It can take up to three weeks to dig, by hand, an 8m-deep shaft to where the gold-bearing sands lie at Iga-Barrière. Narrower shafts requiring less work carry greater risks.
A stake at the artisanal gold mine costs about $250, or five grams of gold, and is paid to the Société des Mines d'Or de Kilo Moto (SOKIMO), a public company. SOKIMO is a relic from Belgium, the former colonial power. Created in 1926, the company enjoyed boom years during the 1960s and 1970s, employing about 6,000 people and providing housing, clinics and schools for its employees. However, its nationalization in 1966 by then-Zaire's President Mobuto Sese-Seko, who used the company to support his lavish lifestyle, eventually took a toll. By the late 1980s, the company's only source of revenue was the taxing of artisanal and small-scale miners. Makuza Boniface, SOKIMO director at Iga-Barrière, told IRIN the company imposes a 30 percent tax on all gold produced at the site by the artisanal miners. Gold is being smuggled across the borders by gold dealers exploiting a tax loophole, Kitene said, to maximise profits.
Lobho Faustin, 30, cannot afford his own claim. He is part of a group of eight diggers, earning a wage to support his three children. "It's a job to live and survive on. How much money you make depends on how lucky you are. Sometimes I get $50 in a week and sometimes nothing. You can work for weeks and not get paid. I work for someone else. But it all depends. If we find gold then we get paid. There is nothing else to do," he said.
Artisanal miners face an array of occupational hazards, including: mercury inhalation while extracting gold from ore; tunnel and open-shaft mine collapses; women experiencing spontaneous abortions due to heavy labour; and the complete absence of water and sanitation facilities. "Health and safety is set down in the Mining Code, but most miners don't seem to care. It is very difficult to prosecute people as most are not educated and many were in militias during the war," Toto Bosingaka, the chief of the Service d'Assistance et d'Encadrement d'Artisanal (SAESSCAM), told IRIN.
As elsewhere in the eastern DRC, Ituri encountered a succession of international and local conflicts, and a variety of militias and foreign national armies imposed their own taxation system on the artisanal gold miners. Ndele Tanzi, coordinator for the Bunia-based NGO Honesty and Peace, told IRIN gold mining was a major threat to peace and stability. "The Ituri war was cast as an ethnic war, but if you look carefully it was about resources."
Although Ituri has returned to relative peace, gaining access to Iga-Barrière requires passing through numerous roadblocks staffed by security forces and government officials, who impose random "road taxes" on vehicles and pedestrians alike. The peace dividend has not provided any respite from a culture of backhander payments.
"While the exploitation of artisanal and small-scale miners continues, the identity of those responsible has now changed. They are no longer warlords and militia leaders but government administrators, members of the government's military and security organizations, and many regional traders," A November 2012 report, Conflict Gold to Criminal Gold, published by Southern Africa Resource Watch, said.
Louis Bedidj Fuarwingo, coordinator of the artisanal miner organization the Association Exploit dans Mineur Artisnal pur le pacification et reconstruction Ituri (AEMAPRI), told IRIN, "Sometimes authorities harass miners and make them pay for small things to let them work. They can make people very angry and demand as much as $750. "They ask for non-existent certificates, like 'scientific training' and 'expertise in mining'. They just create such lists to pick money from the miners. Police come to the mining camp and go to the mine boss and then all the miners have to contribute."