The copper eaters

This feature was realised thanks to the support of The Carter Center and received a grant from the PHOTOREPORTER festival of Saint Brieuc, France.


By Caroline Six


Be cautious. These photographs of elegant white horse riders perched on magnificent mounts groomed by black horse keepers do not belong to a collection of colonial archives. On June 30th, 2010, a few months before the opening of the annual Great Show Jumping of Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its independence with great pomp and ceremony. And although the president of the equestrian Circle of Lubumbashi is a rich industrialist of Belgian nationality, whose empire is built on the copper of Katanga, let’s try not to be confused. Money has no color, but it does have a history. And yet the story of Mr Forrest, "viceroy of Katanga" for his denigrators, is far from monochrome.

His equestrian circle is very open. Nobody is explicitly excluded from the big sports gathering which is organized here every year. In reality however, it is very difficult for the vast majority of the Congolese to pass through the hallowed gates into the event. A certain class is required to participate, as well as a certain income. Bearing in mind that in the DRC the three hundred dollar monthly pension for a horse is equivalent to seven times the salary of a state employee, one understands that the Circle has to draw its guests from similar clubs in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, even if it means taking care of all the expenses - including the air transportation of horses. Ultimately, what these highly skilled horsemen have in common is not so much the color of their skin but their fortune, built in Africa. Incidentally, Moses Katumbi, the famous mixed race governor of the province and prosperous businessman, himself presents the rewards to the distinguished winners. The second price of the Derby goes to Malta Forrest, son of the tycoon George Arthur and heir to his grandfather’s group (Entreprise Générale Malta Forrest). "Purely honorary", specify with elegance the organizer of the jumping, "no money is to be gained in the competition".

Through the metal gates of the VIP area, the children of Lubumbashi’s streets can catch glimpses of horses performing some volts. The riders then take off to the entrance of the club, amongst the Hummers and other luxury American SUVs, satisfied to be able to estimate their power, their comfort and their price. Except the employees wearing the black and yellow colors of the George Forrest International group, few Congolese follow the haughty competition. "We mainly come to enjoy the crowd, eat chips and drink. Usually, the CHL - equestrian Circle of Lubumbashi -  is a place for the well heeled who are largely accepting of each other. “It is not very open to the average citizen”, comments Flory, a young student from Lubumbashi, “but, we like the fireworks“. The pyrotechnic event, it is true, temporarily brings riders and locals together. Marking the opening of the great sports show, it dazzles the mining city with its splendor, an enchanting symbol of the astronomical sums of money gained and spent on the African land by the enterprising jet set. "Equitation is a school of life with its fortunes, its hopes, its disappointments. […] an equestrian competition is as an ode for the qualities of our sport: the effort, the courage, the work, the boldness, the confidence and the respect […] ", George Forrest tells us in his opening speech.

For some, those who have learned the lesson given by the horse loving industrialist, the party continues all year long, and most of the time at the Circle. These evenings take place "rather between members", one of the members confides. As an echo to this enthusiastic note of the only site dedicated to tourism in the DRC: "it is the other place heavily frequented by expatriates […]. The indispensable complement to the Belgian Circle where we generally start the evening, winding up at “l’Abreuvoir” (name of the CHL bar, EDITOR'S NOTE). […] ideal for networking within the revellers community."


«The revellers community»

Besides being a temporate region well suited for horse riding and a round of golf, Katanga, the capital of which is Lubumbashi, concentrates most of the vast copper and cobalt resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The province has also had the good fortune to have been spared the conflicts between the regular army and rebel groups. These confrontations have blighted the northeast of the country since the second Congo War (1998-2003) and prevented any industrial development taking place in the Kivus. That is why, thanks to the liberalization of the mining sector which commenced in the late 1990s, numerous foreign investors converged on Katanga. George Forrest however, has always been here. His equestrian club, created in 1966, naturally became the haunt of choice of his followers. Born in the Congo of New Zealand origin, the Belgian industrialist descends from a family settled in the country when it was still the Belgian Congo. At the head of the family company since 1968, he has held it firmly and exclusively since 1986, the beginning of a long path that saw transformation of the construction and civil engineering group into the most powerful actor of the Congolese mining sector.

From the main city roads of the province which he completely rehabilitated to the avenue which bears his name in Lubumbashi, the importance of this man cannot be overlooked in Katanga. Benefactor for some, looter for the others … such a success does not go without its share of criticisms and rumors, among which it is very difficult to tell fact from fiction. And even if today the septuagenarian lion has lost his bite, his legend and his mysteries remain, and forever leave their mark on the history of copper production in the Congo.

In a sector with particularly opaque rules, "the first investor and the first private employer of the DRC", as he likes to remind his detractors, has always been at the center of multiple controversies. At the forefront of these controversies has been his relationship with successive governments. An excellent swimmer in troubled waters, Forrest knew how to survive the country’s multiple political crises without ever stopping prospering. His success reveals for many an art of the manipulation and the corruption in the service of predatory projects. In a lawless State where the attribution of mining concessions is inevitably decided by the authorities, nobody is ready to believe that the Forrest group was able to obtain its sizable contracts without distributing substantial bribes.

The second protagonist of this saga is the state-owned mining company inherited from the Belgians, Gécamines. Once a former flagship of the Congolese economy, today it is bankrupt. In spite of its extraordinary potential, something of a cash cow from which the state made half of its income and eighty-five percent of its export revenue in the late 1980s, it did not resist the predatory management of Marshal-President Mobutu. At the beginning of the 1990s it was left for dead, then sold piece by piece in joint ventures from the early 2000s. It is on its rubble that Forrest built his empire.

