Pickaxes into Plowshares? Two Visions for Development in the DR Congo
Pickaxes into Plowshares? Two Visions for Development in the DR Congo
(Image: AK Rockefeller / Flickr)

by Peter Dörrie

Peter Dörrie thinks that the DR Congo shouldn't pour development money into its corruption-prone mining sector. Instead, Kinshasa should follow neighboring Tanzania's example and focus on making its agricultural sector the mainstay of economic development.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a rich land – in theory, at least. Below its soil lie some of the world’s largest reserves of copper, cobalt, tin, tantalum and considerable amounts of gold and diamonds. It is the type of wealth that is measured in billions of Dollars and which has fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe and beyond.

In practice, the DR Congo is poor. Its population of 66 million produces only an average of 230 Dollars per year and person in goods and services, making it literally the poorest country in the world, if measured by that metric. Little wonder that many people want to change this unfortunate state of affairs. And little wonder, too, that most of these people are looking at the wealth beneath their feet for a solution. The Congolese government, its people, the international community, international and local business – they all have high hopes for the mining sector. For them, mining, and especially large scale operations, are the ticket to a brighter future for the Congo and its people, not to speak of the profits involved.

But mining brings with it a whole host of problems. Apart from obvious issues with environmental degradation, the incredible amounts of money involved with mining projects have so far arguably done more bad than good for the Congo and despite being a major branch of the Congolese economy since colonial times, most Congolese have yet to profit from the riches that are ripped from their soil every day. Can mining really hold its promises for the development of the DR Congo, or are there alternative, better ways for the government, donors and businesses to invest in a brighter future for the Congolese people?

The promise of mining

With a size rivalling that of Western Europe, it is not surprising that some valuable minerals can be found on the territory of the DR Congo. But the country is unique in that it harbours substantial shares of the worldwide reserves of some essential raw materials, like copper, cobalt and coltan, which is used in every smartphone and computer. Taken together, these resources hold considerable economic promise. The 900,000 metric tonnes of copper that the Congo exported in 2013 are worth about 6.3 billion Dollars at current market prices. Hundreds of millions of Dollar more are exported in the form of gold, diamonds and other valuable ores, some of it legally, most of it smuggled through the porous Eastern borders.

Even at current production levels, the Congo will continue to enjoy this kind of financial potential for some time to come. It has proven reserves of 20 million tonnes of copper and is currently developing promising oil deposits on the border with Uganda. Additionally, few parts of the country have been prospected in detail. Were this to happen, proven reserves of all mineral resources would likely increase substantially. If managed responsibly and intelligently, the Congolese population and economy could profit enormously from these riches. Currently, total government revenue on all administrative levels combined is little more than three billion Dollars – a paltry sum compared to the value that leaves the country in the form of raw materials.

While the Congolese government needs to share the profits with the mining industry, a better management of the sector could already support a considerably higher government budget. Combined with additional income from an expansion and professionalisation in mining practices, as well as an increased investment in local beneficiation, the establishment of manufacturing industries and the corresponding creation of jobs, it would set the Congo on a path to become a upper-middle income country within a generation, if not less.

This rosy vision of the future may be one of the reasons that practically everybody is so committed to making it a reality. Managing the mining sector is one of the highest priorities of the Congolese government and there are countless internationally financed initiatives and aid projects – from the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative to the Africa Mining Vision – that together are investing hundreds of millions of Dollar into transforming the mining sector in the DR Congo.

But there are also other, more sinister reasons that the interest in the mining sector is so high. It is the country’s cash cow and there is no shortage of people, both Congolese and from abroad, who are lining up for their chance to milk it. Gold, diamonds, tantalum and tin – minerals that are mostly mined by artisanal miners in small operations in the country’s east – are overwhelmingly smuggled out of the country with the complicity of corrupt customs officials and elements of the army, leaving the government with little income from this part of the mining sector.

Large-scale mining projects, like the massive copper mines in Katanga province, on the other hand, are a hot spot for government corruption. Contracts for mining concessions and royalty schemes are negotiated between political insiders and shady businessmen behind closed doors, leading the advocacy organisation Global Witness to estimate that the DR Congo lost 1.36 billion Dollar on corrupt mining deals between 2010 and 2012 alone, double the amount that the government spend on health and education combined over the same period.

As much promise as the mining industry holds for the DR Congo, so far it has arguably hurt the country more than it has helped it to develop. A whole school of thought in the science of political economy has developed around the idea that countries endowed with large amounts of resources are at higher risk of experiencing violent conflicts – and the Congo certainly makes for a convincing argument. Since the end of its brutal colonization by Belgium, the country has experienced decades of violent dictatorship and possibly the deadliest conflict since World War II, dubbed Africa’s World War. To this day, the East of the country remains to a large extend under the control of armed groups. In all of these tragic periods of its history, Congo’s mineral riches were subject to exploitation and financed government suppression and the violence of armed groups.

