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Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Tuesday, 25 July 2006 14:16 UK

Digging for diamonds and democracy

By Arnaud Zajtman
BBC News, Mbuji Mayi

Diamond buyer
Kasai Oriental is one of the world's richest diamond producing areas
From the bottom of a diamond mine, the Democratic Republic of Congo's elections seem a long way away.

"Our leader is not taking part, and therefore the elections are meaningless," one miner said suspiciously.

Every morning, between 5,000 to 10,000 miners, some as young as eight, leave the district of Bel-Air in the muddy and impoverished outskirts of Mbuji Mayi.

Their clothes covered with red dust, they cough up half a dollar to the armed guards, and enter illegally into the mine where they dig for diamonds from dawn to dusk.

The "leader" they refer to is veteran opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi, who originates from this province, and who is boycotting the elections.

His view is that a transparent and credible vote is impossible in current conditions.

He has also been a staunch critic of President Joseph Kabila, whose power sharing government has been criticised for failing to tackle corruption in its lucrative mining sector.

The elections will help build trust into our country and will allow us to have access to fresh money
Gustave Luabeya, mining administrator
As a result of Tshisekedi's boycott order, less than 50 per cent of the estimated adult population in Mbuji Mayi has registered for the vote.

Some people are worried that this might eventually deprive them from political representation in Congo's future government, and bar them from the road to prosperity.

Clandestine mining

At the moment, many of them are forced to break the law in order to scrape even a meagre living from the mineral wealth that lies buried beneath their feet.

Clandestine miners live on about $1 a day.

The 40 square km mine belongs to the state diamond company Miniere du Bakwanga (MIBA) and produces diamonds worth between $6m and $8m every month thanks to the many mechanical shovels and the company's two washing plants.

Child in the street in Mbuji Mayi
Little has been invested in education or other social services
But all together, this region of Congo exports diamonds worth $30m every month.

The large discrepancy is a result of "artisanal" mining - groups of freelance diggers, often poor young men with few other prospects - working illegally in MIBA's concession area.

"It is a dangerous job. But we have no choice. We have to come here every day," says 13-year-old miner Diaza Kalubuendela.

Like the majority of the children of Mbuji-Mayi, he only goes to school when money allows, and can't write much more than his own name.

Guards

MIBA employs hundreds of armed guards to prevent the clandestine miners from accessing the deposits worked on by the company's machines, but the task is overwhelming.

Map
"They are just too many. There isn't much we can do" said Sergeant Tate Silence, one of the guards, gazing over the mine where thousands of people are at work digging, carrying bags, and sieving.

The miners organise look-outs so they can escape the mine's security patrols. But once in a while, a miner gets shot.

However, most of the deaths are caused by the almost daily collapses of the pits, and by the "suicidal", a nickname given to deserters from Congo's army who operate as armed robbers on the mine.

MIBA's managers nevertheless have high expectations of the future after the elections, and disregard Mr Tshisekedi's boycott.

"The elections will help build trust into our country and will allow us to have access to fresh money," said MIBA's administrator, Gustave Luabeya.

Investment

With its history of wars and violence, DR Congo is considered a high-risk country and banks have in the past been reluctant to loan money to Congo's private companies, let alone those that are state owned.

Miners with sack of minerals
Illegal mining is widespread
However, Mr Luabeya managed to recently secure a $30m dollar investment that he expects will double MIBA's production within five years.

MIBA, which still has 70,000 square km of unexploited diamond deposits, is planning to create new partnerships and to open two other mines in the next three years.

South African diamond giant De Beers and Australian mining giant BHP Belton have committed themselves to joint ventures with MIBA which should be finalised in the weeks after the elections.

According to Mr Luabeya, the joint ventures, estimated to bring in an investment of $450m, should create 10,000 jobs and boost diamond production from 6m to 40m carats per year.

This would generate a turnover of $1bn per year, at least 30% of which would be pure profit.

But in the bottom of the mine, these figures don't make much sense.

Thirteen-year-old miner Diaza Kalubuendela's eyes glitter as he remembers the biggest diamond he ever found.

He sold it for 18,000 Congolese francs ($20) at a local diamond counter.

"But I had to share with four other miners who had dug with me" he remembers.

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