From Extraction to Final Product: Following the Artisanal Gold Production Network in the Eastern DR Congo

Words: Ben Radley
Photographs: Robert Carrubba

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo tens of thousands of rural families have experienced a long-term decline in their on-farm subsistence capacity due to government policy, war and demographic pressures. After agriculture, artisanal mining is now the second most important livelihood in the eastern DRC despite the inherent dangers of the work.

Between 2013 and 2015, the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) visited 1,615 artisanal mines across the region, recording the presence of 239,700 miners. Around 80 percent of these miners were working in gold mines, and around two-thirds were working in mines affected by the presence of the national army or a non-state armed group. Often, armed groups levy a tax or demand tribute in return for ‘protection’.

While much attention has been paid in recent years to the links between artisanal mining and conflict in the eastern DRC, less is known about the labour and production process itself. This photo story documents the process, following Congolese gold from its extraction at a rural artisanal gold mine in South Kivu Province, through processing and trade, to its transformation into a final product in the provincial capital, Bukavu.

1. Miners relax outside a mine shaft. Miners’ incomes vary greatly but are generally better than rural alternatives, especially if they own little land. The rural poor in DRC have flocked to the mines as a means to provide for themselves and their families as best they can. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
2. Two miners stand inside the entrance of the mineshaft they work. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
3. A mine shaft is under early construction. Shaft owners, often financed by a gold trader, can invest anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 during this stage of building a mine. It can take several weeks or even months until the first gold is struck. Miners call this period ‘the suffering’. The two miners digging this shaft asked to not be photographed. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
4. A shaft construction and maintenance technician sits in front of his timber store. These workers are highly sought after in the mines. They are often slightly older than most miners, and many learnt their trade working for industrial mining companies during the Mobutu era. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
5. A machine specialist on his way to another day at the mines. Many of the shafts can reach distances of more than 50 metres underground. At that depth, oxygen machines are needed to circulate air. Machine specialists rent-out the oxygen machines to mine owners for around $10 per day, and provide on-site maintenance if the machines break down. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
6. A shaft manager connects the oxygen supply hose to his oxygen machine. In April 2017, a nineteen-year old miner at this site died from asphyxiation. A three-day mourning was held, during which time no-one worked at the mine. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
7. Miners share a joke at the entrance to a shaft. Trust is a key component to running a profitable venture. At this mine, most shaft workers are close or extended family members of the shaft owners. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017. A camera flash was used to brightly illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
8. Miners are seen inside a shaft with their headlamps. An unused oxygen hose runs flat through the mineshaft on the floor, providing a comparatively soft elbow rest. Anywhere from five to 100 people can work inside one mineshaft, depending on its size. Each team is managed by one shaft manager (usually the owner), an assistant manager and a secretary. Shaft managers at this mine recorded profits of $11,000 to $21,000 over the last year. In 2016, the DRC’s gross national income per capita was $420. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017. A miner’s lamp was used to illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.

 

9. Deep down, a miner chisels gold ore out of the earth. The shaft team is composed mainly of excavators and bag porters. Miners spend six to eight hours down the shafts each day. The work is physically demanding. At this mine, around 200 kilograms of ore must be excavated to extract one gram of gold. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017. A miner’s lamp was used to illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
10. Deep in a gold mine, a miner uses his headlamp by hand to look through a narrow gap between the ceiling of an already tight shaft and the ore bags he has been dragging toward the surface, that now block his way out. In some shafts, the tunnels are particularly narrow and difficult to navigate. Dragging ore through these shafts is strenuous. During the wet season, shafts can collapse under the weight of the rainwater absorbed by the earth above them. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017. A camera flash was used to brightly illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
11. A miner maneuvers through a narrow tunnel junction, as his colleague waits in line. Bags of ore he has been heaving through the mine, in the direction of the mineshaft entrance, are in front of him. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017. A camera flash was used to brightly illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.

