Congo’s New Gold Rush

This is a feature piece I’ve written for the Global Section of Concrete this edition. I’m not looking forward to having to edit it down to fit in the paper.

Coltan. Tantalum. Cobalt. Sounds like things relevant to nobody except Walter White. Guess again; these precious minerals are in virtually every electronic device you can imagine – tantalum extracted from coltan is used to manufacture the capacitors that have mostly replaced platinum for use in smartphones, and cobalt is widely used in rechargeable lithium batteries. Most people in the UK probably use a device containing one of these minerals 20 times or more every day.

One of the largest deposits of cobalt is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and estimates of the coltan resource range between 64% and 80% of the global total. This has prompted a recent mining boom in DRC which has financed serious ethnic conflict and war.

Fighting in the so-called “coltan belt” dramatically increased at the beginning of the noughties, and metal mining has been linked to the Ituri conflict in 2002, when 3,000 civilians were massacred and virtually no international media outlets even reported on it. The profits from lucrative mines are seized by the militias and local warlords who control them, and the money is then used to finance military exercises, spurring violence and destruction across Congo. The government has been fighting the armed rebels for years, with new groups rising out of the woodwork whenever successful attempts are made to hold off conflict. The M23 rebels surrendered to a government offensive this month, signing a deal that will put an end to insurgency in the East that has continued since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, and has included the widespread perpetration of war crimes. It is unlikely that this will have to be the last such deal.

Children are forcibly assimilated into these armies, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, and committing horrendous atrocities as a result of their desensitised attitudes towards other human beings. What is perhaps more alarming is that the horrors in Congo go largely unreported; 5.4 million people died during the war from 1998 to 2007, out of a total population of 69 million – that’s nearly 8% of all the people in the country. Fighting also displaces millions of people – 300,000 (equivalent to the population of Venice) fled the M23 army last April, and an estimated 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the Lord’s Resistance Army first surfaced in the late 1980s.

Congo is often called the “rape capital of the world”, following reports from NGOs like Human Rights Watch documenting the use of rape as a weapon of war; more recently a 2007 study estimated more than a million Congolese women have been raped once or more during their lifetime. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has seen an increasing number of sexual attacks committed on children between the ages of 8 and 17, with 13.3% under the age of 10 – girls are most at risk, while boys are in danger of recruitment into the ranks of rebel armies.

The situation can be traced back through Congo’s tumultuous colonial past, following Belgium’s land grab during the “scramble for Africa” from the late 1880s up until the outbreak of World War One. Belgian Congo was simply a source of raw materials for Belgium, and the plentiful natural resources there have been rapaciously exploited ever since colonisation. Insurrection following independence in 1960 carved out Congo’s military trajectory – Mobutu seized power by force, ruling for more than 30 years, until he was ousted following the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and replaced by the puppet of Rwanda and Uganda, Laurent Kabila. The resulting war when they grew tired of their proxy and attempted to remove him is referred to as Africa’s First World War. Since then, the resulting free-for-all has allowed armed groups to seize control of mines in order to facilitate the mayhem with blood money from the sale of diamonds, gold, tin, tantalum and cobalt.

It is widely documented that corrupt government officials profit from the illegal spoils alongside the warring factions with de facto control over the mines. The slow progress in cleaning them up is having an effect on this illicit trade agreement, whereby government and rebel armies alike fund horrific brutality with appropriated minerals, growing fat off the profits while ordinary Congolese people die. The situation is perpetuated by underhand government funding to the rebels, providing them with weapons whilst visibly fighting them in the anarchic eastern provinces.

Recent attempts to disconnect the supply of essential minerals from warfare, such as the “no blood on my cell phone” campaign, leg by NGOs and religious institutions, called for a trade embargo on “blood tantalum”, drawing parallels with the successful campaign to raise awareness about blood diamonds. The phrase refers to diamonds mined in conflict areas and often used to finance the activities of warlords or insurgency, as was seen in the late 90s and early 00s in countries in West Africa, like Sierra Leone and Angola. So successful was the campaign to eradicate the sale of blood diamonds in the West that it prompted the creation of the film by the same name about the Sierra Leonian civil war from 1996 to 2001. However, the glamour of diamonds is not easily transferrable to a campaign about the sale of component materials present in items that are so extensively used in industrialised countries. Trying to get people to give up items which have become so firmly entrenched in our everyday lives as to make it unthinkable to live without them is going to be a hard-sell.

The corporations that benefit from the production of cheap blood tantalum know this only too well. Although some companies, like Motorola, HP and Intel, which manufacture everything from phones to computer microchips, have started to wean themselves off the habit, there are many who still profit from it, relying on our addiction to technology and our unwillingness to pay more for it.

New regulations to certify non-conflict minerals cost companies a significant amount above what it costs to buy whatever raw materials they can, at the lowest price. Intel employee Chuck Mulloy recently outlined in the National Geographic why the company has sacrificed some of their profits in the name of clean minerals: “we don’t want to support people who are raping, pillaging, and killing. It’s as simple as that”.

However, what seems simple on the surface may involve a much more complex array of factors – a six-month ban on mining and trading activities in Eastern Congo, imposed by the government towards the end of 2010, had devastating effects on the livelihoods of miners in the region. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, signed by Obama in summer 2010, was criticised for the same reasons – that it would force companies like Intel to boycott all mines and smelters that could not prove their conflict-free, or “green” credentials, thereby removing the livelihoods of tens of thousands of poor miners. This was the case for some time, although the growth of certified green mines and smelters, with a rubber-stamping guarantee system, has led to a resurgence in the mining of precious minerals, this time without the bloodstains.

Heightened awareness and some degree of consumer pressure has obviously led to some companies developing a conscience with regards to precious metals. The Fairphone is the first smartphone in which every component in the supply chain is guaranteed to be conflict-free, and aims to be environmentally and socially responsible in every aspect of its manufacture. 25,000 have already been sold, indicative of a growing concern among citizens of developed countries about atrocities committed in the name of technological progress in countries like Congo. Hopefully it will be soon that every phone you buy will be untainted with the blood and pain of Congo’s war.


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About shakkka

Londoner, climate scientist, extremist. All views are my own.

One response to “Congo’s New Gold Rush”

  1. #resourcecurse says :

    Very well put. Extremely important Issue, and very well written. Consumer awareness is key!

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