Joanne Lebert, Executive Director of Impact: « Mining smuggling is more omnipresent than ever in the DRC ». »

Driven by a high price, African gold has never been in greater demand. A favorable situation that nevertheless contributes to reinforcing the illicit trade, denounces the Canadian NGO Impact, active on issues related to the governance of natural resources. In this interview, Joanne Lebert, Impact’s Executive Director, discusses this thorny issue.

Interview by Michée Dare

Ressources Magazine: your NGO is very active in the mining sector in Africa. Which countries are you present in and how does your action contribute to cleaning up the sector?

Joanne LEBERT: Impact (formerly « Partnership Africa-Canada ») has been operating on the African continent since 1986. We intervene mainly in areas where security and human rights are threatened due to the exploitation of natural resources. It is in this capacity that we are present in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda. In these countries, we bring our experience and expertise on subjects such as regulatory reforms, supply chain transparency, illicit trade and financing, environmental protection, etc.

The needs are indeed immense. For example, in the DRC, we are piloting a project called « Just Gold », which aims at a fairer management of the gold industry in order to improve the living conditions of artisanal gold players, who often live in the most precarious conditions. This is why we are putting all our weight behind changing the social responsibility policies of the companies involved, especially multinationals. They must focus on creating a sustainable ecosystem that ensures a decent life for indigenous people rather than focusing on short-term solutions.

R:M : Do you notice an overall improvement in the legislative framework in the African countries concerned?

Joanne Lebert: The efforts made in this area are far from negligible but it is not enough. The best proof of this is that the illicit trade remains very active throughout the continent. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, there is a well-known route that goes through Algeria, via Mali, before reaching the Emirates. The same is true in Sudan, which is a hub for gold smuggling to Dubai. These are all grey areas that undoubtedly explain why the ripple effect of the « formal » mining sector on the rest of the economy remains weak. Especially in terms of poverty reduction. However, the worst situation remains the DRC, where mining smuggling is more omnipresent than ever.

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R. M: In your last report, The Intermediaries, you rightly highlighted the harmful effects of smuggling and corruption in the Congolese gold industry. What measures could curb this scourge?

Joanne Lebert: At the national level, an attractive tax system would certainly be a plus so that the various players in the supply chain « play » the game of formal trade, instead of smuggling. At the regional level, the current situation in the DRC (insecurity in the east of the country, a partially failing state, etc.) makes the borders porous (and therefore conducive to smuggling), and the solution can only come through strengthened cooperation with neighboring countries (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda). From this point of view, coordinated actions between national security forces on both sides of the borders would undoubtedly reduce the scale of illicit flows.

Finally, at the international level, several strong measures have been taken to discourage the major players in the illicit trade, such as the United Arab Emirates, which are regularly pointed out for their weak inclination to control the origin of imported gold products. In a letter recently made public, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) - through its Executive Director Ruth Crowell- urged the UAE - which imports more than 450 tons of gold from the continent every year - to comply with international gold traceability standards or risk being excluded from the list of international gold bullion brokers. There is no doubt that this type of coercive measure is likely to influence the practices of the players in the sector.

R.M: What was the impact of COVID-19 on the sector?

Joanne Lebert: It is necessary to give a detailed answer here. While there is no doubt that the crisis has greatly slowed down the gold industry as a whole, it has not put a stop to smuggling. Quite the contrary: illicit activities have taken advantage of the slowdown in the formal sector to occupy a commercial « space » left vacant. As a result, the living and working conditions of small gold miners have worsened. Several deaths have been recorded in the artisanal mines of the DRC since the beginning of the year.

R.M : How do you see the sector in the coming years ?

Joanne Lebert: Hope is allowed. In 30 years, many things have improved. The joint actions of the various state actors as well as those of civil society have produced encouraging results, even if we obviously hope that things will go faster. In short, we hope that all these efforts, together with those of international bodies, will contribute to significantly reduce - if not eliminate - the illicit trade in gold.