A Congolese army officer arrived in the village of Kafwaya in June and warned residents not to trespass on a major Chinese copper and cobalt mine next door.
As night fell about a week later, the soldiers moved in.
“They didn’t say anything to anyone,” said Fabien Ilunga, an official in Kafwaya, which is home to thousands of miners eking out a living by illegally exploiting the nearby mineral resources. “The army started to burn down the tarpaulin houses.”
Deploying soldiers to clear tens of thousands of illegal informal miners from mining concessions is a new approach by the authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo, who have wrestled with the problem for decades.
Years of negotiations, alternative employment programs and sporadic interventions by the police have all failed to resolve the issue, which has long been a concern for mining companies sitting on some of the world’s richest mineral deposits.
Using soldiers to keep illegal miners out of vast concessions is likely to be a protracted and potentially violent battle, analysts say.
The United Nations has often accused the Congolese army of human rights abuses.
“Any further involvement of state security forces on mine sites will increase miners’ social risk exposure, which is already probably the biggest risk they face,” said Indigo Ellis, Africa analyst for risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
The Congolese authorities said informal miners are endangering the country’s interests and the army deployments are also meant to prevent the kinds of accidents that killed 43 illegal miners at a Glencore project on June 27.
Since the army deployed in southeastern Congo, thousands of illegal diggers have been pushed off Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company mine and China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fungurume Mine.
In the case of Kafwaya, which is in China Molybdenum’s 1,800 square kilometer TFM concession, local activists said a few days after the army’s initial warning on June 13, soldiers set market stalls ablaze and put up camp nearby.
Less than a week later, soldiers torched dozens of homes belonging to miners and farmers alike and ransacked a school, residents and a local activist group said.
They said the fires severely burned a 3-year-old girl and a 14-month-old boy who were caught inside their homes.
General John Numbi, who led the operation, denied anyone was hurt. Asked later about the specific allegations, he sent a text message that just said,“Let’s be serious.”
China Molybdenum declined to comment. TFM’s deputy general director, Kasongo Bin Nassor, said at a conference last week that the mine had asked the government to do more to secure the concession, but did not request the army be deployed.
He said the mine had been invaded and illegal miners had roughed up TFM employees, damaged machinery and made it hard to access certain parts of the concession.
“Once you have metals that require serious investment, you cannot encourage artisanal mining,” Bin Nassor said.
General Numbi is currently under U.S., EU and Swiss sanctions for reportedly threatening violence against opposition politicians in 2016. He denies any wrongdoing.
The risk of ending up with Congolese cobalt mined by children in dangerous conditions has already prompted some car companies to look for alternatives.