Additionally, says Maxime Nzita Nganga Di Mavambu, a Congolese national and the WWF’s Central Africa Business and Extractive Industries Regional Coordinator, “most of the mining operations overlap with protected areas, or high value conservation areas,” like in the case of the Virunga National Park that will likely be opened up for oil exploration. Mining, no matter for which resource and under which circumstances, is almost by definition environmentally destructive, even more so in a country with weak regulations like the DR Congo.

“The challenge,” with the mining sector in the Congo, says Maxime, “is that the government policy framework is not effective to support such big investments.” Pouring money into developing the mining sector may be a futile exercise, because if Congo’s recent history is any example, it will benefit only a small elite that has access to the spoils of big business.

But what would the alternative look like? Leave all the riches of the Congo in the soil, while a sizeable part of the population suffers from food shortages and has a life expectancy of a mere 50 years? Counterintuitively, this could prove to be a viable alternative and the experience of one of the Congo’s neighbours, the United Republic of Tanzania can provide some inspiration.

An alternative across Congo's border?

Tanzania sports major reserves of gold, gemstones, iron, oil and natural gas, most of which has been known since colonial times. But for the better part of its independence, the contribution of the mining sector to Tanzania’s economic development has been negligible, because its post-colonial government decided to concentrate on another sector instead: agriculture.

“Every sector should be a slave to agriculture,” says Philip S. Marmo, Tanzania’s ambassador to Germany. Now residing in Berlin, Philip has been involved with drafting the Tanzanian mining code, was a member of Tanzania’s parliament and one of the lead negotiators for resource deals between his government and China. Tanzania’s government, he says, made a conscious decision after gaining independence to discourage any investment in the mining sector by foreign companies. The Mining Ordinance Bill of 1969 granted the minister responsible for minerals powers to issue, renew, or refuse to issue mining licences in a completely arbitrary process, leading to a decline of commercial gold mining from a production of three tonnes in the early 1960s to an official end of production in 1972. Instead of focusing on the exploitation of mineral resources, the Tanzanian government diverted attention to the agricultural sector. Part of a socialist political project of President Julius Nyerere, dubbed Ujamaa, meaning “unity”, emphasis was put on agricultural self-reliance.

Ujamaa was in no way a complete success story, but it laid the groundwork for some remarkable developments in the agricultural, as well as the mining sector in Tanzania. Most importantly, Tanzania today is self-sufficient in most areas of food production. “Tanzania’s self sufficiency today is a result of the ‘agriculture first’ policy we implemented early on,” says ambassador Philip S. Marmo, but he also insits that the Tanzanian government concentrated on agriculture “not only because of food security.”

“This is mere statistics,” he explains. “More than 80 percent of our people work in the agricultural sector. Hardly 500,000 people work in mining, including artisanal miners.” Investments in agriculture would therefore benefit the livelihoods of far more people than spending money on developing mining projects.

Another interesting aspect of this prioritisation is that the de-emphasizing of the mining sector, according to Philip, allowed Tanzania to escape some of the worst consequences of the Resource Curse that the DR Congo, as well as many other African countries, have to grapple with. Because of the limited importance big international mining corporations, who “have not been very helpful,” says Philip, the government was able to establish important policy frameworks and institutions before throwing the doors open to investors. When the sector was liberalized due to pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the late 1980s, Tanzania had political structures in place that were able to deal with the negotiations and money involved without corrupting the entire state, like it is still the case in the Congo.

Is Congo an agricultural paradise?

So should the Congo follow the Tanzanian example and radically limit the importance of its mining industry for the benefit of the agricultural sector? There is a range of arguments that should make everybody at least consider this option seriously. Apart from the fact that one century of mining has so far done little for equitable economic development and maybe even hindered it, the Congo has a huge food security problem. “There is a massive shortage of food,” says Stefan Hauser, a systems agronomist with 25 years of research experience in West and Central Africa. “Maize and cassava crops plummeted during the civil war and have still not regained pre-war levels. And even back then you couldn’t speak of food security.”

According to a 2012 paper by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the DR Congo has the highest number of undernourished persons in all of Africa, with 50 percent of the population lacking essential nutrients. This contributes directly to some of the highest rates of stunted child growth and mortality in the world.

On paper, the Congo has all the necessary implements needed to kickstart its agriculture. According to a widely cited statistic, the country possesses up to 80 million hectares of arable land, which could feed 1 billion people, about the population of the whole African continent. Currently, only about 10 percent of this land is put to use. The Congo river, the second largest river in the world, provides an abundance of water for irrigation, as do large amounts of rainfall. In addition to growing food for domestic consumption, the climate is also well suited to typical cash crops like bananas, cocoa and palm oil.

