The diggers have been gone less than a year. In the grown-over patches on the slope of Mpama South, emptied anchovy tins rust in the dirt beside strips of tarp, thick plastic jugs, and waxy cartons of mango juice squeezed flat at the waist. Over them grows a lace of cherry tomatoes: some hard and green, some red and ready for plucking.
At the height of the boom that began in this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early aughts, around 15,000 diggers inhabited this mountain, a place called Bisie: the richest tin deposit by grade in the world. Slight men slipped shirtless down the rickety mud shafts; children, too. At a distance, the mountain looks shredded. It was never meant to be a place where people lived, but during the tin boom’s wildest years, restaurants sprung up on the slopes, brothels and pharmacies, and anyway some of the diggers didn’t come back up for days, shitting and sleeping in the tunnels where they knocked at veins of cassiterite with a hammer.
The slope was once called “15 Minutes,” for the time it took to walk the mudslicked path through the jungle to Manoire, a bedroom community of miners. Mpama North—“45 Minutes”—was cleared out in 2015, the shanties disappeared, the hillside stabilized with concrete, the cold mouth of the new industrial tunnel locked behind a red metal gate and loops of razor wire. In some places deep inside Mpama North, where the ventilator roars, no entry signs cordon off where the excavation punched through to the old vast network of tunnels. The roof there is unstable; the ore exhausted.
Now, Mpama South is a ghost town, the last trace of this scramble for minerals. Up top, two police in blue button-downs sit beside a shack built of scrap wood and tarpaulin, making sure no one comes to mine. A few dead trees rise leafless off the hill. Against the slope, stacks of sandbags still form stalls where the mine shafts open to the air—the bags shaggy, their fabric dyed red from iron in the dirt. Pools of putrid water collect in the enclosures, spill into the tunnels. Water backfilling unmarked graves.
In the final months, police held checkpoints at the top and bottom of the cassiterite deposit. No ID card, no entry. A siren wailed each morning at 6a.m., announcing the opening of the gates for miners, and a siren wailed at 5p.m., to warn of half an hour until the closing. By 5:30, rain fell in the dusk over an empty hill.
The diggers saw it coming, the end of their time at Bisie. For years, armed groups had been hijacking artisanal mines for profit, riding international demand for consumer electronics, which had driven up the price of minerals like cassiterite (tin). It was easy to make a man dig. Here at Bisie, Colonel Samy Matumo and his 85th Brigade, a group of Congolese soldiers who resisted integration after the end of the Second Congo War, had for years controlled the diggers with threats and violence. People bribed their way in and out, paid informal taxes to police. Everyone worked one day a week for Samy.
By 2010, the international community had taken notice. In July, when the United States passed the Dodd-Frank Act—financial reform legislation crafted in response to the 2008 global financial crisis—it included an unrelated rider. Known as the “conflict minerals provision,” Section 1502 required companies listed on the U.S. Stock Exchange to file an annual report publicly disclosing whether their products contained any tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold—known as 3TG—“necessary to [the product’s] functionality or production,” and whether these minerals originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo “or an adjoining country.” If the minerals did come from one of these nations, the company was then required to follow a “due diligence” process to identify the minerals’ “chain of custody,” including their original source, and learn whether they may have financed or benefitted armed groups.
By September, President Joseph Kabila announced a ban on mining and mineral exports from three of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern provinces, including North Kivu, where Bisie was located, and the minerals market in eastern Congo crashed.
At first, the crash held possibilities for the diggers. Looking to certify “clean” minerals for their products, industry coalitions began partnering with NGOs to form new tracing initiatives, visiting mines to see if diggers worked free from the extortion of armed groups. Even during the years Colonel Samy was in charge, the diggers had sold their minerals to local traders as cooperatives; when President Kabila’s suspension on mining and mineral exports from in DRC expired, the diggers were already organized, well-positioned to be certified.
