JAMES STAIRS | GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
They are both the bounty and the curse of a war-torn nation: rich Congolese mineral deposits, observers say, are the seeds of recovery for the humanitarian disaster that has engulfed the nation since 1998.
But many say exploitation of these deposits is also driving the bloody conflict that has left five million dead and more than a million displaced despite the official end of war in 2003.
Gold, columbite-tantalite (or coltan), wolframite and cassiterite — minerals principally used in the electronics industry — are abundant in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“At the moment it is a free-for-all in the Congolese mining trade,” says Carina Tertsakian of Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based body that works to expose the relationships between the exploitation of natural resources and armed conflicts.
“You have different armed groups controlling mines throughout the region,” she adds.
A 2008 United Nations report found that “several mineral exporting firms could be acting as fronts for the National Congress for the Defence of the People [CNDP] interests”.
The same report found that the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) collect millions of United States dollars a year through control of several mines.
Congolese government troops (FARDC) have also been implicated.
“[The UN] believes that it is not in the interest of certain FARDC commanders to end the conflict in eastern DRC as long as their units are able to deploy to, and profit from, mining areas,” the report read.
“Definitely, the general chaos in the region is in the interest of all the armed groups,” she says.
Even rogue elements of the UN peacekeeping force, Monuc, have been exposed as being involved — trading UN guns for illegal minerals.
The situation in DRC is relentlessly fluid, as the arrest on Thursday of CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and sudden cooperation between Rwanda and the Congolese government to flush out the FDLR have proven.
But these efforts may prove to be in vain as long as armed groups, who claim to be fighting to defend their own ethnic groups, have the motivation of huge profits.
The UN believes the government agency responsible for certifying the minerals “grossly undervalues” both the quality and the quantity of exports and that large-scale smuggling operations are ongoing.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region has brought attention to the links between the mining industry and the war, Tertsakian says, but there is no evidence that the trade has slowed.
Congolese minerals are now being referred to as “blood minerals” in many circles.
The term enrages Alexis Makabuza, a mineral trader and a director of the Goma-based Global Mining Company.
“Do you see blood dripping from these minerals?” he asks dramatically, pointing to a high stack of bags packed with cassiterite.
The minerals in the bags have been purchased by a Canadian company and are scheduled to be shipped to Malaysia for processing.
Much of DRC’s mineral trade is operated by poor miners who extract the minerals by hand and sell it to traders.
Makabuza’s company acts as a middleman, purchasing the raw minerals from the traders, processing it and selling it on to the global market.
“We work with international buyers and they are being put under pressure,” he says. “When people say we deal in blood minerals and that we fuel the war, it has meaning.”
He claims that the minerals he buys do not fund the war, offering up piles of certifications and lists of names, but admits he really doesn’t know where the minerals he buys originate.
“I can’t know every person that enters my business,” he argues.
However, Tertsakian believes there is no excuse for not knowing the provenance of minerals.
“If [traders] really don’t know, they should go out and find out,” she says.
Identification of conflict minerals, Makabuza reasons, is ultimately the role of the Congolese government.
“Show us the area”, where the conflict is fuelled by the mineral trade, “and we’ll sacrifice that area,” he says.
In its report, the UN proposed drawing up such a map. It also suggested international buyers employ due diligence by “publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals.” Global Mining Company was not named in the UN findings.
Strengthening the Congolese government’s enforcement capabilities are the best way to tackle the problem, Tertsakian says, praising the UN Security Council’s December extension of the peacekeeping mandate.
Falling commodity prices have also put pressure on the industry.
Makabuza says his profits have halved in six months and if the trend continues his business will be at risk.
“If we don’t export minerals the [provincial] economy will collapse,” he says. “Eastern DR Congo is living off minerals.” — Sapa-dpa