 

12. A miner stretches to pull a bag of gold ore up a shaft tunnel. The bags are awkward to shift and heavy, each weighing around 30 kilograms. This is one of the reasons why many miners tend to be young. Older miners complain frequently of back problems. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017. A camera flash was used to brightly illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
13. A miner hauls bags of ore through the shaft he works. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017. A miner’s lamp was used to illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
14. Deep within the mine he works, a miner makes a face as he slides around a splintered wooden joist while moving toward the mine entrance, still some 50 meters above. Even during the dry season, shaft collapses pose a risk. This support beam splintered off in-between entering and exiting the shaft. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017. A miner’s lamp was used to illuminate the mineshaft for this photo.
15. Two oxygen hoses show the route back to the surface, where wooden beams, to be made into supports, are illuminated by sunlight seeping in at the mine entrance. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017.
16. Three miners outside their shafts. Depending on the shaft manager, some miners are paid in bags of gold ore, some in cash, and some in a combination of both. Those paid in bags are often obliged to sell any gold they find to their shaft manager. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
17. A child ties up a bag at the entrance to a shaft. Schools close in June, and during the holidays many children join their families working at the mine. This can help pay their school fees and provide for the family. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
18. A bag porter loads up his cargo. Known as ‘motards’ (or ‘taximen’) by the miners, these porters work independently from the shaft teams. They are employed by shaft managers to carry the bags of gold ore to an area for processing, which can be nearby or up to one kilometre away. The largest shafts produce around 50 bags per day. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
19. A bag porter carries his load downhill from the mine for processing. The porters are paid 500 Congolese francs (around $0.35 at current Eastern Congo exchange rates) per bag by the shaft managers, and can make up to several dollars per day. They are among the lowest earners at the mine and, at this site, are often those who have migrated from other areas. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
20. A bag porter is on his way down the hill, while others can be seen headed uphill to two different processing locations. In February 2017, shaft managers reduced the payment per bag to 400 Congolese francs. The porters went on a three-day strike, forcing the shaft managers to back down. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
21. A woman carries water up the hill to a nearby processing site. The lowest paid workers at the mine are the women who carry 20 litre water containers to processing sites where the gold ore is sieved. They earn 250 Congolese francs (around $0.20 at current Eastern Congo exchange rates) per container. They are often divorcees or widows who lost their land and assets following their divorce from or death of their husbands. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
22. Women carry water up the hill, holding onto their sugar cane, which they snack on as they work. Behind them are some of the mine’s restaurants, hairdressers and trading stalls. Some of the miners also live permanently on the site, returning to family at the weekends or once a month. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
23. A telephone repairman serves a client on a ledge. Most miners are able to acquire mobile phones through their income, and mobile phone repair and charging are in high demand on the site. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
24. Children watch a film at one of the on-site cinema houses. Films can be heard blaring out of speakers when approaching the mine, as cinema owners try to entice people to pay the entrance fee. Martial arts films are the most popular, followed by Hollywood action movies. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
25. A child sells peanuts at the cinema house. Many of the younger children at the mine are engaged in secondary activities, selling food or working in restaurants. Generally, it is only the older children who work down the shafts. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
26. A man deep fries imported flour to make fried doughballs. Costing only 100 Congolese francs each (around $0.10), doughballs are one of the more popular snacks at the mine site. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
27. A restaurant owner and his nephew take a pause after their lunchtime rush. Rice and beans is the staple daily meal for miners; one plate costs 500 Congolese francs (around $0.35). Energy drinks, mostly imported from Tanzania, are also popular. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
28. Two waitresses await customers. Miners spend a portion of their income on-site. Many women serving food and beverages in restaurants also work as sex workers. As with the female water carriers, restaurant workers are mostly widowed, divorced or unmarried. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
