By Kady Seguin, IMPACT’s Policy and Research Director, and Alan Martin, Sechaba Consulting

The COVID-19 pandemic is spotlighting the vulnerability of the world’s poorest during a time of crisis. This is especially evident in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities, a poverty-driven sector upon which an estimated 150 million people are dependent on worldwide.

But in the northeastern Ituri Province of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), COVID-19 is not the only epidemic that has recently threatened the well-being and security of ASM communities.

Since August 2018, Ituri and its neighboring province North Kivu have been the epicentre of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak that has claimed almost 2,300 lives. It is the worst ever Ebola outbreak since the virus hit West Africa in 2014. While this latest outbreak in DRC is largely curbed, it has yet to be fully extinguished.

During the height of the Ebola outbreak, communities in eastern DRC lived and worked under constrained conditions to reduce transmission risks. This included health checkpoints, public health calls to limit movements and large gatherings (including in artisanal mining zones), and temporary border closures with neighbouring countries.

So, what lessons can be drawn from this experience? And how can we apply them to our efforts to support ASM communities during and after COVID-19?

We’ve examined data from the last three years from our work in Ituri’s Mambasa Territory, including the Just Gold project and Women of Peace, funded by Global Affairs Canada and the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs respectively. While our findings are preliminary, they provide an idea of the impact of Ebola in the region, and they could prove useful in responding to COVID-19.

Setbacks in Formalization

Following the Ebola outbreak, many people living in affected cities and villages fled to artisanal mining communities as a way of either avoiding contracting the disease or to avoid containment measures, such as restrictions on movement and vaccination efforts. More people also sought work in mine sites, with the average size of mining teams rising from an average of 12 in 2018 to a current average of 35 people per team. Miners have also been selling their gold more infrequently, but in larger amounts as they tend to secure a slightly better price when they have more to sell.

At the same time, formalization efforts decreased. The number of licensed miners dropped from 95% to 27% after Ebola first appeared in July 2018. Gains getting miners to work in cooperatives were also lost, dropping from 17.5% to 6.6% once Ebola arrived in Mambasa a year later. Unless the immediate benefits are made apparent, getting miners to join cooperatives or become licensed is a hard sell on the best of days.

Like COVID-19, Ebola contributed to a decrease in legal sales of artisanal gold to CODEMA, the cooperative that IMPACT works with to implement the Just Gold project in Ituri. In the month of May 2018, just prior to the Ebola outbreak, the number of monthly purchases from miners was 4,494. Since then, we have seen a steep and continuous decline, with only 307 sales to CODEMA made last month, albeit at slightly higher quantities. This can be partly explained by the impact of Ebola, and now COVID-19, and is a strong indication that gold from mines that until recently conformed to the highest standards of responsible sourcing have disappeared into the illicit trade.

Livelihoods and Gold as Currency

Even before Ebola and COVID-19, the use of gold as currency in Ituri—to pay for daily goods and services—was common. While IMPACT had been promoting the use of cash through our community credit and saving’s AFECCOR project, we saw a steep increase in the use of gold as currency when Ebola made its way to Mambasa. The percentage of miners who relied on gold for transactions rose from 4% to 17% between May 2018 and November 2019; while among the general community the rise was more dramatic, doubling to 40%.

Use of gold as cash is most often a response to a lack of US dollars. As Congolese francs are not terribly valuable for traders coming from outside DRC, miners and traders rely on gold to secure important goods and necessities—such as petrol–when dollars are in short supply. This is problematic on many fronts, including that it often results in the miners being ripped off and raises concerns around money laundering.

Average household income from mining also took a noticeable hit within six months of Ebola arriving in Mambasa, dropping almost 20% from a year earlier to $172. While women’s mining-related income increased slightly ($47-$53), the hit was absorbed entirely by the male miners.

Illicit Trading on the Rise

The factors mentioned above also coincided with the arrival in Mambasa of traders from various East African countries who transacted their sales in gold only—something that has only increased following lockdowns. Petrol importers and other freight carriers—deemed essential and therefore able to cross borders—have ramped up their illicit gold buying, buying it cheaply from a handful of local traders either with US dollars or exchanging petrol for gold, and then transporting it out of DRC. There are reports that some of this trade might be facilitated with help from former legal exporters in Bunia—the provincial capital—that have since closed operations due to COVID-19.

