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Decaying tin mining town in Congo finds new hope in lithium

Near the rusting carcass of a smelter, barefoot men and women scratch the ground in search of cassiterite – the tin oxide ore that formed the city generations ago. manono a brief taste of the good life.

The diggers carry the sandy earth to the Lukushi River where women wash the grit into metal bowls, hoping to find some black nuggets to live on.

Standing in the water from morning to night, washing the loot and searching for ore yields between 15,000 and 18,000 Congolese francs ($7.50 to $9.00 / 6.70 to eight euros) per day.

“There is nothing else in Manono,” said Marcelline Banza, a 28-year-old mother of three. “Life is very difficult.”

Manono, a town in Tanganyika province in southeastern DR Congo, is almost a textbook example of a mining town that went from tree to tree.

“Most people live below the poverty line and would rather dig (for cassiterite) than work on the land,” said Patrice Sangwa, the district’s chief doctor.

This remote corner of the vast country is battling malnutrition, cholera and even a measles epidemic, which has killed dozens of children since December.

But hopes grow that the impoverished city can be magically transformed.

The big news is that a large amount of lithium – the metal used to make rechargeable batteries in telephones and electric cars – has been found nearby.

– Quality ores –

Australian company AVZ Minerals, which has a majority stake in a joint venture with Congolese company La Cominere, says after several years of investigation it has discovered about 400 million tons of ore with a lithium concentration of 1.6 percent.

The find represents lithium reserves of some six million tons – more than enough to compete with leading producers such as Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.

“It’s probably on the largest undeveloped resource in the world,” said AVZ’s CEO, Nigel Ferguson, who described the find as “very unique”.

“The quality is very good… very pure,” he said.

In large warehouses, the company stores cores drilled from the rock at a depth of nearly 400 meters (1,300 feet), beneath the layers of soil, laterite and shale.

The samples are sent to Perth in Australia for analysis.

– Glory Days –

Manono grew from the beginning of the 20th century, when Belgian settlers exploited a promising cassiterite deposit.

The mines, along with quarries, foundries, dams, housing and the railroad, brought prosperity.

But little by little, after the turbulent years and sloppy management that followed independence in 1960, the mining equipment deteriorated and Manono gradually became inactive.

The decline was fueled by falling tin prices, although the final blow came from the war that led to the 1997 seizure of power by Laurent-Desire Kabila, supported by Rwandan soldiers.

“We have all fled. The foundry was destroyed, the houses looted, the European quarter destroyed, including that of the African executives,” recalls Paul Kissoula, a respected 70-year-old elder nicknamed “Papa Paul”.

A quarter of a century later, vegetation has grown over the ruins and slag heaps are covered with trees, while two steam locomotives, a crane and wagons rust along a berm.

“There’s been nothing for years,” said “Papa Paul.”

He was hired in 1974 by Congo Etain (Congo Tin) – a publicly traded company that became Zairetain after the country changed its name to Zaire under the dictatorship of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, then La Cominiere (Congolese mining company).

– ‘Waiting for the permit’ –

AVZ hopes for an operating permit after submitting a feasibility study for the site.

The company says it plans to invest $600 million to build a lithium processing plant with a capacity of 700,000 tons per year, and to renovate an old hydroelectric power station to provide power.

If all goes well, production could start in 2023 and hundreds of people could be employed according to the schedule.

“People are suffering… AVZ will help us,” said territorial administrator Pierre Mukamba Kaseya who, like everyone else, “is waiting for the permit”.

“The project specifications also foresee work on roads, schools and hospitals,” said Baccam Banza Cazadi, a secondary school principal.

“We want them to succeed, for the province and for the country,” he said. “There is hope.”

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