Congolese authorities confiscated 31 kg of gold worth $1.9 million in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the country’s northeast, a rare blow for smugglers who illegally transfer tonnes of Congolese gold onto the worldwide market each year.
The gold originated from Muchacha, a mine in the Okapi reserve, according to Lieutenant Jean de Dieu Musongela, chief of the military prosecutor’s office in Mambasa.
Although mining is prohibited in the reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to okapi, forest elephants, and other endangered species, the Congolese mining registration shows Okapi covers a lesser area than UNESCO’s maps.
According to Musongela, three Congolese males were apprehended, but two Chinese men fled. The three suspects were transferred to Bunia, the provincial capital, to be questioned further.
“Not only are these people mining gold, they are also melting it,” said Musongela, adding the authorities did not know the extent of the operation.
Muchacha is located on mining concession PE7657, which is controlled by MCC Resources, according to a study released last week by the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo. According to the report, members of the Congolese armed forces were on the Muchacha site in violation of Congolese law, citing photographic proof.
MCC Resources did not respond to an emailed request for comment right away.
According to Danny Munsense Muteba, chief of investigations at the Ituri mining ministry, the mine is just 200 kilometers from the Ugandan border, where most of the province’s gold is smuggled.
Large-scale smuggling along this route persisted in 2020, according to UN experts, who have cited Kampala as a trading centre for smuggled gold from Ituri.
Uganda’s ministry of energy and mineral development did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Guillaume de Brier, a researcher at the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), Congo produced between 15 and 22 tonnes of gold worth more than half a billion dollars last year, but levied $72,000 in taxes.
“This means than 99% of the gold extracted in DRC is smuggled to neighboring countries,” he said.