Conflict Minerals Primer: The Reality of the Northeastern DR Congo

23 Sep

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a vast resource of minerals under its mountainous terrain that presently brings in large sums of money in the millions of dollars so much so that individuals, companies, and countries have risked everything to enter the DR Congo legally and illegally in order to mine out these materials and sell them on the world market.Vastfortunes can be made in a very short time if the labor is cheap, the mine is accessible, and the travel routes in and out have been secured. Precious materials such as Cassiterite, Wolframite, Coltan, and Gold, are all found within the ground in the northeastern section of the country. They are used in the manufacture of a variety of popular electronic devices that are highly sort after in the world markets such as I-Phones and Androids, laptops, and MP3 players

Kivu District of northeast DR Congo is also the region where open warfare between several factions is currently taking place leaving this region highly unstable and its residents tremendously vulnerable. The most brutal exploiter of the local population is the entire Congolese National Army from Generals to foot soldiers who operate hundreds of mines unchallenged in Kivu District alone and man them by forcing the local residents to work for them. They make up the largest number of illegal groups currently operating in the area and are known for their open exploitation of workers through their use of rape, torture, and murder to subdue their mine laborers. A recent study by IPIS indicates that armed groups are present at more than 50% of mining sites. At many sites, armed groups of soldiers illegally tax, extort, and coerce civilians to work for them. Miners, including children, work 48-hour shifts in dangerous conditions such as mudslides and tunnel collapses and thousands of workers have already died from what is referred to by the Congolese soldiers as “ mine incidents.”

Then there are the rebel groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). These are the Hutu extremists who led the Rwandan Genocide in 1984. They are still entrenched in the mountains of Kivu District and have even established a stronghold in The Virunga National Forest which they have occupied for some time now. It is time that they were hunted down and eradiated by the Congolese Government but they have managed to survive quite well and also use forced local labor to maintain their own mines and sell their ore through middle men located in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Although the government likes to claim that they have seriously curtailed the FDLR’s mining operations, they still remain a formidable force in the area. Koni and his Liberation Army spend time in the region of the DRCongo too and while camped out there operate mines through enforced local labor and manage quite well on their profits. All of the rebel groups use their proceeds to replenish their weaponry and ammunition through black market arms dealers.

Rumors abound that both the countries of Rwanda and Uganda still operate private mines located throughout the foot hills of the Ruwenzoru Mountains, far away from prying eyes. The idea of stealing the DR Congo’s natural resources by other countries originated during the First and Second Wars in the Congo. The countries of  Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded the DR Congo and while they were at it opened mining operations as well in remote areas on the eastern regions of the Congo that bordered their specific countries. The Congolese government had not the forces, the resources, or the time to stop them. They were finally embarrassed by the United Nations into claiming that they had stopped but local residents of Kivu district will swear to you that these mines still exist today and that their mining operations were never shut down. At one point near the end of the Second War in the Congo it was documented by MONUSCO, the UN mission in eastern DR Congo, that agents from Rwanda went as far as to sell mineral rights located in the DR Congo to private companies located in Europe. It is common knowledge throughout Kivu District that these three governments continue to smuggle resources out of the DR Congo to this day.

Before the reason for this crisis can be properly understood it is imperative that the reader have some idea of the vast size and geographic diversity within this country in order to understand the reasons for its almost non-existent infrastructure.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo covers roughly 905,063 square miles. That makes it about the same size in area as the United States of America from the Mississippi River to the East Coast and according to BBC News is the 12th largest country in the world. It contains many distinct regions, each with its own climate and geological formations. The central area if covered by tropical rain forests and rivers, surrounded by mountains in the west, that merge into savannahs and plains in the south and southwest , and grasslands in the north. On its northeastern and eastern border the Ruwenzoru Mountain Range stands majestic and tall. It contains the Albertine Rift Mountain Forest which is home to the last of the Mountain Gorilla and which still contains active volcanoes. It is the northeastern area where the majority of the mineral resources have been found.

The Equator plays a major role in its climate and dry versus wet months are all determined by a district’s position from this line. In regions that lie South of the Equator, the rainy season lasts from October to May but in places north of the Equator, from April to November, the exact opposite. On the Equator, rainfall occurs quite regularly throughout the 12 month year. It rains   a great deal in the central basin especially and  average rainfall for the entire country is about 42 inches per year.

