Sister Nathalie Kangaji has never been ready to accept injustice. She has been fighting for ten years as coordinator of the Legal Aid Center (CAJJ) in Kolwezi, in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for the rights of the most disadvantaged who are facing multinational corporations, including Swiss based Glencore, acting in this region rich in precious minerals.
It is hard to imagine how Sister Nathalie, a discreet and rather shy little woman, can stand up to big mining companies. However, you feel she is one of those people whose faith can move mountains. The small victories she records give her the strength to continue her fight.
Born into a modest family in Likasi, 200 km southeast of Kolwezi, Nathalie joined the Congregation of Our Lady of St. Augustine, in 1990, at the age of 19. “I’ve always been outraged by the misery I saw around me – she says-. Faith has given me the strength to commit myself to improve the lot of my brothers and sisters.”
Sister Nathalie began her work for prisoners in the local Justice and Peace Commission. “But it did not bring any concrete effect. I wanted to get to the root of the problems, especially because the poor people are too uninformed to be capable of defending their rights properly.” Therefore, in 2008, she created the Legal Aid Center (CAJJ), with a group of friends and the help of Action de Carême (AdC) – Lenten Action – and Pain (PPP) – Bread for the neighbor.
Since its creation, the center has developed well, and never missed work. In addition to common law cases, the 10 or so employees deal with the grievances of the communities affected by the booming mining activities around Kolwezi. The city is indeed the epicenter of an intense copper and cobalt extraction activity, the last one an essential metal for the modern digital industry. The land around Kolwezi is thought to contain nearly 60% of the world’s reserves of cobalt. An inestimable wealth that does not in any way benefit the inhabitants.
The two most profitable sites in the area are operated by the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), a subsidiary of the Swiss multinational Glencore, based in the canton of Zug. These companies have made some investments for the population in recent years. But according to Sister Nathalie, damages caused by the extractive activities are much greater than benefits. They mainly concern water, air and soil pollution, as well as the people’s having to relocate.
In particular . the thousands of trucks daily transporting ore to the ports on the East African coast cause significant problems. The clouds of dust raised greatly affect the quality of the air and the poor dispensaries of the region do not manage to cope with the many resulting respiratory diseases. Flows of sludge and chemicals from the mines have also polluted streams and crops adjacent to the sites. Many inhabitants have been cut off from their economic and food sources.
The CAJJ, therefore, helped the Moloka villagers, which is near to one of KCC’s mines. From July 2013 to September 2014, toxic spills spread on the fields of 26 peasant families. KCC and Glencore began by denying their responsibility. But thanks to the pressure exerted by the CAJJ, and also in Switzerland by the AdC and PPP , the multinational agreed to pay to the injured families a compensation of several tens of thousands of dollars.
“Local justice is often not very effective – says Sister Nathalie -. Because there is a great deal of corruption among the authorities. And they dare not oppose the multinationals. But when the pressures on corporations is made in the West things move on. They value their public image, and when it is threatened, they act.”
Congolese justice should uphold justice. But, according to Sister Nathalie, there is a lack of political will. And the change of power, with the election of the new President, Felix Tshisekedi in January 2019, does not give too much hope. “The new president will have little room for maneuver anyway, already because the results of the elections are doubtful, as observers of the Catholic Church have noted. Moreover, he does not have a majority in Parliament and has not yet been able to form his government. Whatever the case may be, he will not have his hands free to carry out the reforms that would be necessary.”
Faced with the incompetence of the public authorities, the Catholic Church is a major social actor in a large part of the DRC, says Sister Nathalie. In addition to the management of schools, hospitals and social services, the Church is committed to improving the rule of law and democracy: “The Catholic Church has a great prophetic role in society, which includes to denounce evil and to announce the truth”. She also raises the importance of international aid for the development of her country. In particular to ensure that the population benefits more from its immense natural wealth. To this end, she stresses the importance of the campaign for responsible corporation, supported notably by AdC and PPP: this would be the only way to require Swiss-based companies, such as Glencore, to fully respect human rights and environmental standards also abroad. (Raphael Zbinden)