Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Golden Curse Blood Gold

The Golden CurseFriday, September 11, 2009
Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Howard Sacre

Gold fever's struck again. This time it's not some fabulous El Dorado in South America, or the wild, wild west of the United States. It's happening in the heart of Africa, in Congo.

Hundreds of thousands of dirt poor Africans have been swept up in the madness, hoping to make their fortunes. A truly awesome sight.

In great man-made craters, on mountainsides, in the rivers, wherever you turn, it's on for young and old. A huge mass of people digging, panning, scratching for gold.

But behind the spectacle, there's a dark side to this gold rush, a terrible curse, which should make us all sit up and take notice.

PHOTOS: Gold fever

Story contacts:

Medecins sans Frontieres: http://www.msf.org.au/congo/60minutes.html

The International Rescue Committee: http://www.theirc.org/where/congo

Full transcript:


LIAM BARTLETT: Deep in the Congo forest, about as far off the beaten track as you get, columns of desperate men and women are in search of buried treasure. It's truly amazing to see what human sweat, muscle and determination can achieve.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: Congo is one of the richest countries in the world. It has gold, it has diamonds, it has copper, it has cobalt, it has uranium - you name it, Congo has it.

LIAM BARTLETT: The most sought-after is gold, but the Congo's immense natural wealth is also its tragedy - an industry based on terrible suffering and virtual slavery. Workers dig gargantuan holes, divert rivers, even move mountains, all by hand. But, after all their backbreaking efforts, they'll see a pittance. The lion's share goes into the pockets of violent warlords and a motley cast of crooks and smugglers, and Australians may be unwittingly supporting it all. This is how it's done here, in the Congo. An estimated 1.5 million men and women working away in mines like this - the dirt-poor toiling, sweating, for their rich masters. The problem is there is no way of knowing if the gold that comes out of a mine like this is the same stuff that's for sale in your local jewellery shop.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: We are a part of Congo's problem. We purchase these commodities. Gold is not being sold in the shops in Congo. It's being sold in places where Western people live, in markets where we go and buy it for the rings on our finger or the jewellery in our ears.

LIAM BARTLETT: Anneke van Woudenberg is the lead African investigator for Human Rights Watch.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: What we, in fact, discovered was the armed groups were making roughly $60 million a year...

LIAM BARTLETT: She calls it the curse of gold, another chapter in a long and blood-soaked history.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: When I look at Congo 100 years ago, there, at that time, it was a place that was used for its ivory and its rubber. Forced labour - people's hands being chopped off if they didn't actually produce the amount of rubber that they needed to produce for the colonial administrators. Today, it's gold, but the abuses are often very similar and the suffering is very much the same.

LIAM BARTLETT: Amidst the suffering, most people cling to strong Christian beliefs, another inheritance from colonialism. Pastor Marrion Pudongo ministers to hordes of desperate miners.

LIAM BARTLETT: Is the gold rush good for the Congo or bad for the Congo?

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Is good. I think it's a good deal. People are doing nothing here, so I think if somebody can at least work and get money from what he's doing, that's very good.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well, they're certainly working. They work incredibly hard, as we can see.

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Yeah, it's hard work, I know.

LIAM BARTLETT: And it's dangerous work. We watched men on a sheer, shifting slope, trying to clear a landslide from a few days before.

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: You know, the miners are very, very, very brave men. You know, they can't even get scared of all these things.

LIAM BARTLETT: Brave or or desperate?

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Ah, I don't know how I can - maybe I can see they are very crazy, because this very - I know this very dangerous, you know. Even for me, I cannot go and sit down there. It's very risky.

LIAM BARTLETT: High-risk but, for the workers themselves, little return. A lot of miners work for nothing more than a bucket of dirt at the end of the day. If there's gold in it, they can keep it. At best, they can earn a few dollars a day. Men, woman and children toil just to keep food on the table. For all your digging and sifting today, have you found any gold?

WOMAN (TRANSLATION): For today, I haven't got any gold.

LIAM BARTLETT: The woman has three children, including the baby.

WOMAN (TRANSLATION): I will still work all day tomorrow because that's the only job I have and that's how I get my food.

LIAM BARTLETT: All over again, good luck.

LIAM BARTLETT: We hear a lot about 'blood diamonds' but here, in the Congo, it's 'blood gold'. The gold plays a deadly role because it fuels a war that's been going on in this country for more than a decade, delivering pain and suffering and, as you can see, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. And, the remarkable this is, we hear almost nothing about it.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: I don't understand why Congo's not on the front pages of our newspapers, why it's not every day on the evening news. 5.4 million people have died since 1998. It is the deadliest war in the world since the Second World War, and most people don't even know about it.

