Digging In: Recent Developments on Conflict Minerals

 

Congo’s mineral wealth continues to play a central role in the country’s conflict dynamics. Despite the upsurge in displacement and atrocities during 2009, multinational companies continue to purchase minerals from the war zone.

Enough experts David Sullivan and Noel Atama assess the conflict minerals trade in Congo based on firsthand field research.[1]

Congo’s mineral wealth continues to play a central role in the country’s conflict dynamics. Despite the upsurge in displacement and atrocities during 2009, multinational companies continue to purchase minerals from the war zone, providing crucial fuel for the violence. Both the opportunities for Congo to escape from its catastrophic crisis cycle and the threats that could plunge it into renewed all-out war are directly connected to the fate of the mineral sector and the manner in which natural resources are utilized during the coming months.
 
The latest report of the U.N. Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo lays out in detail the prominent role of the minerals trade in the financing of Congo’s ongoing conflict.[2] Findings confirm the impressions we gleaned during recent travel to North and South Kivu, where the pursuit of mineral resources by armed elements on all sides of the conflict has only accelerated under the accord between Rwanda and Congo and the Kimia II military offensive against the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, by the Congolese army, which has the United Nations’ support.[3]
 
In particular, Congolese army units composed primarily of former members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, have expanded their control of mineral-rich regions within the context of Kimia II, compounding volatile political and ethnic grievances in these regions. And according to the U.N. Group of Experts Coordinator Dinesh Mahtani, Rwanda continues its economic partnership with these elements.[4] Meanwhile, the constellation of armed groups operating outside of the government’s control continue to benefit from access to minerals, resources that substantially impede efforts to bring security and stability to the Kivus.
 
Contrary to critics who argue that the militarization of mining in eastern Congo is purely symptomatic of a dysfunctional security sector and poor governance, conflict minerals are both a cause and consequence of Congo’s dilapidated state apparatus. The easy availability of lootable natural resources, especially tin, tantalum, tungsten, or the 3Ts, and gold, with their well-developed trade routes and willing international buyers, foments the fragmentation of armed groups in eastern Congo. With only a few guns and shovels, local warlords can establish themselves as a group that must be reckoned with, financing their own growth into a militia powerful enough to demand a seat at the table in negotiations and eventually a position in the army—from where they can continue to profit from the minerals trade.
 

A miner works in Congo
AP Photo / Riccardo Gangale

Moreover, in the battle for control of resources, competing networks of armed groups, businesses, and political elites routinely manipulate Congo’s contentious and inflammatory grievances that surround sensitive issues such as ethnicity and land tenure. The inability of the Congolese government to control its territory and protect its population creates the opportunity for illicit networks to fill the vacuum, but the objective of these networks remains profit, predominantly from the mineral trade.
 
There remain ample opportunities to capitalize on gains achieved in recent months by utilizing the mineral trade to deliver significant peace dividends for the people of eastern Congo. This will require new levels of leadership both from the Congolese government and the international community, and broad participation by engaged elements of Congolese government agencies, the business community, and civil society.
 

Thanks to increased international attention, including strong statements by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to eastern Congo, all of the actors with a role in Congo’s conflict mineral drama are feeling the pressure to change their behavior. Actors in the private sector both within Congo and in the international supply chains for electronics and other industries have signaled a willingness to provide new levels of due diligence and corporate responsibility. Yet it is equally clear that a number of actors remain highly invested in business as usual with regard to conflict minerals, and that palpable change on the ground can be the only barometer of true success.

 

Congo's minerals leave a trail of destruction as they travel from the mines to the phone in your pocket.