Chiefdom. An artisanal miner described how, "Without Zombe, there is no life!" Unless Zombe's miners are presented with alternative livelihood opportunities to mining, they are likely to be very reluctant to discontinue their activities. Although the mine is not located directly in armed group territory, the members of armed groups do occasionally impose informal taxes on the site, making its containment all the more challenging.

Reducing the threat of mining

How then to deal with mining in the reserve? We believe different types of mining require different responses. With regard to industrial and semi-industrial mining, there is an urgent need to bring together and harmonize the laws and state institutions that regulate the allocation of mining permits and protected areas. Mining permits that overlap with the reserve itself should be cancelled and any mining activities taking place in the vicinity of the reserve should be monitored closely. In turn, the national army must stop enabling and providing protection to companies operating illegally in the vicinity of the reserve. This fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the state in enforcing conservation regulations and can spark conflict with local people who are affected by these operations.

When it comes to artisanal mining, the situation is more complicated. This is due to its importance to local livelihoods and the threat of reprisals from non-state armed groups if mines are shut down. However, an innovative approach has been taken in Itombwe Nature Reserve, whereby artisanal mining activities have been allowed to continue in the reserve's multiple-use zone. This approach has limited conflict between the reserve authorities and the local populations, certainly when compared to other protected areas such as Kahuzi-Biega National Park where a more forceful approach has been taken. Still, there is a danger some of the reserve's mining sites could expand into the reserve's core conservation area, where mining is forbidden.

It will therefore be important to properly delimit and regulate existing sites to limit environmental impacts. To do so, increased patrols of park guards will be required to try to stop mining creeping from old sites into new areas. In conjunction with this, alternative livelihood strategies should be developed to encourage both miners and the members of non-state armed groups to incrementally start to leave the reserve.

To conclude, while silver bullets clearly do not exist, there are several options available to reduce the threat of mining in Itombwe Nature Reserve. But as long as the population living around the reserve remains poor and economic incentives favour extraction rather than conservation, it is unlikely the threat from mining will go away anytime soon. This requires not just a commitment to conservation, but also a commitment to tackle endemic poverty, insecurity, and the involvement of state and non-state armed actors in mineral extraction. Ultimately, the success of all solutions depends on genuine commitment on the part of the Congolese government and sustainable funding from its international partners. Without this support, mining will continue to menace conservation long into the future.

Fergus O'Leary Simpson and Pascal Chakirwa Zirimwabagabo

This work was supported by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) [grant number G-2001-22755].