Together, these indicate that in hard times, artisanal miners, traders and exporters are forced back into the behaviours that have long stigmatized artisanal gold in the eyes of international buyers.

The Politics of Disease and Insecurity

Ebola negatively affected the security situation around Mambasa. There was a four-fold increase in petty crime and theft between May 2018 and November 2019, according to IMPACT’s data analysis. Prior to Ebola’s arrival, women were more likely to be the target of security incidents than men; however, that changed substantially in the latter half of 2019, with men comprising most of the victims.

This Ebola outbreak was also the first to take place in an area with active conflict.

Health workers were hobbled by a deep-seated scepticism of outsiders after more than a century of conflict, exploitation, and political corruption. Conspiracy theories & evidence of corruption stoked beliefs the crisis was concocted by officials in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. The vaccination campaign faced opposition from communities due to lack of knowledge, mistrust, or religious and cultural objections. This was made worse by a reliance by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Civil Protection escorts to access more unstable areas, thereby undermining community perceptions of impartiality. The result was over 300 attacks on healthcare workers and centres.

This spike in security incidents is likely a harbinger of things to come with COVID-19. Already one armed group, CODECO, has carried out predatory raids in the far eastern part of the province. In April three Chinese nationals were killed by armed robbers at a gold mine in Ituri province. Other attacks have taken place near to trading centres in Lisey, Mongbwalu, and Dala, consistently targeting gold related businesses.

A Glimmer of Hope

While our data contains some troubling and unsettling findings, it reveals how we should shape our efforts to support ASM communities in overcoming the challenges associated with epidemics and other crisis situations.

First, while there has been an increase in insecurity during the Ebola outbreak, most of the incidents in Mambasa do not appear to be the systemic forms of violence of which eastern Congo is familiar with; but more opportunistic in nature. While we are concerned with reports of the attacks by armed groups in gold-rich areas of the province in recent weeks, Mambasa continues to be spared from this type of insecurity. Importantly, there are yet to be any critical incidents requiring buyers to disengage in accordance with international standards, from any of the mine sites affiliated with the Just Gold project—maintaining a five-year conflict-free streak.

This means that even during an epidemic—and the increased insecurity it brings for conflict-affected areas—a responsible, traceable, and conflict-free artisanal gold supply chain can be maintained and needs to be supported by international buyers. The spotlight that responsible sourcing projects bring may also provide a level of protection to ASM communities—keeping the worst forms of violence at bay.

Secondly, women’s insecurity in the community of Mambasa has not increased over this period of time—a noteworthy trend and cause for cautious optimism given that gender inequality and rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC are high. Anecdotally, incidents of sexual violence in Mambasa have also gone down, according to REAFECOM, a partner organization in DRC. A key pillar of IMPACT’s approach to responsible sourcing in conflict-affected areas is to support women’s empowerment in the ASM sector, especially by supporting grassroots women’s associations. That women’s insecurity has not increased during this past epidemic could suggest that the outreach and capacity building conducted with our local partners over the last years has contributed to the resilience strategies of local women.

Furthermore, over the years of implementing the Just Gold project, our data has shown that women have a greater loyalty to due diligence and traceability than men, as they have slower rates of disengagement from responsible sourcing practices than their male counterparts. Their loyalty and commitment to responsible sourcing, coupled with the key role they play as peacebuilders during periods of insecurity—like that brought on by Ebola—provides strong evidence of the need for placing women’s empowerment and gender equality at the heart of our collective efforts to break the link between minerals and conflict.

With the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, ASM communities in the DRC and elsewhere are facing a new threat to their well-being. The Ebola crisis has shown that formalization and responsible sourcing in conflict-affected and high-risk areas can only go so far if they do not serve to build the resiliency of ASM communities during periods of heightened insecurity. If we are to do this, we need to prioritize approaches to responsible sourcing that privilege women’s empowerment, peacebuilding, and community development. Doing so will not only help communities to overcome the current crisis, but will better prepare them for the next.