LIAM BARTLETT: The war started in this former Belgian colony after the genocide next door in Rwanda, in 1994. 800,000 people were massacred. The killers fled across the border to Congo and commandeered the gold mines, setting off a complex and blood-thirsty civil war. The killings go on to this day, and the effects are heartbreaking. At one crowded orphanage we met more than 100 children who'd lost their parents to the fighting, including these two brothers.

LADY AT ORPHANAGE (TRANSLATION): They killed all the people in the village, but they found these two boys among the dead bodies after three days.

LIAM BARTLETT: So, the boys had sat with their parents for three days while they were dead?

LADY AT ORPHANAGE (TRANSLATION): Yes, among the dead bodies.

LIAM BARTLETT: How many have you killed?


LIAM BARTLETT: How many have you killed?

REBEL FIGHTER 2 (TRANSLATION): Me, around 10 at least.

LIAM BARTLETT: Two of the rebel fighters agreed to meet us in a cemetery. They told us their commanders forced them to fight and work in the gold mines or be killed themselves.

REBEL FIGHTER 1 (TRANSLATION): We didn't want to do it. If we refused, they would tie you to a tree and then shoot you.

LIAM BARTLETT: The rebels have also waged another war - a war of rape and mutilation against Congo's women. The victims number in the hundreds of thousands. We were told that, in this refugee camp, 8 out of every 10 women had been raped. How many women have you raped?


LIAM BARTLETT: Women or girls?

REBEL FIGHTER (TRANSLATION): One was 19 years old and the other 17.

LIAM BARTLETT: Are you ashamed of that?

REBEL FIGHTER (TRANSLATION): It was a regulation in the war to take a woman.

LIAM BARTLETT: The aid workers say that for every one person killed in combat in this forgotten war, about 70 others die because of it. Many are children, who succumb to preventable diseases. In this tiny coffin is the body of a young child who contracted malaria. It's a great paradox, isn't it? One of the richest countries in the world for resources with some of the poorest people.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: It is what is, of course, so surprising to many Congolese people and what I think eats away at them. They know that they actually live in this incredibly rich country and, yet, they're cursed by those very resources. So many of the armed groups and the foreign armies come into Congo searching for those commodities, wanting to get rich, and the Congolese people just suffer.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's taken years, but the Congolese Army is slowly turning the tide on the rebels. Mongbualu, Congo's gold capital, was recently liberated, so it's safe for me to move around here. It's where miners come to splurge their meagre earnings, then it's back to the mines to find more gold. Where are you taking me now, Pastor?

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: We are going to the gold mine where people are moving under the ground. They can walk for 5km, even 20, deep inside there and, you know, it's very dangerous.

LIAM BARTLETT: They work a long-abandoned network of fragile tunnels built by the Belgians, chiselling away the mountain from inside out, rock by rock.

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Some can even spend more than one day, even 3, 4, 5, 6 days, under the ground. They cook down there, they eat down there, they spend the whole night down there for 3, 4, 5, 6 days.

LIAM BARTLETT: Without coming out?

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Without coming out, breaking rocks.

LIAM BARTLETT: Oooogh, do you have that on your back all day? All day! Oh, mate! But, perhaps most perilous is the processing. Once the rocks are ground to dust, just take a look at how they extract the gold. That's mercury - the deadly, toxic heavy metal which binds the particles of gold into a tiny lump and is then burned away. Using mercury like this is prohibited worldwide, but no-one's told the miners here. I just saw these men pour the mercury into their hands, straight into the pores of their skin.

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: Yeah, they do that.

LIAM BARTLETT: Don't they know about mercury poisoning?

PASTOR MARRION PUDONGO: No, they're ignorant.

LIAM BARTLETT: Every Monday, the miners bring their hard-won treasures to the gold market, and this is the great tragedy of Congo on display - warlords, con men and traders mingling with desperate miners, trying to scrape together a living. From here, it is smuggled to a world largely oblivious to its origins, and the people who worked so hard to find it will go out again and find some more.

ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG: We find it's the importers and the exporters who profit and, of course, it's the large, multinational companies who purchase this and who sell it on, who profit. It's not the people of Congo. I think what's incredible about Congo is the ability of its people to go on, despite all of this. The joy, the creativity, I think we have a lot to learn from the Congolese, who live in a way that would be unimaginable for us but, yet, they do, and they come through.

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