Mining and armed conflict threaten eastern DRC’s biodiversity in a complex
Judith Verweijen, Fergus O'Leary Simpson, and Peer Schouten, The
January 13, 2023
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) conflict-affected eastern
provinces are home to numerous protected areas. These areas host unique
biodiversity and a range of threatened species, such as the okapi, forest
elephant and mountain gorilla. They are also part of the Congo Basin
rainforest, which is a crucial line of defence against climate change.
The same protected areas overlap with globally significant deposits of
minerals – including gold, coltan and cassiterite.
Mining is rampant in these areas, including in the Itombwe Nature Reserve,
Maiko National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
Most of this mining is labour-intensive artisanal mining, which makes use
of basic technologies. However, in recent years, there has been a sharp
increase in semi-industrial mining, which requires significant start-up
capital for the purchase of intermediate technologies, such as dredges and
Both forms of mining have negative impacts on biodiversity conservation.
Direct impacts include deforestation, soil degradation and water pollution.
More indirect effects stem from the construction of new roads to make
mining sites accessible, and population growth in the vicinity of mines.
This leads to further natural resource exploitation, such as fuel and
construction wood extraction, bushmeat hunting and shifting agriculture.
This destructive mining in conservation areas often happens under the
protection of state and non-state armed actors, who take a portion of the
revenues. Thousands of people also depend on such mining for their
The economic importance of mining makes it difficult to stop extraction in
protected areas. It’s also at the heart of the complex linkages between
mining, armed conflict and conservation in eastern DRC. Our study set out
to grasp these linkages, which is crucial for designing effective measures
to safeguard protected areas.
Based on research in the Okapi and Itombwe reserves, we found that mining
sparks conflict between different branches of the state, between
entrepreneurs and local populations, and between artisanal and
semi-industrial miners. In a militarised environment, these conflicts can
Livelihoods and Enrichment
Mining is rampant in protected areas because it generates incomes for
citizens, officials and armed actors.
Entry barriers are low, and miners’ earnings are higher than those of
comparable groups in the population. For many families, mining is one of
the few opportunities for social mobility.
Mining revenue also tops up the meagre wages of numerous administrators,
soldiers and other state officials. In the DRC, the official salaries of
state workers are low or remain unpaid. Most of these workers make money on
the side and extract revenue from citizens through various forms of
taxation, protection fees and extortion. They are also under pressure to do
so from their hierarchy, which expects a share of the income.
Officials from the agency responsible for regulating artisanal and
small-scale mining (SAEMAPE), and the provincial ministry of mines often
tax mining activities in protected areas. The Congolese armed forces also
substantially enrich themselves by protecting this mining, which is
forbidden in most conservation areas. Armed groups also benefit by imposing
taxes in mining sites and at roadblocks.
The recent increase in semi-industrial mining, often run by Chinese
entrepreneurs, has substantially benefited the Congolese army. The senior
officers who protect these mining operations deploy army units to guard the
installations and seal off the area from unwanted visitors.
The mining administration, too, has benefited from this development. For
instance, the Mining Cadastre, the agency responsible for issuing and
managing mining titles, has started to circulate a new map of the Okapi
Wildlife Reserve with a different perimeter. This has allowed the agency to
issue concessions inside the boundaries of the reserve, while arguing that
they are located outside it.
Because mining is lucrative for many people, our research shows it has
considerable knock-on effects on conflict dynamics.
To start with, mining creates friction between different branches of the
state and different administrative levels. The environment ministry has
contested the new map of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve circulated by the
Mining Cadastre. The governor and mining ministry of South Kivu province
took measures to regulate semi-industrial mining by Chinese companies
around the Itombwe Reserve. These, however, were halted by national
authorities who claimed the provincial level didn’t have the authority to
On the ground, semi-industrial mining has sparked conflict by prompting the
sometimes violent displacement of artisanal miners. This has led some of
them to join armed groups, or to an upsurge in violent banditry.
Semi-industrial mining has also led to disagreements between mining
companies and local populations around social investments, employment and
compensation for the destruction of agricultural fields.
Combined with competition around accessing revenues, these conflicts have
contributed to a spate of armed group attacks on Chinese mining operations.
No Easy Solutions
The involvement of high-level officials and the importance of mining income
make it difficult to stop destructive mining from taking place in protected
Moreover, closing down artisanal mining operations by force without
offering other opportunities to make a living has often proven to be
counterproductive. Displaced miners may simply return to mining sites,
sometimes getting the help of armed groups to do this.
Where armed groups and army units lose their income from mining, they may
resort to other ways to get money, such as violent banditry.
The fact that different branches of the state are at odds with each other
poses further difficulties. It’s impossible to curb or better regulate
mining in protected areas when national and provincial authorities toe a
different line or when the military violates restrictions imposed by
The Congolese agency for nature conservation (ICCN), which is responsible
for protected area management, lacks the political clout and resources to
make a difference.
For instance, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve covers over 13,000 square
kilometres, but the ICCN has only enough rangers to conduct regular patrols
in 15% of this area. In some areas, ICCN staff have been found to be
complicit in authorising illegal resource exploitation.
What can be done to improve this situation?
To start with, it’s important to differentiate between semi-industrial and
artisanal mining. Semi-industrial mining, in particular gold dredging, is
more destructive for the environment and benefits comparatively fewer
people. Banning it from protected areas is more urgent and more feasible.
Banning artisanal mining appears difficult, so better regulating and
containing it may be a more successful strategy in the short term. This is
what has happened in the Itombwe Nature Reserve, where artisanal mining
activities are still permitted in certain parts.
It is also crucial that different agencies and layers of the state
cooperate. To promote such collaboration, international donors supporting
administrative and security sector reform need to get the message across
that profiting from mining in protected areas is not acceptable.
However, it is ultimately up to the Congolese government to ensure that
state servants are properly paid and respect the law.