‘Artisanal’ mining is now the country’s leading profession — attracting adults and children alike. Chinese investment is driving its growth.
KOLWEZI, Congo — Patrick Bwana strains his body as he thrusts a full-sized shovel into a patch of rocky ground. He is 12 years old. He looks 9. He speaks with his eyes fixed on the ground. “I used to go to school, but my father died, and no one paid for my studies anymore,” he says.
Bwana works from around 6 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon, lugging around bags of rock that seem to weigh as much as he does. He says he can earn $5,000 francs a day doing this. That’s about $5. He hopes he can save enough to pay his own school fees, and return to school.
Bwana is one of tens of thousands of child laborers estimated to work in Congo’s mineral sector. Most take to the work out of necessity, to help their parents earn enough to feed their family. Child labor is illegal in the Congo, as is much of the artisanal mining that takes place in and around Kolwezi on mineral reserves owned or leased by foreign or Congolese companies.
The forces that shape Congo’s artisanal mining sector are many: A worldwide demand for copper and other base minerals for manufacturing; the inability of many Congolese to find any other sort of lucrative work; the absence of government regulation. But ask any Kolwezi miner who’s responsible, and you’re likely to hear just one answer: “The Chinese.”