Responsible tin offers better business than gold

October 23, 2017

Shabunda is the second largest territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu province. With a reputation for its rich mineral deposits, the area is also locally believed to possess significant amounts of tin, tantalum and gold. Shabunda is also remote, leaving it vulnerable to security issues. But after a period of armed-group activity in recent years, peace and security is now returning to many areas.

After careful evaluation, as well as official government validation, five 3T mine sites (tin, tantalum, tungsten) were integrated into the iTSCi program in fall 2016.

“The conditions of 3T mining operations have improved day-to-day since the arrival of iTSCi in Shabunda,” says Nfundiko Murula, a negociant operating in the territory. 

Unfortunately, though, a gold rush of sorts in Shabunda over the past three years reportedly benefited armed groups, by around US$25,000 per month. This led to questions over taxation and lost revenues from that mineral.

That's why it's so positive that since iTSCi was established in the territory, many artisanal gold miners appear to be switching to cassiterite because of good market prices and the availability of cash flow from regular buyers. 

“Before iTSCi, miners preferred gold because of its high sales price," Nfundiko explains. "But now that tagged cassiterite obtains a good price and mines are secure, more and more miners are coming to our sites."

With slightly improved tin market prices and the introduction of iTSCi, cassiterite prices at mine sites increased four-fold, from around US$2 to US$6, in a short period in August 2016. Producing cassiterite is easier, cheaper and faster than gold.

“The methods used for mining gold are more complicated. One is forced to buy mercury, which is expensive and hazardous to use," says Jean Muhimuzi, a gold miner who recently switched to tin. 

Cassiterite ores, in contrast, are processed by physical means, using only water, and prices have continued to improve, reaching an all-time high of US$9 in recent months for the best grade.

Says another miner, Lukundu Witanene, “In an intense week’s work of mining 3T, a small team can produce maybe 100 to 200kg of minerals and sale proceeds regularly, meaning we can save money and receive loans from negociants due to the reliability of production.”

In contrast, despite gold's much higher trading price, gold miners sometimes work for a week and earning nothing.

“Only those who have expensive and heavy machinery earn better in gold mining," says Lukundu. "Gold miners are also more likely to be subject to harassment by state services and see their gold confiscated, while nobody stops or arrests a miner with tagged cassiterite.”

Cases of taxation or other problems in 3T are likely to be reported through whistleblowing or other means and mitigated via the iTSCi incident system.

Nfundiko recognizes, however, that "there are still difficulties to be resolved.” Transportation of minerals from remote sites to export points is one of the toughest challenges the sector faces, given the territory's large size and very poor infrastructure. Minerals tend to be flown to Bukavu, as it is currently the only realistic transport option.

Nevertheless, local stakeholder groups aim to find more solutions as they hope to expand business.


Lead photo: Lukunu Witanene, a gold miner who recently switched to tin.