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Cobalt heart torn from Congo

THE cobalt-rich mineral resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being exploited to the detriment of the country’s environment and to the financial benefit of African leaders of state.

Part of the metal funds are allegedly financing civil war in eastern Congo.

According to reliable informed sources, about 2,000 tonnes of high-grade cobalt ore worth an estimated $70 million are being illegally extracted in the southern DRC province of Shaba.

Several cobalt-rich deposits with grades of up to 6 per cent cobalt – located near Likasi and Lubumbashi in southern Shaba province – are being mined using free digging methods by thousands of peasants.

The mineralised ore is bagged and transported to two Lubumbashi plants for processing or trucked south through Zambia and Zimbabwe to South Africa for refining into London Metal Exchange-quality metal.

At one open cut site, 1,000 people mine by hand the orebody at the rate of 40 tonnes per month, bag the cobalt-rich salt and transport it to Lubumbashi for processing.

The informed source said ore was processed locally in Lubumbashi by two South African-owned operators who were indiscriminately polluting land and rivers with the residue tailings from operations.

“They don’t care. It’s just a matter of raping the natural mineral resources to the detriment of the environment and the DRC economy,” the source said.

At least three major nickel-cobalt operating plants in South Africa are processing the ore and a further plant is now proposed to cater for the developing lucrative trade.

The clandestine operations are apparently being undertaken with the full knowledge and cooperation of DRC President Laurent Kabila and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is allegedly earning the lion’s share of the estimated $70 million produced annually from the operation.

The funds are believed to be paid into Swiss bank accounts by Mr Mugabe, whose hold on politics in Zimbabwe is said to be somewhat tenuous.

The 1996-97 Minerals Handbook of statistics and data on the world metal industry says the DRC has reserves of 2,000 million tonnes of contained cobalt at about 4 per cent to 5 per cent cobalt , which is 50.4 per cent of the world’s supply.

The indiscriminate exploitation of cobalt-rich ore and especially the extent of pollution has angered some metallurgical consultants.

In 1991, the International Development Association approved a credit of US$12.4 million to improve the country’s rural road network. However, the US Congress, concerned about illegal corruption and human rights violations, voted to cut all direct military and economic aid to the DRC.

Mr Mugabe has committed his army of Zimbabwean troops to the civil war in eastern DRC to brace Mr Kabila’s fight against Congelese rebels headed by general Celestin Ilunga and supported by Rwanda and Burundi allies.

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