Moving around from one place to another by land in the DR Congo has always been precarious at best. The mountains of the north and west as well as the dangerous terrain and wet climate found in Central Congo Basin has impeded the buildings of cross –country highways and railroad tracks. This country has yet to be unified through roadways in any way and to do so would take many years and billions of dollars to cover the existing area. For years the citizens of the Congo used their rivers to move from place to place and continue to use them to this day. Traditionally water transport is the dominant means of travel in the Congo for two-thirds of its population.  Due to the poor road conditions use of small transport planes referred to as “Bush Planes” fly men of means and status where they need to go in Central and East Africa. Travel by car and bus is discouraged by foreigners in the DR Congo and for good reason. Roads are not paved or only small sections of each road has been paved and are not subject to regular maintenance. Even then hundreds of large, deep holes which can ruin an automobile tire, cover individual roads making all cars travel at a snail’s pace. During the rainy season even adequate roads will deteriorate and sections crack open especially the pavement on bridges built over the rivers. The National Highway II which connects the city of Brazzaville to Pointe Noire is one of the country’s best functioning highways but still remains largely unpaved and sections of it are often impassable during the rainy season.

Unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel are frequently unavailable in the major cities and may be non-existent in the more rural regions of the country. There may be no predetermined price for gasoline with foreigners paying double, even triple the cost for which it’s sold to the residents of the area. There are few road signs directing the traveler in what direction to continue and either police or Congolese soldiers will conduct routine check-points along the way which they will extort money from both residents and non-residents alike before cars are allowed to pass by their gates.  Only four- wheel vehicles and trucks are recommended for use on these roads especially during the rainy season.

The Congolese government even if it was willing to regulate the mines in northeastern districts cannot supervisee what it cannot get to and so thousands of small mines dot the mountainous landscape from the northeast corner all the way down the eastern border of the DR Congo. But it is common knowledge that many members of the Congolese National Army instead of doing their assigned jobs help themselves to the mineral wealth found in the northeastern districts instead. And that this practice is so pervasive that no one in the Kabila government is aware of it or is disturbed by their actions in the slightest? If this is true, all of the forced regulations from the rest of the world will not change the present conditions until Kabila’s government in Kinshasa has effectively found a way to oversee the movements of his troops in the east.

The primitive conditions of Congolese roads keeps the rural towns and even the more populated cities isolated from one another and the feeling of being connected to the DR Congo as a citizen has not yet occurred. People tend to stay in the villages in which they were born or settle close to this area unless fate intervenes and forces them to move somewhere else. When asked who they are, villagers will begin by telling you the name of the tribe to which they belong, then the town or city in which they reside. They will not refer to themselves as Congolese citizens unless prompted by questions to respond and even then, many of them have no idea how to define themselves in a broader way.

In April 2009, Sam Brownback, a Republican Senator from Kansas introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 (S. 819). This act would require all electronics companies to verify and disclose their sources of Cassiterite, Wolframite, and Tantalum. His legislation died in committee but Brownback did not quit and added similar language as Section 1502 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which eventually passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama on July 21, 2010.

“On August 22, 2012 The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which will require companies to publicly disclose their use of conflict minerals that originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an neighboring country.

The regulatory reform law has directed the Commission to issue rules requiring certain companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals that include tantalum, tin, gold, or tungsten if those minerals are “necessary to the functionality or production of a product” manufactured by those companies. Companies are required to provide this disclosure on a new form to be filed with the SEC called Form SD.”

California is the first state in the United States to pass its own Conflict Minerals legislation. Their legislation follows Section 1502 of the national legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and aims at regulating the problem of conflict minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and purchased by California- based companies especially those located in Silicon Valley.

The Dodd- Frank Act is not the first legislation to try and supervise the mining and export of conflict minerals in the northeastern DR Congo.  The government of the DR Congo has released its own mining regulations which are suppose to guard against illegal exploitation of all mineral resources and establish a certification program that would be regulated by the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).  There are also OECD, (European Union) and the UN sanctions in place against private and public companies that purchase conflict minerals or operate illegal mines in the Congo. MONUSCO working out of the city of Goma has begun to establishing plan for the construction of checking stations within the eastern districts to supervise the trading of these minerals.

This may sound like there are effective plans in place to stem this crisis but none of them will work successfully unless the fighting stops and the rebel groups in this region are removed.  The Congolese government has to find a way to monitor the movement of its troops in these districts, curtail their illegal mines and the enslavement of the local villagers. There must be plan to gain access to these mines in order to ensure that the operations are legal so new roads and trails will have to be cut through the mountainous terrain in order to gain quick access to the sites. And all government, United Nation agencies, and NGO’s will have to work closely together to protect those local people whose livelihoods will be affected by the closing of these mines.

In my next blog post I will talk about the choices the Congolese government must make and M23’s position in all of this. Please view this film clip if you want to get an idea of the brutal conditions the villagers face each and every day. This is an older film but one that tells and shows waht the workers face like no other film I’ve ever seen about illegal mining and forced labor.

This film gives you a thorough idea of what is happening.

Kat Nickerson                    Kingston, RI           USA


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