Redoubts: The Gecamines Kolwezi district and its neighbor, the COMMUS open pit cobalt mine – Copyright AFP/GAO Jade File
Emmet Livingstone, with Lucien Kahozi
“We’re screwed,” said Alphonse Fwamba Mutombo, standing on a rubble patch overlooking an open-cast cobalt mine in Kolwezi, southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Theirs had once been a prosperous neighborhood of neat houses and tree-lined avenues.
Today, his beloved home is surrounded by the rubble of demolished houses, separated from the sprawling moat by a concrete barrier.
The Chinese-owned mine wants to expand, and many of Mutombo’s neighbors have agreed to takeovers.
Mutombo doesn’t want to leave. The 70-year-old holds on, hoping to secure a better deal.
“We live on top of the minerals,” Mutombo said.
But he had no illusions about what was finally in store for his neighborhood: “It will go away,” he told AFP.
Home to more than half a million people, Kolwezi sits on some of the world’s richest mineral reserves – a treasure trove of copper, cobalt and gold that provides the engine of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s economy.
The city is already surrounded by an industrial mine moat, a gritty moonscape of huge open shafts, access roads, and pylons.
But mining activity is increasingly moving into the inner city itself, displacing thousands of people who often complain of unfair treatment.
Mining permits cover most of the Kolwezi area, according to the DRC mining cadastre.
– ‘Everyone is gone’ –
Kolwezi was founded in 1937 by the then Belgian Congo mining monopoly.
Seven years after independence in 1960, the monopoly was nationalized and eventually turned into a giant called Generale des Carrieres et des Mines, or Gecamines.
As mining in Kolwezi flourished in subsequent years, the state-owned company built neighborhoods like Mutombo’s Quartier Gecamines Kolwezi for its workers.
Gecamines production collapsed in the 1990s after decades of mismanagement, but many of the neighborhood’s remaining residents still have ties to the company.
“Everyone has left, we are the ones who are left,” said Martin Tino Kolpy Kapenda, a retired Gecamines employee, standing on the lot of what was once his neighbor’s house.
Kapenda, 60, also wants more money from Compagnie Minière de Musonoi (COMMUS), the Chinese company that owns the adjacent copper and cobalt mine.
Some of the remaining residents fear that the money on offer will not allow them to find housing of similar quality elsewhere.
His district has reliable electricity and running water, a rarity in the DRC.
Some 2,000 people out of 38,000 have left the neighborhood in the past six months, according to city figures seen by AFP.
A city administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the entire district could be gone within three years.
COMMUS is offering residents $7,500 to leave, the official said, though many of the remaining residents are asking at least three times that amount.
– Waiting for the death –
A semi-abandoned development several kilometers (miles) outside of Kolwezi has served as a warning to some about the incentives offered to leave neighborhoods open to mining.
Luzanga Muteba, 78, accepted an offer in 2017 from the Chinese company Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) to leave her home district of Kasulo.
A portion of that neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for a cobalt mine. In the surrounding houses, many residents have taken to digging in their gardens for minerals.
CDM built 21 houses for displaced Kasulo residents, but they say the company never finished the job.
Muteba, dressed in an oversized striped shirt, said he once ran a thriving bakery in Kasulo but is unable to replicate the business in its new location, which is relatively isolated.
There is also no running water or electricity, although towers that bring power to the nearby mines dot the urbanization. Only some of the houses are now inhabited.
“They have to come and finish the job,” Muteba said, pointing to fetid green puddles in a ravine, where he and other residents draw water.
“They take our minerals and develop their country,” he added, noting that he was losing hope after petitioning the government several times, without success.
“I just wait for death,” Muteba said.
Shanghai-based Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, which owns majority stakes in both COMMUS and CDM, did not respond to AFP’s questions.
A senior local government official, who requested anonymity, told AFP he thought it was “inevitable” that Kolwezi would one day disappear under the expanding mines.
“This is the mess we live in,” said the suit-wearing official, with a rueful smile.