* Kibali could become one of world's biggest gold mines
* Opening marks Congo's return to world stage as gold
* Part of expansion of commercial mining in eastern Congo
* Randgold hopes project can promote development in remote
By Peter Jones
DOKO, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 8 The
open pit of the giant Kibali mine in northeastern Democratic
Republic of Congo, a yawning beige crater punched in dense
forest, could turn a remote corner of one of the world's poorest
countries into an economic powerhouse.
Kibali represents Congo's return to the world stage as a
producer and exporter of gold. The $2.5 billion joint venture
between Randgold, AngloGold Ashanti and state
miner Sokimo poured its first gold in September and could
eventually rank among the world's biggest.
Its scale is already evident. The mines' sides descend in a
series of deep shelves, making trucks at the base, which each
carry 100 tonnes of rock to the surface to be processed, appear
as small as insects.
Randgold Resources CEO Mark Bristow has great hopes that
Kibali, and a neighbouring agri-business project sponsored by
the mine, can do for Orientale province what copper and cobalt
have done for the southern province of Katanga, on which central
government relies for much of its income.
Decades of corruption, mismanagement and violence have
blighted the development of Congo, which at the time of
independence in 1960 was Africa's second most industrialised
economy. In 2013 it was near the foot of global tables for per
capita economic output.
Now industrial mining operations are moving back to regions
that have been the preserve of artisanal miners since the
collapse of Congo's state-run mining operations in the 1990s, at
the end of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year rule.
"It's a dream of mine that gold mining and agribusiness in
Orientale will beat Katanga as a source of economic welfare,"
Bristow told a ceremony to officially open Kibali last week.
Record copper exports from Katanga helped Congo's economy
grow by 8.5 percent in 2013. President Joseph Kabila's
government forecasts it will expand by around 9 percent this
year, as mining output picks up elsewhere.
Last year, Kibali produced 88,200 ounces of gold, which is
currently worth just under $1,300 an ounce, generating a
profit of over $68 million. Randgold forecasts it will produce
550,000 ounces this year and up to 650,000 ounces by 2018.
Its vast pit, called KCD, is estimated to hold 12 million
ounces of gold ore. Construction of vertical shafts to allow
underground mining are not complete but will help to access an
estimated 8 million ounces of resources.
"What you see is just Phase 1," said mining superintendent
Martin Matata. "In September, we start Phase 2, expanding south
and northeast, then Phase 3 in 2016 will expand to the west."
Alongside development comes dislocation. Randgold's permit
created an exclusion zone around the site in which artisanal
miners could not work, and 21,000 villagers, many of whom were
eking out a living digging for gold, were moved before
To maintain good relations, Kibali built a town for the
villagers called Kokiza, costing $84 million. Residents seem
content with the neatly aligned brick houses, though the uniform
design is incongruous in an area of haphazard mud-hut villages.
Over 5,500 Congolese were employed during the mine's
construction, but many lost their jobs as building was
completed. Kibali officials hope that by supporting agriculture
the community can benefit from the mine's presence, and hundreds
of locals are joining its agricultural co-operatives.
"We used to live from day to day," said Jacques Vurande, a
former artisanal miner who works in a co-operative producing
rice, aubergines and palm oil to sell to Kibali's catering
company and in markets. "Now I can get something from
agriculture, something that is lasting."
In Durba, a town near Kokiza, some are less certain. Jerome
Kamate has a degree in economics and management but no job.
"We used to survive on artisanal mining for our day-to-day
living, but now the gold pits are closed to us," said Kamate.
"We were told we'd get jobs in the mine, but that's not the
The lack of infrastructure presents the main challenge to
investors in Orientale. Congo, a country the size of western
Europe, has just 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) of asphalt roads
and no reliable power.
Kibali had to build a 180 km road to the Ugandan border to
transport 500,000 tonnes of materials and equipment to construct
the mine. That road has attracted traders from Congo and Uganda,
helping the local economy to flourish.
"Durba's population before we built the road was estimated
at around 10,000. Now, it's more like 50,000," said Kibali's
community development officer Preston Nix.
Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo has said he wants to
boost tax revenues from mining to foster development, in a
country where most of the 65 million people live below the
poverty line. Despite opposition from miners, Congo is reviewing
its 2002 mining code and seeking to triple royalties for
minerals including gold.
Some fear such a plan threatens the goose that lays the
Bristow said the current mining code was already onerous
enough, but he didn't expect it to jeopardise Kibali.
"We would be protected under the 10-year stabilisation
clause that we have as part of the original mining code," he
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Will Waterman)