Artisanal miners clean copper and cobalt ores at the Ramblais 12 mine in the town of Luisha, Katanga Province, DRC. Photo: A Mutombo/CARF

My story is not easy to tell. It is full of pain, one shared by countless women who work in mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I live in the province of Lualaba, the cobalt capital of the world. Cobalt and copper are precious to you because you need this for the batteries of your phones, tablets and the solar panels and electric vehicles for your green energy transition. Your efforts to fight climate change are closely tied to our suffering, marginalization and exploitation at the hands of multinational mining companies, many of them from Canada. Our story, however, is not just about pain. It is also about resilience, empowerment and our fight for survival for ourselves and our families.

I was a young girl in the 1990’s when multinational companies came to Lualaba. Their arrival and the liberalization of the Congolese mining sector in 2002 facilitated the quasi-privatization of Gécamines, our national mining company. The profit from Gécamines provided for the basic government social services given to local communities. With quasi-privatization however came the end of these services. People in our communities also lost their jobs. Foreign mining companies did not hire local people beyond manual labour because they said we did not have the necessary qualifications.

Families, including my own, fell into hard times. Our poverty was in great contrast to the multinationals who got richer by taking our country’s wealth. Left to fend for ourselves, many of us went into artisanal or subsistence mining. This meant digging by hand for copper and cobalt ores contaminated with uranium. Our challenges were numerous: financial insecurity, forcible displacement, health issues due to radiation exposure and contact with contaminated water.

Women were the biggest losers. We experienced sexual harassment and violence. We were excluded from working directly in the industrial and artisanal mines. Traditional patriarchal beliefs forbid us from entering mine shafts. This left young girls and women no choice but to work in the cleaning and transport of minerals, exposing us to toxic water. Worse, we sold our mining products to these multinationals and traders at really low prices. However, it was this hazardous and unsafe work that put food on my table and enabled me to finish my studies.

As a mother, I have committed myself to protecting the rights of women so they do not have to experience what I went through. I started a mining cooperative. I bring women together so we can mine with dignity. By forming a cooperative, we create an environment that provides us with training, guidance and skills we need to work safely and sustainably.

Agnès Kabwiz dreams of a better future for women in Lualaba Province, DRC. Photo: A. Kabwiz.

Since 2016, our communities have benefited from the support of the Jesuits through the Arrupe Centre for Research and Formation (CARF) in Lubumbashi. CARF has conducted capacity building on proper artisanal mining practices and legal compliance; health and safety practices; and human rights and environmental protection.

Today, we continue our fight against human rights abuses, especially against women and children. We seek alternatives to mining. However, all this is not enough. Multinational mining companies still operate with impunity and exploit us. We face huge challenges as the demand for copper and cobalt increases.

It is important that our partners like Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) advocate for a human rights due diligence law in Canada to make your companies accountable for the harm they do. Mining companies must adequately compensate and relocate displaced people. They must address the health impacts of polluted rivers on local communities, especially women and mothers.

We understand that development is necessary but not at a cost to our people. We need to promote sustainable development based on equality, justice, transparency and accountability. Mining companies need to respect Congolese people in accordance with our laws. Your own government must hold Canadian mining companies accountable for their actions in our country. This will allow the DRC to negotiate a just energy transition with multinational corporations on its own terms. The long-term survival of local communities and the empowerment of women in the DRC is at stake.

The article also contains information provided by Pastor Josué (Governance Initiative for the development of Fungurume and Tenke); Mandela Kizi (Mining cooperative for social development, Kolwezi); and Adrien Mutombo (CARF, Lubumbashi).