29. Barbers cut and style clients hair in an on-site salon. Miners and other site residents choose from a variety of hairstyles; many cut options are advertised on posters in the salon. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
30. A multitude of men at work at a processing site, where the ore is sieved and ground to extract the gold. Once the bags of ore have been delivered by the porters, the process of extracting the gold from the ore begins. Extraction is conducted by shaft team members, specialist processors, or individual miners processing their own bags that have been received as partial or full payment for their work. First, the ore is mixed with water in the plastic basins to remove the shale and mudstone. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 15th, 2017.
31. A man kneels in front of a rock slab while breaking down gold ore with a grinding stone. Next, the remaining ore is manually ground down between two rocks to release the gold. This is a slow and arduous process; one plastic basin can take several hours to work through. Water carriers and ore porters are visible moving up and down the mine hill, in the background. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
32. Gold ore being manually processed with a grinding stone on a large slab of rock. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
33. A man sieves ore for gold. Once the ore has been sufficiently ground down, it is then put back into a plastic basin and mixed with water. Often, mercury is added at this stage. Mercury forms a compound with the gold, and because of its higher density, sinks to the bottom of the basin. The remaining ore collects in large sand-bagged water pits, and is purchased from shaft managers for further processing by specialist teams. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
34. A man pours ore onto a sluice. The fine ore purchased by specialist sluice teams is mixed with water and poured onto sluices. Due again to its high density, the remaining gold sediment sticks to the sluice blanket while the excess flows downhill. The sediment is then gathered and sieved in a plastic basin using mercury, as before. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017.
35. A man stands outside a hut while watching over a processing site where two sluices run side-by-side down the hill. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 12th, 2017.
36. A local on-site trader assesses how much to offer for the gold a client has brought him. The gold and mercury compound seen in the trader’s plastic dish is a dull metallic grey at this point in the treatment process. Many miners will look to sell these small gold quantities – like the one photographed here – to on-site traders. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
37. After a transaction, an on-site trader holds the gold he has just purchased, wrapped in foil, while a miner counts out the money he has received for his labour. Much of the gold is sold in such small quantities, of less than one gram, that it is not weighed at the point of sale. This practice is known, by miners and trades alike, as ‘the lottery’, and traders will negotiate a price based on a visual assessment alone. These ‘lottery’ transactions usually vary between two and ten dollars. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
38. On-site gold traders listen to music on a small hand-held radio while waiting for clients. The local traders are easily distinguishable from the miners by their brown cowboy hats and black briefcases. They can trade up to 100 grams of gold per month, making monthly profits between $100 and $400. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
39. Two traders consider a gold purchase. Most of the traders have been working in the mining area for years. They begin as miners, porters, or processors, and gradually save enough money to embark upon the less hazardous life of a gold trader. Many of the mine’s labourers work with the hope of emulating such a path. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 13th, 2017.
40. Gold is heated off-site over a coal stove using a blower to raise the temperature to around 500 degrees Celsius. This evaporates the mercury and other impurities. The shaft managers accrue larger quantities of gold than the other workers. As a result, they will often sell gold to trading houses such as this one in close proximity to the mine, which buy in bulk, and offer a better price to the seller. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
41. An off-site trader weighs the gold using old Zairian coins and toothpicks; each represents a specific weight. Once the gold has been heated, it is weighed on a set of scales in front of the seller. The buying price is then determined following a complex calculation based on the London Gold Fixing. Previous credit agreements and large quantities can also influence the price. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
42. A trader checks product quality, having heated the gold to rid it of impurities. Mwenga Territory, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 14th, 2017.
43. A privately owned public bus loaded with goods pulls away from a stop, closely followed by a policeman and a tout. Many of the local traders are pre-financed by bigger traders living in the provincial capital, Bukavu. Around once a week, they travel the bumpy and mountainous six-hour journey by bus to sell their gold in the city and then return to the mine site. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 22nd, 2017.
