Gold standard

In Congo, desperate men labor in dangerous conditions to satisfy the world's appetite for gold
By MIKE PFLANZ  |  May 20, 2009

gold main
BACK-BREAKING LABOR With no guaranteed payoff — just danger and exhaustion. 
Photo by Brendan Bannon

CONGO — Samy Badrio waded exhausted in waterlogged gumboots up from the mine's dark entrance and raised his hand to shield his eyes against the brightness of the noon-high Equatorial sun.

He threw a rough burlap sack from his shoulder to the ground and lit a crumpled cigarette fished from the pocket of his grubby raincoat. Rummaging inside the bag, he pulled out a mango-sized rock, splashed it with water from the stream at his feet, and squinted at it intently.

He is looking for gold: the tiny tell-tale sparkle on the surface of the cream-colored quartz which will tell him that today, at least, is a lucky day.

Badrio, 33, is one of as many as 1.5 million hand-panning gold miners working the abandoned shafts and open riverside pits in the fabulously mineral-rich northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They should be enjoying a boom driven, perhaps bizarrely, by the global recession and its attendant sudden fear of risk, which is pushing Congo's miners to gamble even more in their search for the precious metal. Nervous Western investors who have fled free-falling stock markets are increasingly parking their money in "safe-haven" assets like gold, banking on the trust in bullion that first spawned the phrase "as good as gold." Those few consumers with a little cash to spare are bypassing the electronics store and the auto showroom, opting instead for purchases, like jewelry, with appreciating value.

This has pushed the market price of gold up and up. It has risen nearly 40 percent in the last three years and is still hovering close to the record levels of $1023 an ounce reached last year.

Surprisingly, that spike has reached even here, with prices in Congo's nearby de facto gold capital, Mongbwalu, also nudging record highs.

Badrio snorted dismissively at this as he hauled his sack of hope onto his back and trudged off down the palm-covered hillside.

"I bet people buying it at such a high price there in the West don't know it comes from a place like this, a place where people suffer too much to find such small amounts," he said over his shoulder.

A place like this is a place like no other, in fact.

At the time Badrio's father was a child, this mine, Makala, was fitted with electric lights stretching deep underground and giant, diesel-powered pulleys hauling metal hoppers filled with ore back up to the surface.

Miners toiled for a monthly wage, albeit a small one. Schools, hospitals, houses, and soccer teams, all were subsidized by the local mining firm.

But slowly state-sanctioned corruption and eventually war came to shatter this green corner of Congo. The mining companies pulled out, taking with them their engineers, their chemists, their geologists, and their money.

Back at Makala, Luc Likambo peered into the tunnel entrance and, like an archaeologist describing a dig, pointed to the relics of a bygone but technologically more advanced era.

"See, there are the rails for the ore wagons," he said, his angry words echoing down into the deep darkness. "That is where the electric lights were, this is where the machine was which sucked the water away.

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  Topics: News Features , United Nations, World Gold Council, Congo
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