Esther is among 10,000 workers who lost their jobs after years of working for the formerly state-owned Congolese mining giant Gecamines.
By Arnaud Zajtman
In Katanga, DR Congo
Self-employed hand-diggers work in the open mines
Last year's job cuts, which were part of a restructuring plan sponsored by the World Bank, indicated the disappearance of a national icon.
DR Congo is no longer the world's top cobalt producer and the fifth-largest producer of copper, as it was during the 1980s when it produced 450,000 and 15,000 tons of the two materials.
And with the company's power and prestige having fallen by the wayside, drained by years of dictatorship, political instability and mismanagement, Gecamines, is no longer known as "the State within the State".
Gecamines' chimney, which overlooks Lubumbashi, the regional capital of Katanga, has now gone cold, and Esther is worried for the future of her four children.
Unlike the 20,000 people who worked for Gecamines in its heyday when Zaire was prosperous, Esther's children will not get free housing, free school and free health care from the company.
"There aren't any proper jobs here anymore," she says.
"Children rush for artisan mining, but that job is dangerous and it doesn't bring any development to our region."
Since the Gecamines went bankrupt in 1990, its open mines have been invaded by thousands of self-employed hand-diggers and artisan miners, known in French as "creuseurs".
Foreign businessmen buy directly from the mines
These independent operators extract 8 % rich cobalt and 35% rich copper stones, called heterogenite, which they sell through middlemen to foreigners, mostly from China and India, who have furnaces in the nearby towns.
In the mine of Ruashi, about 20 kilometres outside Lubumbashi, around 4,000 miners, some as young as eight, dig and sieve from dawn to dusk.
Neither the heavy sun nor the regular collapsing of parts of the mine, which take the lives of one or two miners every month, stop them from removing about 100 tonnes of heterogenite per day. "There aren't any other jobs in the area, so this helps us feed our families," says says Gaston Namushidi, president of Katanga miners union EMAK.
"If a proper mining company was coming here, it would use machines and would only employ 200 people. It wouldn't help us," says Mr Namushidi, who represents miners in the Ruashi mine.
The heterogenite is partly treated in furnaces either in DR Congo or in neighbouring Zambia and then exported mostly to China via South African and Tanzanian ports.
Truckloads of copper and cobalt leave the country every day
But statistics of DR Congo's exports are not accurate.
Figures at the Congolese ministry of mines say that monthly export of copper and cobalt range from 5,500 to 9,000 tonnes.
But in the border town of Kasumbalesa, the brand new weight bridge that could allow an accurate control of Congo's exports is not in use.
Joseph Chama Mukinay, vice president representing the transporters in Kasumbalesa, describes how between18 and 25 thirty-tonne trucks "overloaded" with copper and cobalt, raw and concentrate, leave every day.
"About 65% of the trucks are loaded by Chinese businessmen and are feeding the Chinese market," he says.
Even DR Congo's finance vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, acknowledges that the border point is badly managed.
"There is a massive fraud of minerals in Katanga, through Kasumbalesa," he says, promising to take some "measures to re-organize the custom office".
But no measure has been taken so far, and figures on China's imports of the DR Congo's cobalt ores for 2004, gathered by the independent non-governmental organisation Global Witness, show that the average value of cobalt being exported each week from Katanga is $1.7m.
Meanwhile, the steady growth of China, which consumes and also processes cobalt for batteries that it supplies to the Asian market, has sent the global demand for cobalt soaring above 35,000 tonnes a year.
A tenth of world cobalt consumption is extracted from this mine
George Forrest, a businessman who does industrialised mining in Katanga, says that "the development of China means that there is a need to produce an extra 20,000 tonnes of cobalt per year".
"Katanga can produce that only if proper investments are made."
But the DR Congo has been unstable since the end of the cold war in 1990, and it is only now slowly emerging from a five-year war that has claimed an estimated 3 million lives, mainly from hunger and disease.
Katanga has been largely spared by DR Congo's war, yet mining giants are only now considering starting large-scale mining there.
Mining giant American Mineral Field is doing a feasibility study for a large mine near the town of Kolwezi, while some Chinese investors are about to start industrialized mining outside the town of Likasi.
Feza Mining, a joint-venture between the Chinese company Wambao Resources Corporation and some Congolese businessmen believed to be close to the DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila, is finishing a pyrometallurgic plant which, according to the Congo's ministry of mine, should produce 1.000 tonnes of pure cobalt per year.
That would come on top of the output from the five square kilometres open mine of Lwiswishi, owned by Mr Forrest and located about 30 kilometres outside Lubumbashi.
This mine currently produces a yearly 4500 tonnes of cobalt; 10% of the world's consumption, which is processed in a nearby plant, as well as in Finland.
Despite this, the benefits for DR Congo are limited. The project employs less than 400 workers here.
Hence, even if more mining giants start projects in Katanga, there are no guarantees that the people of DR Congo would benefit from their huge reserves of natural resources.
To ensure that, the borders would need to be more closely guarded and the state of DR Congo, where elections are scheduled in June 2005, would need to be re-organized, observers say.