Did Forrest suck the lifeblood out of the most lucrative sectors of Gécamines or, on the contrary, did he save what he could by reinvesting capital in the deeply indebted company? Both hypotheses hold water. And even if the group did not hire all the former Gécamines miners (more than thirty three thousand before its ruin), it still provides a living to fifteen thousand employees. They do not complain about their "good father", because George Forrest took on, in his own way, the paternalistic torch that characterized the Belgian management. Slowly standing in for the failing State, he builds schools, rehabilitates the ruined hospitals built by the public company under the colonization, and offers health care and fringe benefits to his employees.

What about all the others, the hundreds of thousands "independent" miners of the Katanga province? As with ninety percent of the Congolese population, they operate in the informal economy and survive by trying to gather what they can from their native land.


«The Other World»

During the social crisis that struck the country in the late 1990s, becoming a small scale miner became an alternative for thousands of desperate unemployed people, teachers, graduates, and former miners of the Gécamines who had accumulated several years of unpaid salaries. Without social welfare or fringe benefits, armed with simple pickaxes and shovels, they continue today to exploit what they can from the exhausted Gécamines quarries, always trying to discover new sites, despite the fatal dangers they are exposed to every day. These two hundred thousand men, along with thirty thousand children and many women, are chased away from one quarry to the next by the extension of the concessions sold to multinationals, relegated to twenty-four zones authorized by the Ministry of Mines. It is in these very zones that the state recently introduced a system of partnership between the miners and small companies which have exclusive rights to the purchase of the ore. With the objective of improving the working conditions of the miners and to create a middle class in this rich mining province, this regulation of the small scale mining sector tends in reality to deprive them more and more of their independence and of the real value of their work, with the small companies setting prices they have no choice but to accept.

Miles away from their families, near the authorized quarries, many live permanently in hastily built camps. About thirty kilometers from Kolwezi for example, in the camp of Lualaba, more than five thousand miners are crammed in under an entanglement of orange tarpaulins and a continuous cloud of dust. There also, in agreement with the government, the Lebanese company Misa Mining imposed a partnership on the miners in exchange for the use of mechanical equipment to help them reach the valuable ore usually found between 30 and 40 meters deep. In return, it has exclusive rights to the purchase of the ore. This allows the company to set the prices without any competition. “We offer a price and if you are not happy with it, forget it" summarizes a Lebanese buyer.

"When Misa turned up, it created disorder with the ‘creuseurs’ (independent miners)”,  a young miner called France explains. “But the city hall told us to calm down. I had a well, but they said that we were obliged to have a 'boss' to work with Misa. Now they take 50 % and we have to divide the rest between five". This boss is a trader. In theory, a small scale miner can attempt to become one. In reality, most of the small scale miners are debt-ridden and can hardly acquire this status. Auguste Mutombo, human rights officer at the Carter Center explains: "one allocates a place to the traders through cooperatives. They supply tools for the small scale miners, as well as a daily food allowance while they dig the well. When they find a vein, they are entitled to a third of the ore, the rest pays off the investment of the 'sponsor'. This part is rarely enough to pay off the debts the small scale miners have accumulated meanwhile."

Consequently, one understands why many miners continue to illegally dig for themselves sites that belong to major companies. The industrial turn a blind eye to the illicit mining that takes place on the slag heaps of Lubumbashi, an immense mountain made up of eighty years of Gécamines waste and exploited with large profits by the George Forrest group. "Anyway, they always come back. How can we chase them away? They are my neighbors, my cousins", comments one of them with a shrug.

The mine police, the Saescam and even the National Agency of Information are supposed to protect them and to enforce their rights, but are often accused of extorting money from them and of feeding a chain of corruption nicknamed the "report".

Low qualified and without real hope of training and obtaining a position in one of the industrial groups - which often import their own workforce – the artisan miners have no alternative than being expelled or dealing with the Indian and Lebanese small companies which take advantage of them. If not one of the smaller companies it will be a multinational like Glencore, a Swiss company about to become the biggest brass producer in the DRC and well known for buying large quantities of raw materials from this cheap workforce. While the group made a historic initial public offering valued at 41.6 billion Euros, the company "remains at level zero on the social responsibility scale" according to the very detailed report from the organization “Pain pour le prochain” (‘Bread for the future’).

The Congolese government, made up for the most part by prosperous businessmen, is little concerned with social or ecological considerations requested by foreign investors.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which possesses the biggest cobalt reserves in the world (a very popular material found in the composition of batteries for mobiles), as well as one of the largest copper reserves of the planet (which feeds the electrification of India and China), attracted 2.9 billion dollars of foreign investment in 2010. It is still classified last on the human development index published by the UNDP, which takes into account 187 countries according to their level of health, education and income.

The revellers community, foreigners and Congolese, send their children to study abroad, to make sure that they will take over the exploitation of the country resources following the same rules. These rules essentially consist of knowing how to jump over any sorts of obstacles whilst holding ones head high, without lowering ones eyes towards those who feed the pile.

The "copper belt" situated in the Southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, holds 34 % of the world reserves of cobalt and 10 % of the world copper reserves. Early 2011, the copper price reached its historic record: $10000 US per ton on the London Metal Exchange. Since then, the trend continues, maintaining the price at more than $8000 US per ton. Taking advantage of this unprecedented boom and of the liberalization of the mining sector organized by the World Bank at the beginning of 2000s, immense fortunes are made shielded behind an opaque management of the revenues. Until now, this wealth has benefited only a minority of wheeler-dealers close to the power. Paradoxically, the situation of the some 200000 "creuseurs" (artisan miners) who make up the majority of the workers has worsened. This sharp rise in prices has attracted multinational companies that chased thousands of them away from the richest sites. Only 25 % of this non-qualified workforce were re-employed by the formal sector. The others make do with the exploitation of the backfills or the waste water of the industries, still decreasing their life expectancy as well as their income. The revolts are not rare but are violently repressed.



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