The history of Rwandan mining—and its mixed private and public management–can not be disentangled from colonial economic enterprises. Belgians began coming to Rwanda in the 1920s in response to tin ore findings in a 1909 geologic survey and then controlled the mining sector through colonial private companies until independence in 1960. The government formed the Société Miniere du Rwanda (SOMIRWA) in 1973 by joining all existing mining companies based on colonial vestiges. SOMIRWA faced inherited difficulties from the start in the form of outdated equipment, insufficient infrastructure, and poor technological understanding. It never managed to earn profit and fell into bankruptcy in 1985. Geomines, the Belgian company that was SOMIRWA’s majority stakeholder, liquidated at the end of the same year. There was a turnaround in 2006, however, when the government announced the privatization of the mining sector. Rwanda saw gains in mining exports after several years, including new rare gems. This revision of the mining code attracted greater international investors and created the current national mining boon that serves to reconfigure the economy and social relations near extraction sites.

Currently, Rwandan extraction focuses on the 3Ts: tin, tantalum, and tungsten. The 3T minerals employ 300,000 across the Great Lakes Region (GLR). These minerals are vital across the world because they are necessary for the functioning of electronics (Hinton 2016). Tantalum stores electrical charge, tungsten allows phones to vibrate, and tin is used to solder connections, and there is no modern communication device that can function without them. The growing demand for communication devices across the globe is why the 3Ts are Rwanda’s most important export product and the mining sector has become Rwanda’s second-largest earner for GDP. The sector has been growing at a rate of at least 10% every year since 1999, and long-ago eclipsed agriculture for national revenue. It is projected to reach $800 million USD by 2020 and $1.5 billion by 2024, nearly doubling every year. There are few sectors in a few countries in the world that foresee such growth.

3T miners in Eastern Province, Rwanda. 

However, at the same time, natural resource boons have posed threats to African nations that have relied on them too heavily. The literature on the “resource curse” indicates resource-rich developing countries experience economic vulnerabilities from global price fluctuations, changes in international market access, and domestic inflation. Certain minerals have been linked to higher rates of corruption and worse democratic measurements because they fund bad behavior and weaken tax bases. They are also positively correlated with state instability, as minerals profits create an incentive to try to capture the state. In DRC, the “lootability” of, or ease of extracting and informally selling, minerals has undergirded Kabila’s civil war by funding weapons purchases and paying fighters.  Yet, very importantly, this research in Rwanda is interesting because Rwanda is uniquely poised to avoid the resource curse of its neighbors. Mining does not yet comprise a majority of GDP, reducing economic risks, and there is already a strong state apparatus in place to ensure the transparent use of mineral revenue, reducing political pitfalls. The strength of the Rwandan state allows it to increasingly regulate the mining sector to potentially make it a minerals success story.

This increased regulation includes a heavy emphasis on formalizing employment and operations at ASMs to bring them under greater control. Mining, both regulated and unregulated, is the fastest-growing employment sector in Rwanda. Rwandan mining is a blend of artisanal, small-scale, and large, formalized operations, the latter holding over 500 permits with uncountable other mines operating out of the purview. Rwandan mining currently employs more than 60,000 legally, but Rwandan ASMs employ well over 34,000 (HRW). At the time of this research, that meant Rwandan miners supported a total of 170,000 livelihoods.* As opposed to formal mines, ASMs are attractive because they offer significant off-farm employment opportunities with a low qualification threshold for unskilled miners who live below the poverty line. This makes them particularly alluring for women, most of whom have fewer employment opportunities relative to men.

Panning tool to wash minerals from tailings, considered an unskilled task sometimes open to female workers.

Rwanda has been a regional juggernaut in its efforts to regulate this burgeoning industry that is vital to so many local livelihoods but which has struggled with accountability, traceability of its product, and labor standards. At the national level in 2010, the government rolled out its multi-stakeholder tin supply chain initiative (iTSCi) to improve due diligence in mineral traceability among member companies. At the same time, it piloted the Certified Trading Chains (CTC) approach from 2008-2011 in order to emphasize artisanal processes in ethical production. It joined the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region’s Regional Initiative on Natural Resources (RINR), which includes a database on mineral flows, a framework national legislations, and a tool for the formalization of ASMs. In 2014, Rwanda passed a new mining code to regularize all licensing, extraction, and supply chain accountability. Virtually all Rwandan 3T exports now pass through due diligence requirements on conflict-free sourcing. One of the official aims is also to bring mining companies into compliance with the new 2018 Labor Code, specifically to increase the number of miners protected under employment contracts.

To date, Rwanda’s increased regulation of mining has been a formal top-down effort that has not incorporated localized legal actors, institutions, or processes that comprise “soft law”. This poses questions about how traditional or informal law determines behaviors, interacts with the formal system, and regulates itself. For example, in one mining location individual mineworkers were obliged to pay a ‘tithe’ to similar local community causes, like a form of tax or fine but outside the formal state system. In other places, women were barred from mining, according to local traditional leaders, which is an instance of enforcing traditional law in relation to mining. On a larger scale, most companies and ASMs enjoy an informal “social license” to operate (SLO). Unlike the legal obligation of compliance with contractual undertakings, such as community relocation or compensation, the social license is contingent upon a continuous and ongoing localized dynamic between the company and the community. This social permit to operate depends on the relativity, namely, the perception of the company’s activities by the community.” In turn, this means the company can make its own form of soft law through its employment practices. Arguably, the company could act in a state-like function on the ground in this way, e.g. creating labor norms, employing security forces. Local taxes, bans, social licenses, and mining company’s soft law serve as instances of sociolegal legal forces determining realities near extraction sites. The dearth of research on Rwanda’s sociolegal approach to increased regulation of ASMs, as well as informal law on the ground, comprises the key driver of this study.

*Focus group data suggests that mining produces 60,000 RWF of monthly income per miner, allowing that miner to provide for four dependents.

(All photos courtesy of Placide Habinema)