Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, November 19

Minerals and Congo's Crisis

Often cited but little explored, the economic roots of conflict in eastern DR Congo are getting some attention in the mainstream press. Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times published this long account of how the tin ore used in laptops and other electronics funds fighting in the volatile region. Writing of the remote mining town of Bisie, Polgreen says:

The exploitation of this mountain is emblematic of the failure to right this sprawling African nation after many years of tyranny and war, and of the deadly role the country’s immense natural wealth has played in its misery…. The proceeds of mines like this one, along with the illegal tributes collected on roads and border crossings controlled by rebel groups, militias and government soldiers, help bankroll virtually every armed group in the region.
Polgreen's reporting affirms a Global Witness report last month linking the region’s militias to tin ore and gold:
Global Witness field research in July and August 2008 uncovered substantial evidence of the involvement of armed groups, as well as units and commanders of the Forces Armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC, the Congolese national army), in the exploitation and trade of minerals in North and South Kivu.
Says the group’s Patrick Alley: "Our researchers saw FDLR members openly selling cassiterite in South Kivu. The FDLR then use the profits to obtain other supplies and keep their movement alive. They have set up such efficient and lucrative business networks that they have little incentive to leave."

Jack Ewing of BusinessWeek discusses “conflict coltan,” another lucrative mineral thought to fuel violence in eastern Congo, taking a concerned, but more skeptical look at a specific mineral:
But when I began investigating, the truth turned out to be more nuanced—providing a lesson in how difficult it can be to know whether your buying habits are socially responsible. In fact, the story demonstrates how difficult it is for companies to be socially responsible even if they try….But does that mean your mobile phone is helping General Laurent Nkunda—whose ethnic Tutsi militia recently overran waths of eastern Congo—buy AK-47s and land mines? That would be a stretch. As it happens, the Congo is not a major source of tantalum. Most comes from Australia, followed by Canada and such African countries as Ethiopia and Mozambique. The U.S. Geological Survey groups the Congo under "other" tantalum sources that together account for just 2% of world production. Recycled tantalum also is available. Even tantalum from the Congo isn't necessarily tainted: Foreign and domestic companies mine it legally in some areas, providing an important source of livelihood
Whatever it's funded by, conflict in eastern Congo has ironically put lucrative international mining investments in the country on hold, notes Cassandra Vinograd of the Wall Street Journal. Already cash strapped, that means President Joseph Kabila will have even less leverage to control the east and illegal mining will go on, continuing a vicious cycle of profits, weapons, violence and poverty.