Belgian mining firm Forrest International bulldozed hundreds of homes near one of its mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report published Monday by Amnesty International.
The demolitions happened November 24 and 25, 2009, in the village of Kawama, near the Luiswishi copper and cobalt mine. Kawama is located in the Katanga province, a region known for its vast mineral deposits, including cobalt — a key ingredient in smartphone batteries.
Amnesty says that Forrest International has consistently lied about its role in the demolitions to avoid having to pay compensation to the hundreds of Kawama residents who were forcibly evicted from their homes.
The 2009 demolitions were part of a police operation to clear a camp of illegal miners, purported to be stealing from the Luiswishi mine. But Amnesty claims that hundreds of permanent brick houses and businesses were also destroyed.
Satellite imagery obtained by the human rights group shows that, "387 structures were demolished in the affected neighborhoods between May 31, 2009, and May 15, 2010. These structures were present before the influx of small-scale miners to Kawama."
According to Amnesty, a Forrest International subsidiary called EGMF supplied local police with two bulldozers and two drivers used in the demolitions. While Forrest International does not refute the use of its company's vehicles, it claims that the bulldozers were handed over under duress.
Henry de Harenne, a spokesman for Forrest International, told VICE News that the company has from the start acknowledged and denounced the police demolitions. However, he disputed the mining firm's responsibility for the forced evictions of villagers, which he claims is out of line with the company's policy.
"We firmly condemn what happened in 2009, and I repeat that we are in no way responsible for those events," Harenne said. "The Congolese authorities have acknowledged that two of our bulldozers were commandeered that morning, and that the on-site manager received death threats. He was in no position to refuse."
Forrest International forwarded VICE News a document drafted by the firm, which outlines their version of the bulldozing. According to the document, "several thousand illegal miners" flocked to the Luiswishi mine in 2009. The company requested an intervention by the Katanga police, citing the need to protect "the welfare of the miners themselves," who are known to use explosives to extract minerals.
'The on-site manager received death threats. He was in no position to refuse.'
On November 24, a police raid to recover stolen equipment and minerals descended into violence. Miners rebelled and charged at the police, who reportedly sought refuge in the mine. The police then requisitioned two bulldozers and their drivers, and razed the miners' temporary homes to the ground. According to Amnesty's report, permanent homes were also demolished in the raid, which was sanctioned by Katanga province officials.
Police officers returned the next morning, and "to everyone's surprise," used the same bulldozers to finish off the demolition, at which point Forrest International claims it got in touch with the authorities to "put an end to police abuses."
Ashfaq Khalfan, a researcher and advisor for Amnesty International, has been investigating the demolitions since 2009. Khalfan told VICE News that he contacted the Congolese attorney leading the investigation in 2014, who confirmed that permanent brick homes were also destroyed in the raid.
The attorney — who is no longer handling the case — told Amnesty that authorities in Katanga and Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, pressured him not to prosecute, and to close the case.
Forrest International, which has been mining in the region since 1922, told VICE News it paid out over $500,000 in compensation to 1,981 miners between December 2009 and February 2010. Amnesty hopes that by publishing the report, the firm will finally acknowledge its responsibility to the villagers whose homes and businesses were destroyed, and that it will extend financial reparations to them.
Olivier Alsteen, a spokesman for Forrest International, informed VICE News that the company never tried to figure out whether the displaced were villagers or illegal miners.
"That is not our responsibility," Alsteen said. "The authorities in Katanga are responsible for this, and for whether or not the villagers receive compensation. The mining laws required us to encourage illegal miners to leave, so we sat down with them and some human rights NGOs to come up with a financial incentive [for them to leave]."
According to Khalfan, the company's responsibility does extend to the displaced villagers, and that EGMF violated the UN's guiding principles on business and human rights, which stipulate that companies "should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved."
Authorities in Katanga declined to comment on the demolitions when contacted by VICE News.
Follow Virgile dall'Armellina on Twitter : @armellina