From Mine to Mobile Phone: The Conflict Minerals Supply Chain


Enough experts lead you down the path of the 3Ts—tin, tantalum, tungsten—and gold from the mines of Eastern Congo all the way to your cell phone.


A Gold Rush with Guns

Kaniola gold mine, South Kivu.
Source: Grassroots Reconciliation Group / Sasha Lezhnev

“This region [eastern Congo] has so much of this coltan, you just dig on any hill and you find it.” -Denis, miner, Bukavu, South Kivu

“When the FDLR come to a mine, the first thing they do is get the girls and abuse them. Then they force many people to work and kill those who don’t want to work.” -Jacques, former militia commander, Nyangezi, South Kivu

The journey of a conflict mineral begins at one of eastern Congo’s many mines.[4] A recent mapping exercise by the International Peace Information Service, or IPIS, identified 13 major mines and approximately 200 total mines in the region.[5] Many geologists and companies believe that there may be a much greater abundance of minerals below the surface in eastern Congo, but decades of war have precluded large-scale geological exploration.

Of the 13 major mines identified by IPIS in eastern Congo, 12 are currently controlled by armed groups. Some of the mines are controlled the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR—a Rwandan militia led by organizers of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Other mines are managed by the Congolese army as a means of personal enrichment—a flagrant violation of Congo’s mining laws, which prohibit the presence of the army in the mines. The soldiers, many of whom were militia fighters who only just recently integrated into the army, illegally “tax” miners, abuse the population—particularly the women and girls—and pay workers very poor wages. Both the United Nations and IPIS estimate that armed groups and military units control of over 50 percent of the 200 total mines in eastern Congo.
Armed groups control the mines in different ways. For example, at some mines the FDLR forces people to work, while at others their relationship to the local population is more strictly commercial.[6] Working conditions at the mines are abysmal. As a leading minerals expert from the region described, “In the FDLR mines in Burinyi, the local population is there, but they are like slaves.”[7] There are no health and safety standards for miners in the area from which the 3Ts and gold originate. The average wage for a miner is between $1 and $5 a day, and as the World Bank has documented, the mines are also filled with child laborers between the ages of 10 and 16, now missing out on precious years of school. Ben, 15, told us that he had worked in a mine since he was 10 and narrowly avoided a mine shaft collapse last year, a common occurrence. The conditions are slightly better in some of the mines, but as Robert, a local youth leader and civil society activist told us, “Overall, mine workers get very little from mining; in the armed areas it is only worse.” Meanwhile, the armed groups rack up the profits at the mines, earning up to 90 percent of the profits in some areas.[8]   Every dollar captured by the armed groups is a dollar that does not go into improving Congolese lives through better schools, health care, or jobs.
John Prendergast explains how the militias control the mines.
CBS' 60 Minutes highlighted Congo's deadly trade of gold.