Agriculture currently employs more than 70 percent of Congo’s population, a majority of which are women. Combined with the dramatically low productivity of the sector – it only contributes a little more than 40 percent to national economic output – this means that investments in the sector would potentially benefit a huge part of the population, women most of all. The direct employment potential of agriculture is certainly higher than in mining, while it offers many of the same opportunities for secondary manufacturing industries.

So what is not to like? Unfortunately a lot. Agriculture has its own set of problems in the Congo, not least among them the issue that not all statistics are as rosy as they sound.

Complications in Congo Either Way

It is true, says agronomist Stefan Hauser that “an enormous area is not put to use for agriculture. This is due first of all to the lack of infrastructure. But another reason is that a good part of the available soil is very poor. Maybe it could be put to use, but it can’t support profitable agriculture in the long run.” The soil towards the atlantic coast in the West is of good quality, says Stefan, but due to Congo’s borders coming in the way there isn’t much of it and the little there is is already used intensively. Towards the South-East it is another story: “this is the poorest soil I have seen in my life,” says Stefan. “Even with chemical fertiliser you have no guarantee that this would work,” because the structure of the soil leads to nutrients being washed out easily by the frequent rainfalls.

The land in the Congo Basin in direct proximity to the river is more promising. It has a higher share of organic matter, due to the tropical rainforest growing on it. “The soil is considerably richer, but of course you have the forest growing on it,” says Stefan. Chopping down the forest would be highly problematic, because it is an important carbon sink. Removing the ecosystem would also mean removing the reason why the soil is more fertile in the first place: without the rainforest, the Congo Basin would face the same issues as much of the rest of the country in a matter of years.

The highlands in the far East of the country are again more fertile, but population density there is already very high and due to the mountainous geography, agricultural land suffers from erosion. “On the better part of the land currently not in agricultural use, I see little opportunity for sustainable agriculture,” argues Stefan – at least not with current methods. “You would need other systems that involve more green manure and organic mass, to hold more nutrients in the soil,” he says. “But this is a protracted process and I can’t see farmers investing in it.”

In addition, the infrastructure of the Congo remains woefully inadequate for the expansion of the agricultural sector. According to the last available World Bank statistics, only 1.8 percent of all roads are paved and the country only has 153,497 km of them, compared to ten times the length in Brazil, for example. Under these circumstances, even if farmers would produce a surplus of staple foods, they couldn’t bring it to potential customers due to high transport costs and durations making the trade unprofitable. The same is true for most export crops: while bananas would certainly grow in the DR Congo, the long distance to a viable seaport puts the country at a severe disadvantage against other producers.

Developing the agricultural sector also brings with it the risk of ‘land grabbing’. Investors from Western, Asian and Arab countries are using many of the same institutional weaknesses that present problems for the mining sector to gain access to thousands of hectares of land in African countries at prices far below its real value. Often, land grabbing results in the eviction of the local population and while agricultural productivity on foreign-owned farms usually sky-rockets, the products are mostly exported and don’t contribute to alleviating hunger, nor do they benefit local industry.

Doing the right thing in Congo

Does this mean that agriculture isn’t an alternative to the current paradigm of focussing on mining for national economic development? Hardly. Despite the formidable challenges, agriculture should still be the focus of the government, says Maxime Nzita Nganga of the WWF: “State leadership should have gone to the promotion of the agriculture sector as [the] core economic benchmark,” he argues, because of the “tangible benefits for the Congolese population.” Even if, as Stefan Hauser points out, the agricultural potential of the Congo is nowhere near some of the more optimistic estimations, the country should still be able to increase production substantially, maybe even becoming a net exporter of foodstuffs.

The key is that transforming an economy that has been neglected and left behind as thoroughly as the Congolese will always require a tremendous amount of effort, investment and attention, no matter the path that is ultimately chosen. In the long-run, all sectors of the economy have to be developed anyway to realize the country’s full potential. The question that remains, is which should gain priority. In the case of the Congo, the answer should probably be agriculture. While it may be tempting to look at the mining sector with its huge potential for a quick buck, a more sustainable approach would follow the Tanzanian example and use the focus on the agricultural sector as an opportunity to solve some of the underlying issues that have held back mining from fulfilling its promise to the Congolese people.

Solving the agricultural crisis in the Congo will necessitate reforming the state from the ground up, laying the groundwork for an effective system of governance that can later be used to manage the extractive industries. Investments in infrastructure that would allow agricultural products to reach their markets would have enormous benefits for the rest of the economy as well, creating opportunities for investment that would put the income from mineral resources to good use. And last but not least, it is arguably just the right thing to do: supporting agriculture benefits the larger number of people and provides an answer to the problem of hunger, maybe the most dehumanizing challenge the nation faces today.