Chinese-owned companies, under investigation for irregularities in their gold mining operations in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, hope to "bounce back" after a suspension dating to August, according to a consultant for one of the firms.
Ordering the halt, the governor of South Kivu, Theo Ngwabidje Kasi, said he was determined to "restore order" in Mwenga territory, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of the provincial capital Bukavu.
Kasi said the move was in "the interests of the local population and the environment", alleging "multiple abuses" by the half dozen Chinese-financed companies.
The opacity of the exploitation and sale of Congolese gold has long been a source of concern, with UN experts last year noting "volumes of smuggled gold significantly higher than those marketed legally".
Gold, one of the vast Central African country's abundant mineral resources, is also used to finance armed groups and fuel the conflicts that have plagued eastern provinces for more than a generation.
The fate of the Chinese-owned companies is now in the hands of the federal government in Kinshasa following a parliamentary investigation.
"We are confident, we will bounce back and we even want to go further: we will be a pilot project in the traceability" of gold, said Rudy Cornet, consultant for one of the companies, Oriental Resources Congo.
"Some operators are real bandits, but we must not put everyone in the same basket", Cornet said, disputing any alleged violation of the mining code by his client.
- 'We will pay' -
According to sources in Bukavu, the firms have complied with the suspension — their machines are at a standstill — while busily preparing their legal objections.
"The companies have gone to Kinshasa, we have lodged our defence and we are waiting," said Eric Kitoga, a Congolese lawyer representing the interests of Congo Blueant Minerals (CBM).
He denied a slew of accusations against CBM including that its Chinese employees have worked on tourist visas, that it has not paid taxes, and that it has not compensated peasant farmers for the use of their fields.
"We are criticised for not having an exploitation permit" in Mwenga, he added. "But the company has signed an agreement with a local cooperative that allows it to be there."
Kitoga conceded, however, that CBM has gone beyond a purely "artisanal" operation in view of the equipment it uses.
"We also know that the environment has been destroyed (and) must be repaired," he said.
However, he is convinced that the dispute will be settled with fines and that Kinshasa will lift the suspension, saying simply: "We will pay."
In mid-September, the Chinese foreign ministry's Africa pointman Wu Peng said Beijing "supports the DRC in cracking down on illegal economic activities in accordance with the law."
Wu even ordered the firms concerned "to leave South Kivu province as soon as possible".
- 'They devastated everything' -
The gold diggers argue that they provide valuable services such as maintaining the road leading to Mwenga, but residents are up in arms.
"They have devastated everything: the palm groves, the cassava and rice fields, the fish ponds!" said Laban Kyalangalilwa, president of the Banyindu community in the chiefdom of Luindi.
Even if "arrangements" end up being made, mining firms must first repair "what they have caused," by compensating farmers who have lost their livelihoods, he added.
"We are going to file a complaint against these companies, on behalf of our citizens, of the victims," said Christian Wanduma, legal adviser to the neighbouring chiefdom of Wamuzimu.
"The parliamentary mission took note of the mafias which are organised in Mwenga, we await its conclusions," he added, predicting a communal "uprising" if the government glosses over the alleged misdeeds of the targeted companies.
On Monday, protests were staged in several areas "against the anarchic exploitation of minerals by Chinese companies", according to civil society activist Justin Mubarikiwa.
"The miners take and leave, the communities remain, their rights must be guaranteed," says Safanto Bulongo, who has followed the Mwenga case since the end of 2020.
Questioned on October 18 in Bukavu, Bulongo, then mining advisor to the governor of South Kivu, promised to look into gold digging in other areas of the province. His resignation was announced shortly thereafter without explanation.