Rwanda’s Mining: the forgotten sector of Rwanda’s economy

So we have gold – and probably plenty of it! That’s the news The New Times broke in its edition of 27th February. There are gold deposits in parts of western and northern Rwanda. Their existence is not in doubt. That has been known for a while. What is not exactly certain are the quantities involved. That’s what several companies are doing – prospecting in the areas to ascertain the exact amount of gold there. In many ways this is good news.

First, the picture of a resource-poor, tiny country that has often been portrayed is not entirely correct. We have minerals and probably other natural resources under our thousand hills after all.

The news about the gold, which citizens have always mined, albeit using unsophisticated methods, is an addition to other well-known minerals that have been mined in this country for a long time. I have heard about casseterite and wolfram mining in Rwanda all my life. It was done long before I was born, and is still being done now. In recent years, coltan, that has also always been here, has gained prominence with the revolution in the communications industry.

These minerals are a significant part of the economy. Only last year, it is reported, earnings from export of minerals topped US $158.8 million, making the sector second in foreign earnings to tourism.

Clearly, there are considerable quantities of minerals in this country. And there may be other natural resources we do not know about, yet. We already know about methane gas in Lake Kivu. What other gases or resources lie beneath our many lakes and plains? Abundant deposits of peat sit on the surface of marshes and valleys. What else may stretch deeper below the surface?

We will know in good time. For the moment, though, we can only speculate and hope that these beautiful hills harbour more than their steep cones, beautiful terraces and the valleys that meander between them. Which is why the repeated reminder that we do not have much in the way of natural resources and should therefore do everything to develop the only resource we are sure of – the human sort – remains valid.

And even if it wasn’t, the rationale behind it is still compelling. We still need to invest in human capital to work the natural resource and make it profitable. We do not have to look far to see how abundance of natural wealth does not necessarily translate into greater national wealth. The people remain dirt poor in spite of the untold riches in their soil. To escape from the biting poverty, some of them have gone to Europe and America where they offer themselves for hire as hoodlums to harass citizens of other countries (like Rwanda) who are getting themselves out of poverty through sheer grit and hard work.

In the past, mineral exports did not represent a sizeable portion of the nation’s GDP, perhaps due to underreporting by individuals and groups that had vested interests in keeping the sector in the shadows. Or perhaps due to inefficiency.

For whatever reason the mining sector was kept out of the limelight, that did not wipe away the presence of minerals in commercially exploitable quantities.

So, why did mining in Rwanda remain forgotten for a long time despite its economic significance?

That’s the second reason the news about gold deposits is good.

The reason is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda’s mining industry has been overshadowed by that of its giant western neighbour. In the popular imagination, the DRC is reputed to have minerals strewn along village paths, or falling from the sky with the generous rains, or washed on river banks for anyone to pick. Every rock is supposed to harbour some gem or other. They have so much that the little country to the east was left with nothing, and a magical line was drawn between the two countries – with minerals to the west and none to the east.

And so if any minerals are found in Rwanda, they can only have been stolen from the DRC. There can be no other explanation even when the evidence is there before the eyes.

There is, of course, a more sinister motive behind wilful blindness. There are some people for whom the progress that Rwandans have made without being beholden to them is an unbearable and unacceptable reality. They will do anything to deny it is the work of Rwandans using their own resources and effort. But because they cannot erase the fact, they seek to dismiss it by ascribing the progress to theft of Congolese wealth.

Psychologists call this phenomenon, transfer of guilt. Mineral-rich DRC has been plundered and impoverished by foreign interests, from King Leopold of Belgium to his latter-day successors from Europe and America – governments, corporations, NGOs, churches – the lot. To ease their collective conscience, they project and transfer their guilt to others, especially those they think are little, powerless countries, like Rwanda.

Now, with discoveries of more mineral deposits and more open reporting of mining activities in Rwanda, it will increasingly be difficult to find a convenient carrier of their guilt. Like the popular Swahili Christian hymn says, siku za mwisho kila mtu atabeba mzigo wake mwenyewe (loosely translated as; on judgement day, everyone will carry their own burden)

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