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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
DR Congo's cobalt mountain
slag pile
The 100m high slag pile has been neglected for years
By Arnaud Zajtman in Lubumbashi

Sixty-year-old Emile Kagema is astonished after spending half his working life as an employee of the state-owned mining company Gecamine.


It has not been easy to convince foreigners to come here and invest their money

Eric Govaert
"This mountain has always sat here, but we never considered it had any value," he said staring at the man made 100 metre high slag pile of copper and cobalt.

The pile weighing about five million tonnes is made of waste and was created by the Gecamines factory in the 1930s and 1940s on the outskirts of the DR Congo's second largest city, Lubumbashi.

But demand for cobalt has increased and Finnish scientists have invented a way to recover the cobalt remaining in the slag pile.

The factory is now being rebuilt.

Portable devices

Until the advent of mobile phones, laptops and camcorders this mountain indeed did not have much value.

Reconstruction of the Gecamine factory
The Gecamine factory is being given a new lease of life
But the worldwide boom in portable appliances has boosted the need for cobalt used for the manufacture of long-life batteries.

Currently, the price of cobalt runs at about $25 per kg.

Eric Govaert from Belgium, who is responsible for building the factory says: "A few grams of cobalt are needed in each mobile phone battery.

"New developments in medicine and in the plane industry have increased the need for cobalt as well."

Frontline

The cobalt mountain lies some 600km (400 miles) from the frontline of the country's two-year conflict.

Construction director Eric Govaert
Mr Govaert says war has scared off potential investors
Since the civil began, activities have been almost at a standstill in the state-run mining sector which employs close to 70,000 people.

Mr Govaert says the war, in which thousands of lives have been claimed, has scared away potential investors.

"Believe me! It has not been easy to convince foreigners to come and invest their money here. The only thing they know about the Congo is the war"

Foreign investment

However, an American company, OMG, has decided that the high risk investment was worthwile.

Groupe Forrest administrator, Jean Pierre Kongolo
Mr Kongolo: "We provide support for the war effort"
The US company has invested nearly $83m into the project together with two local companies, Groupe Forrest and the state-run Gecamine.

The Groupe Forrest administrator, Jean Pierre Kongolo says his company intends to plough nearly $1bn into the ailing factory.

In 1986 and 1987 Gecamine produced 470,000 tonnes of copper and 16,000 tons of cobalt a year.

Since 1995, its copper production has plunged to 35,000 tonnes in a year.

This dramatic decrease has been due to mismanagement, political instability and instability.

Support for war

The company's boss, George Forrest, has always secured his relationships with Congo's rulers.

Gecamine employees.
The state-run mining sector employes 70,000 people
"When the state is in trouble, we provide some support for the war effort," Mr Kongolo admitted.

For instance, when it became apparent that Laurent Kabila was to topple ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Belgian company promptly gave him some support.

"When President Kabila was to overthrow former dictator Mobutu, we supplied him with trucks. Theoretically, the state is the best customer. It cannot be bankrupt," Mr Kongolo remarked.

Once work on resuscitating the factory is completed, the joint-venture should generate crucial profits.

But mining in the DR Congo has for a long time been a risky business.

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See also:

30 Jun 00 | Africa
Timeline: DR Congo conflict
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Congo's unhappy birthday
14 Jun 00 | Africa
Rivals agree to quit Congo city
05 May 00 | Africa
UN failing in Africa
21 Jul 00 | Africa
Kisangani fears more fighting
30 Jul 00 | Africa
UN calls for pressure on Kabila
03 Aug 00 | Africa
New ethnic violence in Congo
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