New Hazards Face Congolese Copper Miners as Map Is Redrawn

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Democratic Republic of Congo boundaries
People walk past an old train in Lubumbashi. The province of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been divided into four new regions. Photographer: Federico Scoppa/AFP/Getty Images

If there is a route that represents the Democratic Republic of Congo’s path from civil war to economic growth it’s the highway from the southeastern city of Kolwezi to the border with Zambia at Kasumbalesa.

More than a million metric tons of copper were trucked down the road last year, up from 9,000 tons in 2003, the year a peace agreement officially ended Africa’s deadliest civil war.

On July 16, that trip became more complicated for mining companies like Glencore Plc and Freeport-McMoRan Inc. after the government split its main copper-producing region, Katanga, into four separate provinces, leaders from the area say.

The 400-kilometer (249-mile) journey from Kolwezi to the border now crosses two provinces –- Haut-Katanga and Lualaba -– instead of just one. Miners in Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt will soon have to deal with new provincial governments, ethnic rivalries, and possibly new taxes.

“That’s the big fear, that the new administrations will start to create new taxes to finance themselves,” Eric Monga, the provincial president of the Federation des Entreprises du Congo, said in a July 21 interview in Lubumbashi, the capital of Haut-Katanga. “Mining companies are organizing for a fight.”

Southern Katanga produces almost all of Congo’s copper and cobalt, a mineral used in rechargeable batteries. The two metals provide the foundation for Congo’s economy, which the International Monetary Fund expects to grow about 9.2 percent this year, one of the fastest rates in the world.

‘Dizzying’ Development

The redrawing of Katanga’s boundaries is part of a broader increase in the number of provinces from 11 to 26 mandated by the 2006 constitution. The changes may spur upgrades to infrastructure such as roads and power lines in one of the world’s poorest countries, said Daniel Kapend-a-Kapend, a member of Katanga’s provincial assembly from Kolwezi, Lualaba’s capital.

“Development will follow at a dizzying pace,” he said. In Lualaba, that will include new shipping routes by rail and road to Angola and Zambia, he said in a July 18 interview in Lubumbashi.

A rail link to the Atlantic Ocean through Angola could reduce costs for miners such as Baar, Switzerland-based Glencore and Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan, which both have projects in the province, according to Kapend-a-Kapend.

“That’s the priority,” he said. “That’s what’s going to bring back trade.”

Unviable Provinces

Development depends on the central government in Kinshasa being more generous than in the past, Kapend-a-Kapend said.

While Congo’s provinces are supposed to retain 40 percent of the revenue they generate, in reality the government takes most of the money and sends little back. Last year, it returned only $306 million, a quarter of the $1.2 billion budgeted, according to the Budget Ministry. Katanga received 6 percent of what it was owed, Kapend-a-Kapend said.

Without increased revenue, only two of the new provinces -- Haut-Katanga and Lualaba -- will be viable, the World Bank said in a 2010 report.

The new borders alter the balance of Katanga’s ethnic groups, which may intensify conflict over land, political posts and jobs, provincial leaders said.

Lualaba’s thriving mines have brought job-seekers from around Congo, some of whom may feel pressure from the ethnic communities that dominate the region, including the Yeke, Ndembo, Sanga and Lunda, provincial leaders say.

‘Tribalism’ Threat

“It’s already started,” said Father Benoit Mkwanga, the provincial head of the Catholic Church’s Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace. The church has produced radio broadcasts and held workshops to explain the new provinces and upcoming local elections.

“For some, the creation of the new provinces means the natives can stay, and the others must leave,” he said in a July 18 interview in Lubumbashi. Such conflict could affect companies if local residents demand a higher proportion of jobs, Monga, the president of FEC in Katanga, said.

“It’s something that politicians need to be aware of, a slide toward tribalism,” he said.

The new provinces won’t elect governors until Oct. 6.

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