44. A Bukavu-based trader pours nitric acid into a metal bowl containing approximately 23 grams of gold. Once the gold has arrived in Bukavu, it is sold onto a ‘grand negoçiant’ (or ‘big trader’), at a profit margin of a few dollars per gram. As with local traders, big traders often started out working in the mines, and many of them are pre-financed by a patron to whom they must sell their product. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 20th, 2017.
45. A ‘big trader’ and his assistant heat the gold and nitric acid over a hot stove to rid it of any remaining impurities. Big traders deal in far larger quantities of gold than the local traders; they frequently trade more than several kilograms of gold in one week. Their profit margins are smaller than the local traders, but they trade in greater volume, which assures them a much higher income. This varies greatly from trader to trader, from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars profit per month. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 20th, 2017.
46. After heating, the gold is weighed on an electric scale. At this stage, the gold has reached between 92 and 98 percent purity, depending on its origin. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 20th, 2017.
47. A big trader points to a recent purchase in his ledger. Big traders keep meticulous records of their purchases and sales. Here, he indicates a purchase of 2.6 grams for $131.30 made earlier that day. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 20th, 2017.
48. With a gas torch and tongs, a jeweller applies heat to a few grams of gold positioned on a wooden block, in preparation to make a ring for a client. There are about a dozen local jewellers in Bukavu. Their biggest business is in wedding rings. During the peak wedding season, in June and July, this jeweller receives around ten orders for rings per week. Jewellers also make necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
49. After heating, the gold is flattened and stretched, using a rolling mill made locally in Bukavu. Clients can either bring their own gold, or use the gold the jewellers have in stock. Jewellers can make a ring from as little as one gram of gold. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
50. The jeweller wraps the heated and milled gold around a mandrel, to be properly sized for the client’s finger. The two ends of the ring are then heated with a gas torch and joined using a small portion of gold removed and saved for that purpose during the initial heating. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
51. The jeweller begins the process of polishing the inner surface of the ring, using a piece of coarse emery paper wrapped around a thin metal rod. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
52. The finished ring is weighed on an electronic scale. This jeweller charges $5 per gram for his work. Combined with the cost of the gold, this ring cost the client a total of $148.70. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
53. The client wears her newly-made ring on her finger. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
54. Gold is heated to high temperatures in a cylindrical furnace, imported from Italy, at a gold smelter in Bukavu. The big traders in Bukavu look to sell in bulk to the city’s gold smelters, or to smuggle their product to ‘master traders’ in neighbouring countries, so as in part to avoid export taxes. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
55. Once melted, the gold is cast in an ingot mould. After removing the red-hot crucible from the furnace, a worker at the gold smelter pours the molten gold into a graphite ingot mould for casting. Inside the furnace, the gold reaches temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius. It takes around 20 minutes to melt several kilograms of gold. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
56. Gold cools rapidly inside an ingot mould. It takes around 30 seconds for the gold to solidify, once it has been taken from the furnace and poured into a mould. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
57. A freshly cast gold ingot is deposited by a worker on the work surface; the ingot mould remains smoking hot. Around seven kilograms of gold, in total, was cast by the smelter during this burn. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
58. With a wire brush and soapy water, a worker at the gold smelter cleans a gold ingot, to remove the residue left by the graphite mould. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
59. The chemical composition of the gold ingot is checked using an American gold purity testing instrument. Here, the reading reveals that the ingot is composed of 96.41% gold and 3.14% silver, and is 23.14 Karat gold. Most of the ingots produced in Bukavu are smuggled out of the country, ending up in Dubai refineries in the United Arab Emirates. These have the technology to refine the gold to the minimum purity required for international trade in gold bars. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.
60. A gold ingot is weighed on an electronic scale. With a gold content of 4.163 kilograms (or 133.8 troy ounces), this ingot has a market price on the London Fixing of $167,056 on the day it was produced. IPIS (International Peace Information Service) estimates an annual gold production of 11.6 tons, for the sites visited by its researchers in eastern Congo between 2013 and 2015. This is equivalent to around $450 million at today’s prices. In 2015, official artisanal gold exports for the DRC were recorded at 254 kilograms. Bukavu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 21st, 2017.