But even after the government removed the 85th Brigade from Bisie, assigning Colonel Samy elsewhere, Bisie couldn’t be certified as a conflict-free artisanal site: It wasn’t supposed to be artisanal at all. Exploration rights to Bisie had been granted in 2006 to a corporation that declared force majeure after attempts to establish itself at the site ended with a shot in the leg.
By 2012, the company was back, drilling core samples to determine the yield of the ore body, building a permanent camp. The diggers, protective of their livelihoods, regularly damaged equipment. Then one day in 2014, bullets: a local militia group called Mai-Mai Sheka forced company employees to flee into the bush, looting the pharmacy and stealing food. When the diggers heard the gunshots, they ran uphill to burn down the camp.
But what had begun would not be stopped.
The end began with the identification cards. At first, the diggers who registered were attacked. The cooperatives on the mountain did not want to be controlled. They still thought they could fight the company. But in came the Minister of Mines, with 18 police officers from Goma, 10 from Walikale, and 7 military troops. The company had made an expensive investment, and the government was ready to protect that investment, future source of royalties and taxes. Now—with more authorities present to enforce the rules—the men registered, 507 of them. They signed in and out daily.
Each day, a line of them snaked up the slick red mud path to the deposit. Each night, a line snaked down.
Now the side of the mountain is quiet. The men were given options. The men were given seven months’ notice. Most, at the end, walked away with a $250 payment. Some, who desired a job with the company, would go on to build the road by hand: a steep, winding red strip through the jungle, where before there stretched a two day’s walk.
Some preferred to dig. They went five hours deeper into the jungle, to an artisanal tin mine past Bisie called Kalay Boeing. The company gave them $100 less but provided each a kit—boots, a hard hat, a spade, a hammer and a machete—and paid porters to haul the 110 pounds of gear the rugged day’s walk through the jungle to the mine.
Then they were on their own.
There were men who had come for the boom but became ensnared by debts, and now they just wanted to go home. These men were dropped in Njingala, where they could get a motorbike out. Only: some drank the money and remain there still. And others, after the Primus Beer and a few nights’ stay, found themselves walking back uphill on the new road, past the pockmarked slope of 15 Minutes and the big red metal gate that marked where 45 Minutes used to be. They struck off into the bush toward Kalay, only without a kit, ready to go into debt to begin again.
In resource extraction, there is always loss. The question is who will lose, and how. Will it be the mountain, shedding topsoil, losing its trees to cooking fires, with its center dug out haphazardly and carted off in sacks? Will it be the diggers, accruing debts when they arrive and then remaining indentured for years, working one day a week for Colonel Samy, catching cholera in the camps? Will it be the consumers, their cellphones spiking in cost without cheap tin solder? Will it be the armed groups, their profit gone to multinational corporations? Will it be the men, sitting on wooden porches, out of work after a corporation replaces manpower with machine power, some of them getting death threats from their old pit debts, left unpaid?
For an industrial mine, with its safety glasses and reflective pants and mechanized processing plant, will never need as many men as an artisanal pit where all who have hands can dig and separate, however vulnerable to exploitation this leaves them. Would men rather have safe working conditions, or get to work at all? Now it is the company’s job to bring back to the community the opportunity it has taken away. In the tiny villages that line the road, loud new machines running on generators spit rice hulls out the window for the chickens. White rice pours into a bucket, winnowing work that would have once taken hours.
The company will buy whatever these farmers can grow. They have buffet lines to fill every day.
Palm oil, too. By the river there are new pavilions arching over metal cannisters, which women fill with hearts of palm. Together the women lean into a long metal wand, turning and crushing. In a below-ground tiled pit, orange oil spits neatly out a pipe into waiting plastic jugs. Someday, the company says, palm oil production will outstrip what they can use, and then they will help get it to market in Goma. In a room in Walikale, they fill a storeroom with 20 liter jugs marked with jaunty palm trees.
This they know: The economy that will continue after them is the economy that is not built around them.
This also they know: If they do not replace the opportunities they have taken, they will not last.
This dispatch is from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.